Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Malthus the prophet of doom: why bother with reading the original when you can simply cut and paste from the Internet?

An excerpt from the book I am writing, "The Seneca Effect," that contains a chapter dedicated to the Irish famines. Above, the reverend Thomas Malthus (1766 - 1834)

The demolition of Thomas Malthus' work in our times is often based on accusing him of having predicted some awful catastrophe to occur in the near future, sometimes on a specific date. Then, since the catastrophe didn't occur, there follows that Malthus was completely wrong and nothing in his work can be salvaged. It is a well-tested method that was used with great success against "The Limits to Growth", the report to the Club of Rome that appeared in 1972.

Except that Malthus never made the "wrong predictions" attributed to him, just as "The Limits to Growth" never made wrong predictions, either. There are no specific dates in Malthus' book "An essay on the Principle of Population" for where and when famines or other catastrophes should take place. For instance, Malthus says that,
Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power in the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction; and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague, advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and ten thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.

— Malthus T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Chapter 7, p 44

Doomerish, you can surely say, but not something that you can define as a "wrong prediction". Events similar to Malthus' description really occurred before Malthus times and in the “Essay” he normally refers to historical cases, especially those that had occurred in China.

So, Malthus was not babbling about dark and dire things to come; he was describing and analyzing events that were well known in his times. But few people, today, seem to be interested in looking up the original text and prefer to maintain that “Malthus was wrong” by repeating the legend. And, by the way, even if Malthus had been guilty of “wrong predictions”, that doesn't mean that infinite population growth could take place on a finite planet.

The other way to demolish Malthus's ideas is to paint him as evil, in the sense that he had proposed, or favored, mass extermination as a consequence of his ideas. This is, also, a common legend and also a great injustice done to Malthus. Over the great corpus written by Malthus, it is perfectly possible to find parts that we find objectionable today, especially in his description of “primitive” people whom he calls “wretched”. In this respect, Malthus was a man of his times and that was the prevalent opinion of Europeans in regard to non-Europeans (and maybe, in some cases, still is, as described in the book “Can Non-Europeans Think?” (Dabashi and Mignolo 2015).

Apart from that, Malthus’ writings are clearly the work of a compassionate man who saw a future that he didn't like but that he felt was his duty to describe. Surely, there is no justification in criticizing him for things that he never said, as it can be done by cutting and pasting fragments of his work and interpreting them out of context. For instance, Joel Mokyr in his otherwise excellent book titled “Why Ireland Starved”⁠ (Mokyr 1983) reports this sentence from a letter that Malthus wrote to his friend David Ricardo,

The land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil.

Clearly, this sentence gives the impression that Malthus was advocating the extermination of the Irish. But the actual sentence that Malthus wrote reads, rather (Ricardo 2005)⁠ (emphasis added):

The land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil into large manufacturing and commercial Towns.
So, you see that Malthus wasn't proposing to kill anyone, rather, he was proposing the industrialization of Ireland in order to create prosperity in the country. Nevertheless, legends spread easily on the web and you can see the truncated sentence by Malthus repeated over and over to demonstrate that Malthus was an evil person who proposed the extermination of the poor. I can't think that Professor Mokyr truncated this phrase himself, but he was at least careless in cutting and pasting something that he read on the Web without worrying too much about verifying the original source.

The Web, indeed, is full of insults against Malthus. You can find an especially nasty (and misinformed one) attack against him at this link where you can read that, yes, the Irish famine was all a fault of Malthus who misinformed the British government, who then refused to help the poor Irish, who then starved - all based on that truncated sentence.

Sometimes, I have the feeling that we are swimming in propaganda, drinking propaganda, eating propaganda, and even being happy about doing that.


Dabashi H, Mignolo W (2015) Can Non-Europeans Think? Zed Books

Mokyr J (1983) Why Ireland Starved. Routledge, London and New York

Ricardo D (2005) The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo. Liberty Fund, Indianapolis


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)