Decoding The Malthusian Fallacy

The writings of Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) inspired Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle to condemn economics as “the dismal science.” Witnessing the deplorable crowding, poverty, and disease of England’s dirty cities and struck by a grim historical record of famines and epidemics, Malthus embodied academic pessimism. The work that made his reputation and popularized his name was An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus felt he was a Cassandra, admonishing utopians to beware of a catastrophic inevitability they could not see: The human population would inevitably exceed the carrying capacity of its environment.

This natural inequality of the two powers, of population, and of production of the earth, and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal, form the great difficulty that appears to me insurmountable in the way to the perfectibility of society.

Surrey’s sour scholar essentially believed that human population grew exponentially, whereas agricultural productivity grew arithmetically, i.e., in a straight line. He was partially right. England’s population growth was undergoing a historical uptick during Malthus’ lifetime. However, agricultural productivity was too. Like civilization itself, urbanization was driven by rural agricultural and urban industrial productivity increases and the surpluses attending them. The same process drew Malthus’ eye, ironically enough.

This pattern repeated in the 1970s. Productivity increased in previously undeveloped areas. Population growth swung upward. Cities became crowded. Demographers and economists went into a tizzy. Then huge segments of the global population surged from miserable poverty to genuine prosperity.

Malthus made other contributions to his field, a true intellectual force. How did the latter halves of the previous two centuries so wildly, wonderfully contradict dismal expectations? Here we find the fatal flaw of his argument, and the worldview of many environmentalists. They appraise humanity as an “infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms,” helpless, mouth open, desperately consuming the resources around it.

Yet as the Bard notes earlier, “one man in his time plays many parts,” including a marvelous adulthood. Shakespeare continues, in the personage of a certain Danish prince:

What a piece of work is a man, How noble in
Reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving
how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel!
in apprehension how like a god, the beauty of the
world, the paragon of animals.

Angelic or not, it is undeniable that humankind has surpassed all other known forms of life in creating and retaining new knowledge. We are the paragon of animals because our virtually infinite faculties allowed us to form social institutions which in turn allowed us to replicate and transmit individual discoveries, building insight upon insight to turn flint, carbon, iron, silicon, and other elements into the quintessence of our experience, the “necessities” we could not live without, the “conveniences” that enrich our lives.

The Malthusian fallacy is a dreadful belief that human beings are net consumers of resources. Yet the productivity and ingenuity of humanity is presumably noticeable to those who do not hunt and gather their food barehanded. In 1974, two years after The Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth, an apocalyptic treatise warning of overpopulation and environmental calamity (linked above, see “tizzy”), the global population reached 4 billion people. Thirteen years later, in 1987: 5 billion people. Twelve years later, in 1999: 6 billion. Twelve more years passed and as of 2011 the global population stood at 7 billion individuals.

At no point during this near-doubling of most important number on earth did the sky catch fire. Life got better. And resources became less scarce! Julian Simon handily won his bet that copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten would be cheaper in 1990 than they had been in 1980, even though he let his pessimistic counterpart choose those five commodities. Resources held as private property are, as a rule, diligently stewarded. Historically, resources have been abandoned on a global scale in favor of superior substitutes, not because they have been depleted.

After popularizing kerosene for heat and illumination, oilman John D. Rockefeller pioneered the commercial use of a substance that was previously discarded as industrial waste: gasoline. Rockefeller, a frugal man who lived quite modestly and reputedly hated waste with a white hot passion, figured out a way to turn trash into treasure.

Human ingenuity should make us rationally optimistic about the future, in the words of scientific writer Matt Ridley. A community of sufficient size will inevitably spawn and adopt novel arrangements of resources which create unanticipated opportunities and generally improve the human condition. Presumably, solutions to problems like climate change are possible. We just have to create them.

We should look forward with abiding serenity to the unknown unknown wonders of our brilliant tomorrow. As Julian Simon pointed out, humanity is the ultimate resource. As valuable as it is, we should hold it in higher regard.