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Ask Dr. Weld 2 — These are That Which Malthusian Dreams, or Nightmares, are Made


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): The Good Men Project

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/03/13

Madeline Weld, B.Sc., M.S., Ph.D., is the President of the Population Institute Canada. She worked for and has retired from Health Canada. She is a Director of Canadian Humanist Publications and an editor of Humanist Perspectives.

Malthus is the source of the term “Malthusian.” He has been seen as a controversial figure throughout the history of the study of demographics. Nonetheless, this became a point of import to me, to bring Malthus to the fore.

Weld pointed out one of the main purposes of identifying Malthus, many times, simply comes in the form of using a derogatory term “Malthusian,” mentioned before. She noted Google doodle did not mention his 250th anniversary on Fbebruary 13, 2016, either.

Weld said “Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834) was English Anglican cleric and academic who is most famous for his book An Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798 and re-published in a greatly expanded second edition in 1803. This was followed by four more editions with minor changes from the second edition, the last published in 1826.”

The main argument within the text was the growth of the human population in exponential ways. The ways in which the food supply and the human population become important for consideration in their mutual interplay.

“The crux of Principle of Population is that the human population can grow exponentially, while the food supply can only grow arithmetically. Therefore, Malthus reasoned, whenever the food supply is increased (through improvements in agriculture or the opening of new lands), human numbers will always increase until the abundance is eliminated and the poor are once again clinging to the edge of existence, on the borderline between survival and famine,” Weld explained in more detail.

There are, as Malthus stated, “positive checks” on the mortality that increase it, including disease, starvation, and other things leading to – let’s say – premature death. Then there are things called “preventive checks” that reduce fertility, including late marriage and contraception.

He saw birth control as a vice. Malthus published the first version of the text based on the urging of his father. Those ideas discussed of William Godwin and the Marquis de Concorcet, and others.

Weld stated “Malthus did not share their optimism about the inevitability of human progress. His views were informed by his own observations of his impoverished parishioners (at Oakwood Chapel in Surrey), whose diet consisted mostly of bread and whose children developed late and were stunted in growth. But despite the misery, the number of births Malthus recorded in the parish registry greatly exceeded the number of deaths.”

He – Malthus – argued that science and human progress could be eaten by the growth of the population. There was, in a sense, an upper limit increase with a rapid gain on the upper limit by the ongoing growth of the human population.

With more food, more children of poor backgrounds or families would not survive and the share of each family, in terms of general food or nutritious caloric intake, would be decreased per family, per individual.

“Malthus is criticized for being indifferent to the suffering of the poor because he proposed the gradual abolition of the ‘poor laws’ (i.e., state welfare) by reducing the number of persons qualifying for it, and thought a private charity could help those in dire distress. He thought the poor laws tended to ‘create the poor which they maintain,'” Weld said.

Weld reported on a statement by John Meyer who spoke about Malthus. Meyer stated Malthus was making a call for an end to growth with higher real wages, a reduction in inequality with an emphasis on economics for the provision of the necessities of life for the poor, as opposed to the “luxury goods for the rich.”

Malthus was arguing for more power and influence to the middle class and a reduction in poverty for the poor. This would tie to removal of the means by which the rich accumulate wealth, i.e., cheap labour and asset inflation.

Weld said, “Malthus also thought the rich were morally obliged to produce fewer children because if they had large families, the poor would disproportionately suffer material shortages. He questioned the morality of colonization and anticipated and deplored the fate he foresaw for the inhabitants of the New World as settlers claimed their lands. In short, Malthus wanted a better life for people and greater social equality.”

Malthus was a historian. He looked at historical events from the analysis or referent frame of logic and mathematics. Within the first and second editions of the book, he travelled a fair bit.

Within this travel, he worked hard to provide detailed accounts of the European explorers and gathered data from a variety of societies of the time. He described the ways in which societies were “replete with population surges and collapses.” Indeed, he was, according to Weld, the first person to describe population cycles.

“Malthus was limited by the data that was available to him 200 years ago. We now have far more detailed data that stretches back thousands of years and this data supports his concept of population cycles. Given the rate at which we are consuming and depleting resources, while our population is still growing by one billion every 12 years or so, it would be imprudent for us to assume that we are not in a global population cycle,” Weld said.

Weld mused about the reason for Malthus not being a popular or a prominent name now. She described how Meyer talked about Darwin, da Vinci, Aristotle, and others, who opened minds to the wonder of the natural and abstract worlds. Malthus talked about societies dying or decaying. Truly, and to quote Weld, “Who likes a party pooper?”

Malthus had and has a bad reputation because of the elites of the day. Those who saw the ideas produced as threats to power and prosperity for them. Even those without the ascent in the social and economic worlds, the socialists dismissed Malthus as offensive. Then there are the techno-optimists, who believe technology will solve all problems and, therefore, dismiss Malthus.

Weld said, “Since Malthus’ time, the world’s population has increased almost 8-fold, from about one billion to over 7.6 billion today. This is often used as evidence that he was wrong. However, the fact that close to one billion people are hungry and about three billion suffer from nutritional deficiencies that affects the physical and mental development of many supports Malthus’ argument that the human population will grow to meet the food supply such that some people remain impoverished. In fact, it is precisely the countries with the most rapid population growth that are unable to pull themselves out of poverty.”

She noted two limitations in the vision of Malthus. One is the massive increase in the number of humans via the intervention of oil into the energy life of the world. It has powered economies for the last 150 years. The next is the green revolution connected to the developments in agriculture.

Weld also noted a 19-fold increase of the global economy, which is remarkable, since 1950. Within this framework, the global population has simply grown significantly in a short period of time. Reflect, without an international economy with the imports of foods from around the world, how many populations, at a local level, would simply collapse along the lines of decaying and defunct societies tracked by Malthus.

Weld described how the expansion of the human population has left many other animals, non-human animals, to die to a large extent because of the funnelling of the fruits of the planet, artificially induced and natural, into the coffers, bellies, and infrastructure of humans and human societies.

“There is a crucial concept outside of Malthus’ ken – overshoot. Many informed people believe that humanity is in overshoot. Overshoot occurs when a species greatly exceeds the long-term carrying capacity of its environment,” Weld explained “This can happen when a species encounters a rich and previously unexploited stock of resources (think oil in our case) that promotes its reproduction. Without significant predation or disease (think advances in hygiene and medicine), while large amounts of the stock remain available (“age of oil”), the population of the species can grow many-fold.”

When the stock begins to decrease, lower quality versions of the resource become the transition point, e.g., tar sands in Alberta or deep-sea drilling off the coast of North America. Without the resources, the population can die when the resources run out. This is called a “population crash or die off” in the parlance of ecologists.

Humanity is taking oil as the be-all and end-all of their energy resources, for the most part, now. This inevitably will lead to ecological catastrophe without alteration of our collective course, seems like the implication to me.

On an interesting note, Weld stated, “Malthus thought that the human population would approach a sustainable limit and then hover there, with many people living in poverty and misery. The crash of a human population in overshoot will bring about the death and misery of billions: a catastrophe on a scale far beyond anything that Malthus could have imagined. Therefore, in the words of the late David Delaney, ‘Malthus was an optimist.'”

She provided an example of St. Matthew Island in the Bering Sea. Reindeer are not native to the island. 24 female and 5 male reindeer were released into the island in 1944 by the US Coast Guard. The purpose was to provide a possible food source for the employees stationed.

As things developed, there wasn’t a predator for the reindeers on the island to keep the population in check. There was a lot of food for them, lichen. By 1957, 1,350 reindeer were present; 1963, 6,000 were present. The vegetation on the island had been altered by the time of the 1963 survey.

“…the vegetation on the island had been significantly altered and the condition of the reindeer showed major deterioration and there was a greatly reduced percentage of young animals. At the next survey, in 1966, the population had crashed to 42 reindeer with no fawns or yearlings. The curve of the population growth of the reindeer on St. Matthew Island leading up to the crash is eerily similar to that of the human population since Malthus’ time,” Weld said.

The conversation veered into fears, legitimate and illegitimate, around overpopulation. Weld provided an opening remark on the difficulty to find any illegitimate fears around overpopulation. In other words, to a professional and nearly adult-lifelong demographer, overpopulation is a serious issue with far more legitimate fears surround the issue than not.

Weld stated, “No one can predict the future, the best we can do is make educated guesses. But our impact on the environment — both the physical environment and its biodiversity — is undeniable. It has been so dramatic that scientists are calling the times we live in the Anthropocene. The techno-optimists point out that we’re wealthier and longer-lived than we ever have been, and they argue that things will only get better.”

She also noted the ignoring of the costs of a more crowded and stressful world with many individual human beings impoverished and malnourished. With the extermination of other natural life, this is not stated as a loss. That is concern to Weld or, t a minimum, an oversight, especially within one major concern of a depleted planet.

Weld said, “Climate change receives the lion’s share of the coverage of our depredations on Earth, in terms of its potential to acidify the oceans, raise sea levels and flood coastal communities, and change rainfall patterns in many areas, including in our vital breadbaskets. But humans have also taken over about one-third of the Earth’s land surface for their own use (and over half the land surface that is habitable).”

Furthermore, 3/4 of the land on Earth is covered by human activities and affected by them to some degree, even “significantly.” Major fisheries are depleted, where others are beyond the capacity to replenish themselves. This is the problem of overpopulation, of too many people.

In a recent study from the World Wildlife Fund, 60% of birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles have been “wiped out” by human beings. This is widespread extinction due to human activity. We are a deadly species by many reasonable interpretations of this data.

“In the words of Rose Bird, the late former Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court: ‘We have probed the earth, excavated it, burned it, ripped things from it, buried things in it, chopped down its forests, leveled its hills, muddied its waters, and dirtied its air. That does not fit my definition of a good tenant. If we were here on a month-to-month basis, we would have been evicted long ago,'” Weld explained.

We do not have to destroy the ecosystem and ecological balances of the Earth. However, the current dogmas of the economies and political systems around the world remain tied to the unsustainable aspects of the world. We are adding more than 80 million new people to the population of the Earth per annum.  There is a wider understanding of proper contraceptive use and the importance of family planning.

We should set a limit on the number of children with the threats of global warming before us. In addition, on an opining note, Weld disagrees with Malthus that birth control is a vice. However, his arguments about the severity of the real limits to growth of the human population forever are valid.

Weld concluded, “Norman Borlaug, the father of the green revolution, is almost universally honored, while Thomas Malthus is more often than not dismissed and even vilified. But when Borlaug was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 1970 for his achievements, he said in his acceptance speech: ‘There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort.’ Thomas Robert Malthus would have agreed.”

Sources used:

Avery, John Scales. Thomas Robert Malthus, We Need Your Voice Today! Countercurrents. 11 June 2017.

Delaney, David. Overshoot in a nutshell.

Klein, David R. The introduction, increase and crash of reindeer on St. Matthew Island. Journal of Wildlife management, Vol. 32 (2): 350–367, 1968.

Meyer, John Erik. Why Malthus is Not a Social Hero Like Darwin. Humanist Perspectives, Issue 198: 16–19, Autumn 2016. . (Disclosure: I am a co-editor of Humanist Perspectives magazine.)

The Socialist Party of Great Britain. World Poverty and Birth Control: Malthus Was Wrong. November 2018.

University of Cambridge. The man we love to hate: it’s time to reappraise Thomas Robert Malthus. May 18, 2016.

Weld, Madeline. Sadly, Malthus Was Right — Now What? Montreal Gazette, February 15, 2016. Reprinted in Free Inquiry, June/July 2016, p. 42.

Wikipedia. Gross World Product (accessed Nov. 7, 2018).

Wikipedia. Thomas Robert Malthus (accessed Nov. 5, 2018).

World Wildlife Fund. A Warning Sign From Our Planet: Nature Needs Life Support. October 30, 2018. See also The Guardian:


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