Keith Rankin.
Recommended Sponsor - Buy Original Artwork Directly from the Artist

Keith Rankin on Malthusian checks

Keith Rankin.

The 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic has all the visible hallmarks of a Malthusian pestilence, a necessary positive check visited upon an over‑abundant humanity. Indeed, that is a likely future interpretation of this event. It’s an important perspective which should be treated with both understanding and caution.

I heard two academic examples of implicit Malthusian thinking in the weekend, on Radio New Zealand on Saturday and Sunday mornings. First was Dr Chris Smith on Saturday (‘Surface anxiety’ and COVID-19 treatment trial). Second was Peter Doherty on Sunday (‘People should act as though they have Covid-19’).

Malthusian thinking is central to classical economics, and today thrives within growth-sceptical derivatives of classical economics, including the assumptions of the Extinction Rebellion movement.

Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus was one of the founders of classical economics. In 1798 he published the first edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population. The underlying idea is that natural population growth is exponential; that is, it increases naturally in a multiplicative way (eg by multiplying by a growth factor of 1.01 or 1.02 every year). On the other hand, the growth of the food supply is additive, constrained by diminishing returns. Diminishing returns can be understood as – as agricultural land expands – the newly‑farmed land is generally inferior to that already being farmed; this is because we naturally choose to farm the best land first.

Malthus drew two main conclusions. The first conclusion was that population was kept in check by certain positive checks; namely famine, disease (‘pestilence’) and war. The second was that, whenever these checks were not in operation, population growth would ensure that a growing supply of labour would keep wages at absolute subsistence levels. Indeed, anything that raised the living standards of the poor would be eroded by population growth. For Malthus in 1798, life for the masses was a somewhat futile competitive struggle. Malthus’ essay was the principal inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theory of competitive selection.

In subsequent editions, Malthus modified his theory of population to include preventative checks. These were basically decisions to limit the birth rate, by slowing population growth, that could allow living standards to increase over time. This part of Malthus’ writing is less well‑known; hence when people use the word Malthusian, they generally refer to the operation of the positive (death) checks on population growth.

Economics became known as the dismal science, thanks to the centrality of Malthusian concepts to classical political economy.

Historical examples

Probably the most‑cited example of a preventative check is the ‘Black Death’ that ravaged late‑Medieval Europe in waves of bubonic and pneumonic plague from the mid‑14th century. The population of western Europe may have fallen by as much as 40 percent in mid‑14th century, and remained in check (through plague) for 150 years after that. In previous centuries population had grown comparatively quickly, in part due to warmer weather than usual for a few centuries. The warm spell turned in the early 14th century, leaving western Europe dangerously overpopulated in the 1340s. (Eastern Europe had received its population trauma a century earlier, in the form of the Mongol invasions from Asia.) The Black Death cut through with such ‘efficiency’ that Europe became underpopulated, creating unusual conditions favouring less inequality, and productivity growth. Capitalism as we know it was an outcome of 15th century conditions in Europe.

Less well known is the ‘early modern’ (seventeenth century) French example. Today the population density of France is 105 people per square kilometre, compared to 280 in Great Britain. Around 1600, the population density of France was substantially greater than in the UK. (Today the populations of France and Great Britain are similar. In 1600, France had four times as many people as Great Britain.)

France was beset by famines in the 17th century. In the 18th century, France was the first European country to widely practice birth control. In addition to the use of contraceptives, delayed marriage was a widely used method of fertility restraint in western Europe. The comparatively low population density of France today arose from both positive and preventative Malthusian checks.

Other Malthusian events included the 1840s’ potato famines (most widely attributed to Ireland). And the biggest one of all, China’s 1850s’ Taiping Rebellion. Malthusian pressures most likely prompted the ongoing voyaging of New Zealand’s Polynesian forebears as islands became too small for their growing populations. Likewise, the initial British settlement of New Zealand reflected Malthusian conditions in the United Kingdom of the 1830s.

Also, I would argue that World War 1 was a Malthusian event – with too many unsustainably large families in much of greater Europe (although not in France, one of the main venues of that war).

Erosion of the Malthusian Worldview

Malthus’ principle was good mathematics but bad futurology. The first half of the 19th century was indeed a Malthusian epoch. The growth of Methodism reflected this, as did ventures such as the settlement in New Zealand by EG Wakefield’s New Zealand Company, and the Free Church of Scotland. (The best known Malthusian-inspired preacher in Scotland was Thomas Chalmers, after whom Port Chalmers was named.)

Two simultaneous ‘one-off’ factors enabled the European world to escape the clutches of Malthusian positive checks – the ‘availability’ of new lands in the ‘new world’ and the rapid harnessing of fossil fuels in a process known as the Industrial Revolution. In the second half of the 19th century, the global food supply increased much faster than the rapidly growing European population.

Further, the breathing space given to us by these opportunities enabled humankind to develop preventative checks without realising that that was what we were doing. By 1880 we had developed ideas of cultural subsistence that represented far higher living standards than absolute subsistence, and we started developing institutions to support higher living standards for the masses. Further, the systems of mass production associated with the ‘second industrial revolution’ depended critically on egalitarian patterns of spending. Mass production required mass consumption; high populations, yes, but most importantly, high populations with the ability to spend. The 20th century was made possible by the extension of France’s 18th century demographic revolution into much of the wider world. That extension depended critically on the evolution of ‘welfare states’.

Return of the Malthusian Worldview

In the late 1960s Malthusianism returned. The best known neo‑Malthusian writings were ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ by Garrett Hardin (1968), ‘The Population Bomb’ by Paul and Anne Erhlich (1968), and ‘The Limits to Growth’ published by the Club of Rome (1972).

Many other green contributions to the growth debate were more nuanced, recognising that the problems of growth were more interwoven with other economic and environmental issues, and that the association between population and sustainability was no simple cause and effect relationship. Three of my favourites from that time were ‘The Closing Circle’ by Barry Commoner (1971), ‘Exit, Voice and Loyalty’ by Albert O Hirschman (1970), and ‘The Social Limits to Growth’ by Fred Hirsch (1976).

Recent Decades

The knowledge and ideas necessary to support sustainably a global population of up to ten billion people do exist. The problem is that we do not sufficiently incorporate such knowledge and ideas into our in institutions, let alone our day-to-day thinking. At times we regress.

In particular, from around 1980, the re‑adoption of crude economic liberalism, which over‑emphasises private property rights, and which substantially plays down the role of cooperative institutions in dealing with systemic global problems. In short, pure economic liberalism teaches that there is, at most, a trivial discrepancy between individual action governed by market forces and the need for public action to address systemic issues.

As a result, there was an undermining of those public institutions that operated to their greatest extent in the years from 1945 to 1980, and which underpinned the Malthusian preventative checks.

The good news is the return to economic pragmatism which came in particular as a response to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), and the accompanying rejection of pure economic liberalism.

Global inequality – especially inequality within societies – is the major route back to the underlying conditions of 200 years ago; the conditions that informed Malthus’ writing. Inequality is a systemic problem that cannot be left to self-interested forces to resolve, though market forces (and other individual actions) will play a necessary role in any transition to population and environmental sustainability.

We need to disavow ourselves of those private instincts to hoard money (and, latterly, toilet paper!), to emphasise the importance of paid work over other aspects of life; and to disavow the overriding sense of guilt than can arise when we slacken from our private financial quests, or act without the permission of our managers. Our ethic to accumulate, individually, money through working and saving is not the way forward to maintaining sustainable societies and a sustainable world; rather this Victorian ethos remains the mental prison that makes systemic solutions so difficult to achieve.


My view is that Covid‑19 is not a Malthusian crisis; it is not the positive check that we have to have. But it is a warning – a reminder – that positive checks will run through global society in the future (and, once they start, they can be quick), if human societies fail to maintain and evolve the necessary preventative checks. Sustainable living is a set of choices, but not choices that can be left to politicians, technocrats and media plutocrats. These are choices that requires the ‘voice’ of the ordinary people on the frontline, as the economic philosopher Albert O Hirschman wrote about in his discussions of Exit and Voice. This means that many more people should be absorbing and adapting the knowledge and ideas that are there, and in many cases have been there for a long time. Education is much more than the acquisition of technical skills required by employers. Constructively critical education – including self‑education – allows good people to democratise their futures.

Covid-19 is teaching us about kindness – empathy with sympathy. That gives humanity hope.