The Malthusian Contradiction

by | Dec 24, 2022

Specific resources are limited. There’s only so much oil, land and water. But resources, in general, are unlimited — or rather, limited only by human ingenuity.

When the world population crossed the 1 billion mark, economist Thomas Malthus warned that famine was inevitable. It took humans 250,000 years to reach a population of one-half billion and only an additional 200 years to double the population to 1 billion. That’s like a car taking four seconds to go from zero to 60 then three-thousandths of a second to go from 60 to 120. Malthus predicted the world was headed for an ugly crash.

The reality turned out to be worse. It took us only 120 years to double our number again to 2 billion and 47 years to double a third time to 4 billion. Malthus would have regarded today’s 8 billion as, at best, impossible, and at worst, apocalyptic.

But the reality is also better than Malthus imagined because food production grew faster than the population. Today, we can feed 8 billion far more quickly than could the people of Malthus’ time feed 1 billion. Despite this, modern-day Malthusians repeat the warning that the world is overpopulated.

The Malthusians’ error lay in not understanding resources.

Experts tell us that resources are limited, but that’s not entirely correct. Specific resources are limited. There’s only so much oil, land and water. But resources, in general, are unlimited — or rather, limited only by human ingenuity.

In the 1400s, half of the world’s energy came from burning wood. Then humans discovered how to mine large quantities of coal — an energy source with a 50 percent higher energy density than wood. Then we discovered how to drill for oil — a substance with an 80 percent higher energy density than coal. Then we learned how to build pipelines and store and distribute natural gas — a substance with a 25 percent higher energy density than oil. Soon, humans will learn how to harness nuclear fusion, making energy virtually limitless and almost free.

Not only can we do more because we have more energy, but we’ve also become much better at what we do. A single farmer today can feed around 10 times the number of people as a single farmer in 1940. In 1960, a hectare of land produced about 1.3 tons of grain annually. Today, a hectare of land produces more than 4 tons.

Malthus believed that the Earth provides resources. Earth provides materials. Human ingenuity turns those materials into resources. So long as there is human ingenuity, there will always be resources.

And this brings us to what we might call the “Malthusian contradiction.” Only a tiny minority of humans have the intelligence, skill, drive and luck to create new resources. If only one in a thousand of us is a genius, and only one in 100 of those has the outsized drive to discover or create, and only one in 10 of those has the requisite luck, then we’d need a population of 1 million to expect to get just a single Thomas Edison or George Washington Carver or Steve Jobs. And what if we wanted thousands of Edisons? We’d need a population in the billions.

The counterargument is that Earth’s environment is groaning under our collective weight. Yet, here again, evidence points to ingenuity saving the day. Since 1990, worldwide deaths due to air pollution have been down 45 percent. Deforestation in developed countries has reversed course. Deforestation in developing countries is slowing. In 2000, 60 percent of the world had access to safe drinking water. Today, it’s almost 75 percent. Carbon emissions in the United States have been down 30 percent since the 2000s, and carbon emissions worldwide are down 5 percent in 2020 versus 2019.

Malthusians believe the key to saving humanity is limiting our consumption of resources by limiting our numbers. The truth is humans create resources. When Malthusians point to explosive population growth, they think they are identifying a problem. The truth is they are identifying the solution.

Made available by the American Institute for Economic Research.

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Antony Davies is an associate professor of economics at Duquesne University and co-host of the weekly podcast Words & Numbers.

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