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Malthusian Population Theory

  The Malthusian population theory was developed by the English economist and parson Thomas Malthus (1776 - 1834). Malthus argued that population growth would always exceed the growth in food supply. The theory states that population tends to grow at a geometric rate (2, 4, 8, 16, 32…), while the food supply tends to grow at an arithmetic rate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5…). Population growth tends to occur by unrestricted reproduction, while growth in agricultural output is restricted by the law of diminishing returns. The interaction of these two growth ratios will result in a tendency toward poverty and misery for the masses.

Malthus believed that this tendency could be prevented by late marriages, celibacy and moral restraint. He was not optimistic about the practice of what he preached and wrote about other restraints on population growth which included famine, disease and war. His theory was later used to explain the British government policy of maintaining agricultural exports from Ireland during the Great Famine (1845-49)—in which at least 1.5 million people died of starvation or the side-effects of malnutrition, and at least another million immigrated. At that time, Whig government officials appeared to believe that the Irish famine was a beneficial Malthusian disaster. The ensuing loss of population due to starvation was understood in a Malthusian population theory framework as a positive restraint on population growth.

Malthus underestimated the scope for technological progress. He wrote before the development of birth control devices and improvements in agricultural productivity. More important, he failed to anticipate the way in which rising real incomes, not falling ones, would slow down population growth. Latter-day Malthusians still fear that his grim predictions will come true in Africa and India, and many worry about the rate of growth in the world\'s population relative to the arable land available to feed the population of the future. TF

See also population explosion.Further reading Thomas Malthus, Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society (1789).



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