>Prophecies of doom – the warning echoes of Thomas Malthus


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Two minutes after midnight on 12October 1999 a baby boy was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia. He was 3.55kg (8lbs),healthy and welcomed in to theworld by the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. The baby,Adnan Mević, was given such high profile attention after being selected by theUnited Nations Population Fund as thesymbolic sixbillionth person concurrently alive on Earth.

Just twelve years later and theDay of Six Billion will be superseded on 31 October as the world welcomes itsseven billionth inhabitant. Both of these days are highly symbolic projections– no demographer can be certain of the world’s population let alone able tobalance births and deaths to reach an accurate conclusion on the six or sevenbillionth person. But they do prompt debate on the world’s population, rekindlediscussion on the earth’s ‘carrying capacity’ and see demographers and politiciansask how many people can the earth support?

World population in 1800 – 1 billion

One name above all others isassociated with the arguments – the ReverendThomas Malthus. In 1798 he published “An Essay on thePrinciple of Population”, which argued that population would expand intimes of plenty until checked by a shortage of primary resources. If thepopulation continued to grow in excess of the earth’s ability to provide forthem, it would be checked by “premature death” that “in some shape or othervisit the human race”. His prediction was that mankind, through warfare are“active and able ministers of depopulations”:

“But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons,epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep offtheir thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete,gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levelsthe population with the food of the world.”

Malthus’s work is considered themost influential founding text on population. It was not, however, the firstbook to consider overpopulation. Jonathan Swift’s devastating satire in “A Modest Proposal” (a preferredshortening of the unwieldy long title of “A Modest Proposal for Preventing theChildren of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden on Their Parents orCountry, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick”) mockingly suggested aradical use for ‘surplus’ Irish children.


The tract retains its ability toshock, puncturing even the cynicism of the twenty-first century reader. Swiftargues that 100,000 surplus children of the Irish poor could be sold for goodprice to grace the tables of the better off:

“a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most deliciousnourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and Imake no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.”

Swift’s Ireland would suffer theterrible consequences of overpopulation and crop failure in the Great Famine.But Malthus’s concerns were largely confounded in nineteenth century Britain byimprovements in agriculture and vast imports of wheat from the American andCanadian plains and Russian steppes.
World population in1900 – 1.65 billion

Malthus’s work continued to be widely read, andinfluenced Charles Darwin’s “On The Origin of Species” and his theory that thestruggle to survive was a consequence of overpopulation and the spur to naturalselection and evolution.  Both workswould heavily influence the development of eugenic theory, with HenryFairfield Osborn advocating “humane birth selection through humane birthcontrol” in order to avoid a Malthusian catastrophy by eliminating the “unfit”.The predictions of human catastrophe were largely rejected by the end of thenineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and those advocating populationcontrols were largely concerned with conservation issues.

Malthusian ideas werelargely dormant until 1948, when two works would spark a debate that wouldbecome one of the twentieth century’s biggest issues. Fairfield Osborn’s ‘OurPlundered Planet’ and William Vogt’s ‘Road toSurvival’ were both best-sellers and triggered the debate that woulddevelop into the ‘population bomb’. Vogt argued for population control whilstOsborn criticized man’s poor stewardship of the earth and depletion of naturalresources.  

World population in1950 – 2.5 billion


The concept of a population explosion wasexplored throughout the 50s and 60s. On 11 January 1960, Time magazine featured a front cover on thepopulation explosion. Rachel Carson’s ‘SilentSpring’ in 1962 would be followed by the widely read and hugely influential‘ThePopulation Bomb’ by Paul Ehrlich in 1968.

Population control was now more than anintellectual discourse, it was a struggle for mankind’s survival. The vast andincreasing populations of India and China were cited as major contributors topopulation growth, and it was these countries that embarked on high profilepopulation control campaigns. China’s ‘one-child policy’was introduced in 1978 and the authorities claim that it has since prevented400 million births.

India’s national policy was more permissive,focusing on education, contraception and legalization of abortion. As a result,China’s fertility rate is currently 1.8 (and below the replacement rate of2.1), whilst India’s is 2.7. India is predictedto overtake China as the most populous nation in 2026. Concerns aboutoverpopulated extended to humanitarian relief, for example with Lyndon Johnson’sshipments ofwheat to famine-struck India in 1966. The grain was exported on the strictcondition that the country accelerated its family planning campaign.

World population in2050? 12 billion, 9.75 billion, 5 billion?  


But catastrophe was averted and famine avoidedby the Green Revolution, which caused a dramatic increase in the production ofcereal crops. More recently, the debate on population has been linked withconcerns over global warming, resource depletion and peak oil. The concept ofthe Earth’s ‘carrying capacity’ has been discussed, reignitingthe debate on the planet’s ability to cope with an increasing population. 


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