Malthus was Wrong

Once in a while some gloomy Gus at a cocktail party will posit that if we ever solve world hunger, everyone will have so many babies that they’ll eat all the food, and the whole world will be reduced to one big field of cannibalistic toddlers. Thomas Malthus originally pioneered this depressing theory; that if you give human beings more food, they will breed more, like deer. If you wipe out disease or halt warfare, those extra people bumbling around will also breed more. Just like when deer quit going to war.

Basically, if you give people food and health, they will just crank out babies to the point of mass starvation.

This hasn’t happened.

It turns out that ballooning populations are caused by poverty, not wealth. To illustrate this point, let’s consider five random locations: Ethiopia, Switzerland, North Korea, Sweden and Narnia. Which of these countries are wealthy and have plenty of food? Which of these countries have rampant overpopulation?

Poorer countries tend to have large amounts of subsistence agriculture. In such societies, you need lots of kids to work the farm. Couple that with high levels of infant deaths and you get a society which has lots and lots of children.

Contrast that with, say, a family of insurance adjusters from Duluth, Minnesota. Chances are that such a family will pop out two or three kids, then stop. Every fresh batch of spawn is one less vacation to Paris, or perhaps some godawful place like Branson, Missouri. If you’re an attorney in Denmark you don’t starve to death if you have less than three children. Chances are you just drive a better car and get more sleep.

This plays out statistically. Western Europe, far wealthier than India or Narnia, has significantly lower birth rates than its poorer neighbors. To sustain a population you need a birth rate of 2.3 babies per woman. (One male baby, one female baby, and 1/3 of a baby, or a “pollinator baby,” which flies around and helps make honey.) Countries like England and Germany are actually declining in population. The United States would have a declining birth rate as well, but it’s buoyed by constant immigration. Plus we have no idea how many people live here, due to our poor math skills.

You might throw out, “Okay, so human beings (astoundingly) do not act exactly like deer in relations to food supply. We probably won’t need to hunt people to thin out their numbers. Just for exercise and sport. But what about stuff like oil, titanium and cocaine? Even if we all become Danish elk lawyers, won’t we run out of stuff?

I’ll cover that next week. Until then, rest easy knowing that the richer we get, the fewer people will clog up traffic intersections.

Just don’t give any cocaine or titanium to roaming packs of deer.


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 Andrew Heaton is a writer and standup comedian in New York City. If this post made you laugh or think, kindly "like" it on Facebook.


  • March 20, 2013 - 10:42 am | Permalink

    For the record, sir, since the passing of the Obamacare legislation in Narnia (MUCH earlier than here), the faun population has mysteriously exploded, while eveyone else seems to be dwindling (there are rumors of faun-run death panels).

  • Carla
    April 4, 2013 - 6:26 pm | Permalink

    I really liked the Little Prince aside

    • April 5, 2013 - 10:02 am | Permalink

      Thanks! I read the book recently and found it touching.

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