Skip main navigation

Population outstrips food supply

The work of English economist and demographer Thomas Malthus remains influential, if not disputed, in the discussion of population growth.
© Adam Smith Center, Singapore

Thomas Malthus, was a famous economist, demographer and theorist from England born in 1766 and who died in 1834. He is best known for his theory that population growth will inevitably outstrip food production, and in turn necessitates limits on reproduction.

Malthus was a professor of history and political economy from 1805 at the East India Company’s Hertfordshire college. His status as a political economist reflects the birth of this discipline at the same time as contemporaries like Adam Smith and David Ricardo rose to prominence.

Book cover of An Essay on the Principle of Population

Image credit: Wikimedia

In 1798, he published his famous ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers’. His main argument was that human population will tend to grow, if left unchecked, at an exponential rate. This will outpace production, which only increase at an arithmetic rate.

Of course, Malthus acknowledges that technology and growth could very much lead to production increases. Yet, this would be cancelled out by an eventual increase in population. The key idea was that food production could only increase in a linear fashion while the population grows exponentially. Population will always expand to the point of mere subsistence. This means that economic growth is not necessarily sustainable, and humanity’s good future, not guaranteed.

His arguments at the time led to much controversy. While some heavily criticised this perspective, others have followed in his footsteps and advocated positions that are now known as ‘Malthusianism’. His ideas also gained a resurgence in later years through the writings of Charles Darwin, John Maynard Keynes and Paul Ehrlich.

© Adam Smith Center, Singapore
This article is from the free online

Overpopulation: Resource Depletion and Human Innovation

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education