Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash

Malthusian Theory Has Always Been False

A review of Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet by Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley. (August 2022)

Robert Zubrin
Robert Zubrin
8 min read


For the past 200 years, apologists for oppression have argued that human numbers, activities, and liberties must be severely constrained because there just isn’t enough to go around. Since such policies require the existence of overlords empowered to do the necessary constraining, intellectuals exposing this line of thought have never lacked sponsors.

The most influential member of this tribe was Thomas Malthus (1766–1834). An employee of the East India Company College (renamed Haileybury College in 1862), Malthus’s theory that poverty is caused by human reproduction outrunning resources provided useful justification for the brutal policies of his employer in India and allied interests in Ireland in his own time, and, as I discuss in my book Merchants of Despair, has served as the ideological foundation for most of the worst human-caused disasters over the two centuries since. Setting all against all, and ultimately genocidal in its implications, Malthusian population theory remains today perhaps the greatest threat there is to the human future. It needs to be refuted. In Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet, Marian L. Tupy and Gale L. Pooley set themselves the vital task of doing exactly that.

The authors start by comparing today’s Malthusians to Thanos, the villain of the blockbuster movie Avengers: Infinity War, whose goal was to kill half of all living beings in the universe to preserve its allegedly scarce resources. They then go on to show in considerable detail why, in the modern world, such thinking is not only deeply evil but completely counterfactual. That is, while human numbers have quadrupled worldwide since the 1950s, in virtually every category human wellbeing has radically improved. Average personal income has risen 315 percent in the USA, 278 percent in the UK, 82 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, 690 percent in India, and 1,936 percent in China, for an average of 307 percent overall. So, whereas Malthusian theory would predict that per capita income would decrease when the population quadrupled, it actually multiplied fourfold—and total worldwide income increased sixteenfold. Malthus said that population growth would outrun food supply, because population increases geometrically while food production increases arithmetically. But for the past 70 years (in fact, for the past 200 years), total worldwide income has increased as the square of the increase in population!

As the authors show, Malthusian projections of population growth leading to impoverishment have proven equally wrong in all other metrics of human wellbeing, including average global lifespan, which increased 38 percent over the period in question; infant mortality, which decreased 55 percent; per capita caloric intake, which increased 38 percent; battle deaths, down 95 percent; secondary school enrollment, up 90 percent; extreme poverty, down 75 percent;  and deaths by natural catastrophes, down 99 percent. Et cetera, et cetera.

The abundance of natural resources has also greatly increased. The authors show this by measuring the price of goods measured in average wage labor hours. This is a fair approximation, but it actually understates the authors’ case, because the advance in technology has eliminated the need for people to engage in huge amounts of unpaid labor, especially in the area of housework. For example, a couple living in a house with running water, gas heat, and a washer and dryer can now spend time earning money that their ancestors would have previously needed to devote to hauling water, chopping wood, and washing and drying clothes by hand.

Nevertheless, even measured by this conservative metric, the average “time price” of 26 natural resources and commodities for US blue-collar workers has fallen by 98 percent (i.e., dropped by a factor of 50) since 1850. Globally, the increase in abundance has been even faster, with the average time price of the 37 top commodities tracked by the World Bank reducing by a factor of 14 since 1960. The statistics the authors advance to support their thesis of rapidly growing abundance in virtually every category of good for the past two centuries is encyclopedic, with over 180 pages of charts and tables of data presented. If anyone ever needs data to prove that the application of Malthusian theory to the modern world is total nonsense, they will find it in this book.

The book also has many other valuable features, including tracking the antihumanist conceit across history in the literary and philosophical genres. It also contains a collection of absurd apocalyptic predictions by arrogant Malthusians that offers so much fun as to make it alone worth the price of the book.

There is, however, a major flaw in the authors’ work. While they show beyond doubt that Malthusianism has had no relationship to reality since the Industrial Revolution, they say it was true before that. “Malthus believed that history validated his theory, which it did,” they write. This was, according to the authors, because technological progress before the Industrial Revolution was virtually non-existent. According to the authors, “an inhabitant of ancient Sumer would have found much familiar in Saxon England,” and the average late 18th-century person lived a life little different from that experienced by an inhabitant of Augustan Rome.

This is nonsense. Inhabitants of ancient Sumer who found themselves in Saxon England would have been astonished by the sight of people moving rapidly around on the backs of giant animals, which they also used to effortlessly move heavy loads about on wooden contrivances fitted out with enormous potters’ wheels on their sides. (The Sumerians did not have domesticated horses.) They would also have been amazed that the common people all possessed many implements made of metal, and not just any metal, but a miraculously strong new material (steel) far superior to the extremely expensive copper used in the weapons of Sumerian aristocrats. The novel fabrics and colors of the Saxon clothes would also have amazed them. They probably would have been terrified—but, if female, ultimately delighted—by the water-powered machinery that the Saxons used to grind grain instead of consigning their womenfolk to spend hours doing that task by hand every morning (the Domesday book records over 10,000 such mills in Saxon England). Furthermore, they would no doubt have been shocked by the fact that the Saxons were able to obtain satisfactory weather without sacrificing their firstborn children. Instead, they just talked to the gods without giving them anything! Were these incredible sorcerers gods themselves?

Ancient Sumerians never visited Saxon England, so we have no records showing their response to it. But we do have records of what happened when Copper Age Mesoamericans were visited by Late Medieval Spaniards: They were awed.

Similarly, the claim that late 18th-century Americans, for example, lived lives that were in any way comparable to the masses of the Roman Empire is nonsensical. Elsewhere in their book, the authors quote economist George Gilder’s insight that “knowledge is wealth.” This statement is true and explains why people today are hundreds of times richer than those of centuries past, despite the much heavier burdens that our greater numbers place upon the land. That being so, let us compare the true wealth—the mind—of an American voter circa 1790 with that of a member of the Roman electorate. We can perform this assessment readily by examining how the successful political elites of their times chose to address them. When Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison sought the support of the voters of New York to ratify the Constitution, they did so by writing the Federalist Papers and publishing them in newspapers. When Julius Caesar sought the support of the Roman masses to ratify his dictatorship, he did so by providing them with spectacles of human beings being torn to pieces. When a member of the Roman electorate looked up into the sky at night, he saw the god Jupiter moving across the sky. When a reader of the Federalist Papers looked up, he saw planets, worlds like Earth, circling the sun amidst a vast universe of sun-like stars.

It was not just the Roman masses who were poor, in both body and spirit. The richest man in late Republican Rome, Crassus, never owned a map of the world, a newspaper, a piece of sheet music, or any piece of paper, for that matter. He never looked through a glass window, let alone a telescope or microscope, and so was completely unaware of the existence of either the universe of the very large or the very small. He never heard a symphony, a piano concerto, or a piano. In contrast, a reader of the Federalist could hear polyphonic music at church every week. American colonists were incited to rebellion because of taxes placed on their tea; Crassus never had a cup of tea in his life. Crassus could probably do addition and subtraction on an abacus, but not multiplication or division. A Federalist reader could readily cipher all arithmetic operations with pen and paper, probably do plane trigonometry, and may well have had a friend or relative who had spent a little time sailing the world as a junior officer and so knew how to do spherical trigonometry and celestial navigation, as well. He also knew about the Earth’s magnetic field and owned a compass. Crassus had never heard of either. Crassus lived in a world pervaded by magic. The Federalist reader lived in a world that was, at least in principle, understandable in terms of cause and effect.

If knowledge is wealth, as the authors rightly say, then the average Federalist reader was vastly richer than Crassus, let alone a typical member of the Roman mob.

The idea that human progress took off only with the Industrial Revolution is a conceit that has been promoted by several well-meaning defenders of fossil fuel–powered industry, but it is false. The advent of fossil fuel-powered heat engines is an important episode in the progress of civilization, but invention has been a constant throughout human history. It is inventions—or knowledge, if you will—that define what is a resource. The more inventors, the more inventions, and inventions are cumulative. Furthermore, since the average product available per capita is equal to the average production per capita, and inventions multiply the productivity of labor, human living standards have advanced continually since the Stone Age, with the rate of advance accelerating as the population has increased. Consequently, the Malthusian theory has always been false.

It is simply untrue that human numbers are limited by natural resources today or that they were during preindustrial times. If it were true, then large numbers of people dying of starvation in the streets and across the countryside would be an invariant feature of human society. This is not the case now nor was it in the past. While starvation has sometimes occurred under conditions of siege, famine, or social oppression—such as that enforced by Malthus’s students in Ireland—the general presence of starvation as a culling mechanism on society is not seen in the descriptions of premodern civilizations found in the ancient, medieval, or Renaissance literatures. Nor does it correspond to the descriptions of preindustrial societies encountered by European explorers in the modern era. When James Cook visited Hawaii, he did not discover a society of starving Polynesians, nor did Lewis and Clark encounter starving Salish Indians who had multiplied beyond the “carrying capacity” of the Pacific Northwest.

Human numbers are not limited by natural resources because there are no such things as natural resources. There are only natural raw materials, which humans turn into resources through their creativity. This is important because it means humans are not consumers but, rather, creators of resources.

We are not threatened by there being too many people. We are threatened by people who think there are too many people.

The fundamental issue is this: Are humans consumers or creators? If we are consumers, then, at some level, the Malthusian dogma must be true, and human activities and liberties must be suppressed, making tyranny necessary. But if we are creators, then our freedom to invent must be maximized, and the proper role of government must be to protect human liberty at all costs.

The data in Superabundance make it clear that this is true for our time. But it has been true for all times past and will remain so for all times to come.

TechHistory

Robert Zubrin Twitter

Robert Zubrin is an aerospace engineer and the author of eleven books on space exploration, with a particular focus on Mars. He holds a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Washington.