The writings of Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) inspired Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle to condemn economics as “the dismal science.” Witnessing the deplorable crowding, poverty, and disease of England’s dirty cities and struck by a grim historical record of famines and epidemics, Malthus embodied academic pessimism. The work that made his reputation and popularized his name was An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus felt he was a Cassandra, admonishing utopians to beware of a catastrophic inevitability they could not see: The human population would inevitably exceed the carrying capacity of its environment.
This natural inequality of the two powers, of population, and of production of the earth, and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal, form the great difficulty that appears to me insurmountable in the way to the perfectibility of society.
Surrey’s sour scholar essentially believed that human population grew exponentially, whereas agricultural productivity grew arithmetically, i.e., in a straight line. He was partially right. England’s population growth was undergoing a historical uptick during Malthus’ lifetime. However, agricultural productivity was too. Like civilization itself, urbanization was driven by rural agricultural and urban industrial productivity increases and the surpluses attending them. The same process drew Malthus’ eye, ironically enough.
This pattern repeated in the 1970s. Productivity increased in previously undeveloped areas. Population growth swung upward. Cities became crowded. Demographers and economists went into a tizzy. Then huge segments of the global population surged from miserable poverty to genuine prosperity.
Malthus made other contributions to his field, a true intellectual force. How did the latter halves of the previous two centuries so wildly, wonderfully contradict dismal expectations? Here we find the fatal flaw of his argument, and the worldview of many environmentalists. They appraise humanity as an “infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms,” helpless, mouth open, desperately consuming the resources around it.