The “Malthusian Trap” Does Not Make For Good Policy

24 January 2018 Benjamin Walsh, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme


In An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), Thomas Robert Malthus posited that an increase in a society’s cost of living was linked to the inability of its population to produce enough food and to maintain a level of economic stability. It is known as the “Malthusian Trap”. According to Malthus, once it began, the only recourse was to drastically reduce the population, rather than improve socio-economic policies to meet the new challenge. Although Malthus makes an interesting argument, societal collapse can be traced to a number of other reasons, such as disease or technological ineptitude, which arguably supersede the “carrying capacity” argument.


While it cannot be denied that population growth exacerbates a number of the challenges pertaining food, water and environmental security, the idea that human sustainability and ecological innovation cease to exist with a corresponding rise in population levels is highly disingenuous. The use of the Malthusian Trap as a foreign policy framework for demographic challenges is both immoral and unrealistic as it fails to comprehend the value of people and the resourcefulness that has shaped humanity since ancient times.

In An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus depressingly writes that ‘the population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.’ The invocation of such a sentiment has, historically, inspired decision makers to view people as inconvenient obstacles capable of nothing but demographic obstruction. That is problematic for two reasons.

First, it actually encourages bad government policy. As stated in the Scientific American, governments have used Malthusian reasoning to justify questionable government policy. For example, during the Irish potato famine in the 1840s, the British Government saw famine as an ‘effective mechanism for reducing surplus populations.’ Malthusian thinking, if legitimised at a state level, could be used by authoritarian governments to excuse blatant human rights abuses. In 2012, the BBC released a widely-read report that alleged that women in Uzbekistan are unknowingly sterilised after having a Caesarean performed on them in order to control population growth. Restraints on population growth, which Malthus euphemistically called “positive checks”, include famine, disease and war. Those checks are seen as necessary to do what Malthus’s preventive checks (Christian virtues/ethical living) inevitably failed to do: further reduce population levels. Human beings could not be trusted to sustain population levels themselves, and ethics could only do so much. China’s one-child policy is a case in point.

Population control, therefore, needed to be forced where humanity found itself unwilling. Malthusian thinking, especially in a policy framework, encourages governments to look upon their own people as hindrances rather than harbingers of progress.

Second, the Malthusian idea does not recognise that for centuries humanity has been constantly manipulating ecosystems to ensure its survival. The Malthusian Trap blunts all debate as it assumes that the Earth has a carrying capacity that can only be solved by cutting population growth. Even though reducing population growth may temporarily halt its rapid rise, in the long term, economic growth, improved living standards and job creation will flounder as the working age population (15-64 years old) shrinks. China’s one child policy has resulted in a numerical imbalance between the working and the elderly population. As stated elsewhere, in China, the elderly cohort is expected to double over the next 25 years and, by 2050, it is estimated that there will be 43 per cent fewer people aged 15 to 24 in 2050 than there were in 2010.

Lowering population growth rates should not be forcefully implemented by governments but by alleviating the factors that hinder prosperity and a suitable living standard. As stated previously, population growth across South Asia is set to rise; the key to managing that rise is to sustain it rather than reduce it via government compulsion. Fertility rates should be kept at a sustainable level by enabling women to have a greater say in when they choose to start a family, to educate themselves and to seek employment. When women are empowered, they generally delay child bearing and avoid the creation of large families.

Many believe that we now live in a time marked by humanity’s detrimental impact on the environment; a new epoch that many attribute to overpopulation. Commentators popularly associate the years after 2050 as a time of disaster and environmental ruin, however, according to some, if your anthropogenic definition is based on the idea that the ecosystem that we inhabit today has never been manipulated to benefit humanity, a new way of thinking is required. Our environment has undergone constant change at the hands of humanity to better our state of living and today, as well as tomorrow, is no different.

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