Malthus, a cornucopian feast in a finite planet

The condition of civilized man in one of scarcity.

It was 1798 when a young British economist published An Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, a text which criticized Utopians of his time who portrayed idyllic conditions for humans on earth. The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was concerned with man’s excessive dependence on nature and the basic human problems of biological survival (Malthus, 1798).

Today a new “Malthusian Catastrophe” may be on the horizon. Instead of focusing on the limited availability of food for a rising population, today’s neo-Malthusians have a strong sense of the reality of finite resources, which at some point must induce the collapse if continuous extensive growth is allowed to proceed. Nature resources in a finite planet cannot go on being exploited forever. Fossil fuels are a finite resource, not a cornucopian feast. This is what makes the neo-Malthusians different from the Malthusians. The concern is not inadequate food supplies in the same way it was in Malthus’ day, but rather an inability to produce and balance the distribution of resources for two competing needs: food and energy. Historically speaking, the better the economy is doing, the more energy we consume and the industrial economy powered by fossil fuels struck us in a Malthusian trap.

Hence, today Malthusianism is very far from being an outdated concept. The patterns have changed but the concept of finite resources is still there. Today, instead of the simple Malthusian overpopulation and famine, we must now also worry about shortages of the vast array of energy and mineral resources necessary to keep the engines of industrial production running, about pollution and other limits of tolerance in natural systems, about complex problems of planning and administration, and about many other factors Malthus never dreamed of.