Austerity, poverty and food scarcity: a return to the 18th century?

Why Thomas Malthus, the great population theorist, is being reinvented for our times.

Photograph by Maurizio D’ Iorio

Newtonian, Darwinian, Keynesian: when thinkers’ names become adjectives, it’s a sign that their ideas are likely to outlive them. And so it is with Thomas Robert Malthus: English cleric, Fellow of Jesus College, and author of one of the most famous books ever written on population.

Published in 1798, the first edition of his Essay on the Principle of Population provoked passionate debate. It was “one of the great scientific and literary controversies of modern times” as Professor Emma Rothschild, Director of the Joint Centre for History and Economics and Fellow of Magdalene, points out.

William Cobbett labelled Malthus a “monster”. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called him “stupid and ignorant”. William Hazlitt’s response ran to an astonishing 400 pages. Conversely, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace credited Malthus with kindling their ideas on natural selection, in a way “analogous”, wrote Wallace, “to that of friction upon the specifically prepared match, producing that flash of insight”.

And so it continues. Next year, the Essay will be 220 years old. People continue to love to hate Malthus, despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that time has eroded his text into a gloomy central tenet. Today, it would seem that everyone knows what Malthus brings to the table: a simple argument that overpopulation is a bad thing. But is that really how we should understand his work and the controversy surrounding it? Or could his ideas help us address the challenges of the Anthropocene — an epoch of climate change, food insecurity, austerity and inequality?

Malthus’s Essay spanned several editions and several hundred pages, evolving from a primarily philosophical work into works of demography. In it, he presented evidence for a natural law that population increases faster (geometrically) than food supply (arithmetically), a system acted upon by ‘positive’ and ‘preventive’ checks including famine, disease and birth control.

Alison Bashford — Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History and Fellow of Jesus (whose recent book, co-authored with Joyce Chaplin, radically recasts the Eurocentric view of Malthus) — admits she’s fascinated by him.

“Fascinated because his Essay was so much larger, and so different to the usual assessment,” she says. “Malthus argued that population and food supply were always in direct relation, oscillating in relation to one another over time. It was not a thesis simply about ‘bad’ population growth, as people simplify it.”

Photography by Maurizio D’ Iorio

The Essay of 1798 was a direct response to perceptions of the French Revolution, and to William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet’s ideas about the perfectibility of human society. Condorcet believed in making people secure in old age via government-supported insurance. However, Malthus disagreed, arguing that inequality was a spur to improvement — a spur that welfare blunted.

“In his own time, the controversy was theological and doctrinal, as much as anything else,” explains Bashford. “Malthus seemed to suggest that on one hand, God would not provide, and on the other, that going forth and multiplying was not always a sensible thing to do. Later, the controversy was more political, related to his objections to the Poor Law and the state’s maintenance of the poor. This is the origin of the ‘unfeeling’ Malthus.”

As a strong defender of the economic benefits of inequality and a critic of poor relief, Malthus seems ever present in debates about the welfare state. “For much of the 19th and 20th centuries the adjective ‘Malthusian’ basically meant contraception, and the word ‘Malthus’ has come to indicate a way of speaking about deep fears of other people,” says Rothschild. “[But] one of the contemporary issues that was very important when Malthus was writing — and that is very relevant now — concerns what would now be called social security.”

Today at Jesus, Dr David Nally and Dr Duncan Kelly both hear echoes of Malthus in their own research. Kelly is writing a book on the Great War and the origins of modern politics, an attempt to take seriously John Maynard Keynes’ belief that ideas are what change the world — and Keynes has led Kelly straight to Malthus.

Keynes’s Malthus was first and foremost an economist, says Kelly. He responded to the Napoleonic wars and crises of corn production, post-war debt, and the relationship between wages, profit and land use. “If you fast forward 100 years, Keynes is trying to understand the relationship between debt, finance, and the production and consumption of food during and after the First World War, so it’s not surprising that in 1912 and 1914 Keynes turns back to Malthus,” he explains.

On the other side of Jesus’s Second Court, Nally — a human geographer and 19th-centuryist interested in subsistence crises — also finds Malthus relevant to his research on the Great Irish Famine.

Many people who intervened in the political debate before, during and after the famine use Malthus as a way to explain what occurred: that a population boom and not enough land coupled with an ecological crisis and repeated failures of the potato harvest caused mass starvation.

Photograph by Maurizio D’ Iorio

“I was interested in complicating that picture,” says Nally, “seeing it less as a story of aggregate numbers of people and absolute scarcity, and more about the conditions that underwrote population growth, the landholding situation and thinking more carefully about relative scarcity. That’s not to minimise the catastrophic nature of the destruction of the potato harvest — but not a single landlord died during the famine.”

Nally likes to remind his students that the world produces more than enough food to feed the population. “It’s clearly not just a question of population,” he says. “But what is true — and perhaps is Malthus’s unique contribution — is seeing population as a unique actor in its own right. That’s very powerful because it lets you see largescale problems and phenomena. In social science, as we move into big data, that’s very appealing.”

However, his desire to complicate can sometimes frustrate others in the Cambridge Global Food Security Initiative. “My plant science colleagues want to create new tools, but tools are embedded in a social context,” he says. “Plant scientists always tell me that social scientists have a problem for every solution!”

The other side of the equation — our consumption — matters too. “We need to look at our own appetite for food: how much we need and what kind of food,” says Nally, “particularly in the West, as we consume more and more meat and adopt diets that place further burdens on global agriculture.”

The same can be said of climate change, which, in altering growing conditions in places already struggling with poverty, will hamper people’s ability to subsist and create potentially explosive social conditions. “I feel a sense of déjà vu here. Malthus is writing in 1798. There are revolutions and rebellions in the 1830s and 1840s,” says Nally. “Today, people are talking about the same things, except climate change is the underlying factor, coupled with the amount of people who now need to subsist.”

Could it be, then, that the relevance of Malthus’s ideas ebb and flow according to the fall and rise of crises? According to Kelly: “Malthus talked about these cycles, especially in relation to famine, poverty and population. He’s not gone out of fashion because he fixed our attention on a problem that obviously pre-dated him — but which shows no signs of going away.”

And as the daily gloomy global news highlights radical divisions between rich and poor, Malthus gives us something to work with. “He gives us a perspective from which to explain some of these major global flows — migration, population, food production and distribution. He was — and remains — important for economists interested in tracing these flows across the world,” Kelly concludes. “He gives us a perspective on these problems. He doesn’t give us solutions — but then who does?”

The Cambridge Global Food Security Initiative: With global population set to reach nine billion by 2050, food security is one of this century’s greatest challenges. But what does an ideal food system look like? It’s a question that Cambridge is determined to address. The Cambridge Global Food Security Initiative, chaired by Professor Chris Gilligan and Professor Howard Griffiths, is a virtual network of researchers focusing on sustainable production, resilient and efficient processing, distribution and supply and ethical and healthy consumption. Together, Cambridge crop scientists, engineers, economists, policy and public health experts are working to deepen our understanding so that the world can develop better solutions.

Article by Becky Allen. This article first appeared in CAM — the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, issue 80.