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Explaining the Malthusian Trap

Geoff Riley

5th October 2009

Dugie Young explores the idea of the Malthusian population trap. Is the prediction of Malthusian misery coming back into focus?

The Malthusian Trap is the theory that, as population growth is ahead of agricultural growth, there must be a stage at which the food supply is inadequate for feeding the population.

This was originally devised by Robert Malthus in An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, arguing that food supply expansion is linear whereas human growth is exponential.

However, the Green Revolution in 1945 is an example of how mankind can adapt to make food production more efficient. Nevertheless there must be a point at which it cannot become any more efficient and cause some degree of famine, not to mention the deforestation, soil erosion and pollution that would be caused when man started to quite literally scrape the barrel.

The idea of Malthusian Catastrophe has also been extended to energy: since energy consumption is increasing at a faster rate than population and the majority energy comes from non-renewable sources, it would appear to be falling into a Malthusian Trap sooner than food production. However, there are clear alternatives in that case such as nuclear energy whereas in food there are almost certainly none. Malthus’ theory has its critics such as Julian Simon, whose counterarguments include the progress of thought and study in the field and the economy’s ability to the increase production when there is a financial incentive.

It remains to be seen if a GM Revolution will put Malthus’ theory to bed once and for all.

Geoff Riley

Geoff Riley FRSA has been teaching Economics for over thirty years. He has over twenty years experience as Head of Economics at leading schools. He writes extensively and is a contributor and presenter on CPD conferences in the UK and overseas.

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