Posted June 30, 2011
by Lensyl Urbano
I think I may fairly make two postulata.
First, That food is necessary to the existence of man.
Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.
— Malthus (1798): An Essay on the Principle of Population via The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
“Malthusian” is often used as a derogatory term to refer to alarmist predictions that we’re going to run out of some natural resource. I’m afraid I’ve used the term this way myself, however, according to Lauren Landsburg at the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, Malthus is being unfairly maligned. He wasn’t actually predicting catastrophe but wondering why the catastrophes don’t usually happen.
What Thomas Malthus did, in 1798, was point out that while populations grow at a geometric rate – the U.S. population, he noticed, doubled every 25 years – but resources, like food, only increase at an arithmetic rate. As a result, any naturally growing population will eventually run out of resources.
The linear equation has the form:
where y is the quantity produced, t is time (the independent variable), and m and b are constants. This should not look to unfamiliar to students who’ve had algebra.
The geometric equation is a little more complicated:
here a, g and c are constants. g is the most important, because it’s the growth rate – the higher g is the faster the curve will rise. You can play around with the coefficients and graph in this Excel spreadsheet .
At any rate, after the curves intersect, the needs of the population exceeds how much it can produce; this is the point of Malthusian catastrophe.
The observation is, indeed, so stark that it is still easy to lose sight of Malthus’s actual conclusion: that because humans have not all starved, economic choices must be at work, and it is the job of an economist to study those choices.
— Landsburg (2008): Thomas Robert Malthus from The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.