Thomas Malthus, the theologian who also became this country’s first professional economist in the 19th century — for the East India Company — wrote in 1798 that the human capacity to multiply exceeded the natural growth of food supply. Many people would therefore starve to death. Since then, Malthus has been scorned by those economists who believe in virtually unlimited economic growth and, this morning, by Allister Heath, the deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph.
Malthus only had vague data for this country at the time. If he’d had accurate data from this country and also from all round the world, he would have realised that although he was wrong about England at the time — and briefly — he was right in principle over the whole world.
By the time he wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population. the world had just reached a stable population of less than a billion. This had been reached by means of man manually cultivating every square yard of the world’s surface that could grow food my manual methods — even in terraces up the steep sides of mountains. But the stable population also meant that a great many mothers would die in childbirth, a high death rate of young children and a high death rate of people who were worn out with labour by what we would call middle-age today.
Because of medical discoveries and better health care, we now have 7 billion people — which will inevitably grow to about 11 billion before (probably) stabilising — which already includes 5 billion without a sufficiently nutritious diet, of which 2 billion who don’t eat enough calories to do a full day’s work, of which at least 0.5 billion at any one time are close to starvation. In principle, Malthus was right — much more right than he was aware of at the time.