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Why does Malthus appeal to novelists?

I'm less surprised by the persistent appeal of Thomas Malthus to novelists than by the degree to which his ideas are ignored by everyone else. That's not because I'm a Malthusian. Quite the opposite, in fact. But the argument that a growing human population will eventually exhaust the earth's resources and bring misery upon its inhabitants is extremely intuitive. And the reply -- "we'll think of something" -- sounds totally laughable.

And yet the "we'll think of something" camp has been right again and again. Agricultural technology has allowed us to feed more people than ever seemed possible. Advances in sanitation have encouraged the rise of cities and trade that would have led to millions of deaths in previous eras. We keep thinking of something.

Which I think gets to the persistent appeal Malthus has for novelists: He's wrong because the human race keeps outperforming the obstacles before it. He's wrong because we keep being more inventive and more decent than seems possible at any given moment. But many novelists have a slightly grimmer view of human nature. Thus, the idea that we're going to come to the end of our Malthusian rope and stop pulling rabbits out of our hats is seductive.

By Ezra Klein  | September 24, 2010; 9:01 AM ET
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Novelists also get to engage in the viewpoint fallacy (first called out way back in Jonathan Schell's Fate of the Earth) where the protagonists of their malthusian or post-malthusian stories are the ones who are still alive. So their versions are much more interesting.

Policymakers simply don't have frameworks for conditions under which the vast majority of their stakeholders are going to be dead or wish they were.

Posted by: paul314 | September 24, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse

Ezra - For once I find myself agreeing with you - and that is really really freaking me out!

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | September 24, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

"He's wrong because the human race keeps outperforming the obstacles before it."

I'd like to see a chart that proves that.

The chart I'd recommend is one based on hunger and abject poverty around the world as a percentage of total population through human history. Do you think we are getting better or worser in this area? If the answer is worser, then we are failing.

Here's another chart to consider: percentage of total population affected by war.

Roaches exist in significant numbers, so the stark increase in human population isn't significant in itself to say we are overcoming all obstacles.

Posted by: lauren2010 | September 24, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse

Interesting. But as you probably know there is a decent argument to be made that Malthus was right-ish about conditions before the industrial revolution. It was technological growth, the ultimate engine of increasing prosperity in Solow's model, that took us out of that state.

Still, beyond the obvious environmental questions that are usually raised. I am a little haunted by the idea of politically imposed or politically allowed constraints. What if technological change leaves a good portion of society behind? What if a tiny elite captures most of the benefits of that growth because of the political economic structure? While this isn't exactly Malthus, it is taking the key insight of his and some of the classical political economists, such as Ricardo and later Marx, of what happens in a steady state where there is no growth or the growth in question accrues to one class? In Ricardo it is the landowners who accrue unjustified rents, in Marx it is the capitalists. Considering our own stagnant median income growth I think it is a question worth asking today. Especially in light of our environmental challenges.

Posted by: Castorp1 | September 24, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

Yep, up until the Industrial Revolution population growth meant a decrease in the average welfare of a population.

Posted by: endaround | September 24, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

I might be considered an environmentalist (I'm actually a utilitarian", but I can't help but note that every single doomsday prediction made in the past 50 years has been totally, totally wrong.

They're like Republicans -- they live in a non-falsifiable world.

Posted by: AZProgressive | September 24, 2010 9:55 AM | Report abuse


As the last two commenters mentioned, Malthus was right for 95% of human history. You might want to refresh yourself with this post:

Posted by: jesmont | September 24, 2010 9:58 AM | Report abuse

"He's wrong because the human race keeps outperforming the obstacles before it. He's wrong because we keep being more inventive and more decent than seems possible at any given moment. But many novelists have a slightly grimmer view of human nature."

To add a bit more to what I said above. Malthus isn't "wrong" today either. If Americans started having an average of 13 children instead of 2.3 or whatever, it is entirely possible, probable even, that population growth would outstrip technological change. And then he would be right. Moreover, even without that happening, technological change could slow or climate change could be on the worse end of predictions and cause desertification to the extent that people would outstrip resources. Malthus is still more right than we'd care to admit.

Posted by: Castorp1 | September 24, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

Because there's no point in writing a novel that involves the human race gradually inventing small but large-scale improvements in food manufacture or distribution.

You just don't write a sci-fi novel without a post-apocalyptic hellscape, it's just boring otherwise.

Posted by: CarlosXL | September 24, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

AZProgressive, the situation is more complicated than that. If Silent Spring had not been heeded, there really would be a lot fewer birds and spring would be a lot quieter. The thing about the doomsday predictions of the past 50 years is that few of them are literally doomsday--instead they are of the form "we face a kind of doom _unless_ we change our behavior in the following manner..." And a lot of the time, when the doom starts really looking plausible (DDT, ozone depletion), policies get adopted to force change to the system to avoid that doom. So it's not that these predictions are non-falsifiable, it's that are offered for the explicit purpose of pre-empting the falsification scenario. We'll have to wait and see if the climate doom predictions get undercut by policy or put to the test of atmospheric chemistry guinea piggery.

Posted by: JonathanTE | September 24, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

JonathanTE, that's exactly what I was going to post, but probably better.

Posted by: MosBen | September 24, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

The problem you (and the anti-malthusians) seem to skip over is that many of the solutions bring with them their own problems. We feed many more people today, but at the cost of Nitrogen run-off and decreased seafood from the Gulf (even prior to the oil rig blowing up.) Water tables are falling throughout the midwest, and it is not inconceivable that the dust-bowls of the 1930s will be a pleasant memory.

We keep kicking the can down the road. Eventually, we'll run out of road.

Posted by: MOmark | September 24, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Malthus's basic point was indisputably wrong. He argued that increases in human wealth would always be frittered away by increased human reproduction. In every society, however, as the population grows richer, the reproductive rate drops.

Posted by: tomtildrum | September 24, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Malthus is like the speed of light: breaking the boundary means you've shifted genres.

Posted by: ctown_woody | September 24, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Every environmental concern from Global Warming to Peak Oil to Water Crisis are Malthusian in character. They're all predicated on the idea that there are just too many people on the planet and it's all going to come crashing down in our lifetimes.

I'm not arguing that those environmental crises are not real, just saying that Malthusian ideas are *far* from being ignored.

Posted by: JWHamner | September 24, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Maybe that's why so many lefties yearn to abolish the industrial farm...they want to return us to the Malthus milieu. And if their cousins, the global warming obsessive compulsives, succeed in getting all the cows killed on account of the production of manure melts the ice caps, then there will be no food and Malthus will be vindicated.

Posted by: bgmma50 | September 24, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse


If you'll accept extreme as a suitable synonym for abject, Wikipedia's entry on extreme poverty has a pretty good chart on it: Extreme poverty has fallen from over 40% of world population in 1981 to under 20% today, despite a nearly 50% increase in the total number of people on the planet. World Bank data only goes back to 1981, but the Encylopedia Brittanica says that poverty was the norm in the pre-industrial world. We're doing a spectacular job at proving Malthus wrong.

Posted by: evilado | September 24, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

Malthus, who contended that population increases geometrically while agricultural production increases arithmetically, was more or less correct until about 1915 or so. It was at that time that Fritz Haber invented, and the German company BASF commercialized, the process of fixing nitrogen from the air to make artificial ammonia. The Haber process is the basis for all modern fertilizer, and it's the main reason for the 20th century's population explosion.

But the Haber process runs on oil. No oil, no fertilizer. Maybe we're going to come up with a replacement for oil, or maybe we'll find lots more oil, but if not - welcome back, Malthus.

Posted by: Bloix | September 25, 2010 9:00 AM | Report abuse

@Lauren: Not sure why you think those two data points would prove your point. As Evilado helpfully points out, poverty is absolutely on the decline. I don't have a chart handy but it seems completely obvious that the statistic for war would be even more drastic. 40 million people died in WWII. War deaths have dropped off enormously since then.

@Ezra: I wonder if novelists and their readers contemplating the Malthusian stuff is healthy, and helps drive us toward those solutions we keep coming up with. Plus, they make for fun reads!

Posted by: jbossch | September 25, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse

Klein: "That's not because I'm a Malthusian. Quite the opposite, in fact."

LOL. I suppose you never said the following, then:

"But with climate change, if we don't stabilize carbon emissions, it's game over."

Let's face it, Klein. You don't know what you are, which makes it easy to blow with whatever political wind your ignorant biases lead you to blow with.

Posted by: msoja | September 26, 2010 9:55 PM | Report abuse

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