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Known for his work on population growth, Thomas Robert Malthus argued that if left unchecked, a population will outgrow its resources, leading to a host of problems. In this lesson, we will define and discuss the Malthusian theory of population growth.

Malthus on Population Growth

Can you picture a billion people? It’s difficult, isn’t it? Now, multiply that by seven, and we’re approaching the world’s population. In 2012, we exceeded seven billion people and are predicted to reach 9.6 billion by the year 2050. All of these extra people need food, water, space, and energy to survive.This unprecedented growth has put a strain on our environment, economies, governments, infrastructures, and social institutions.

While growth in developed nations has slowed down in recent years, overcrowding has been a worldwide concern for centuries. One of the first to publicly address the limits of the earth and the dangers of population growth was Thomas Robert Malthus (who lived from 1766-1834), an English scholar and cleric.

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Thomas Robert Malthus
Thomas Robert Malthus

The Malthusian Theory

Malthus’s early writings were pamphlets that addressed economic and political issues of his time. In opposition to the popular 18th century European view that society was constantly improving, he wrote about the dangers of excessive population growth.

In his 1798 work, An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus examined the relationship between population growth and resources. From this, he developed the Malthusian theory of population growth in which he wrote that population growth occurs exponentially, so it increases according to birth rate.For example, if every member of a family tree reproduces, the tree will continue to grow with each generation. On the other hand, food production increases arithmetically, so it only increases at given points in time. Malthus wrote that, left unchecked, populations can outgrow their resources.According to Malthus, there are two types of ‘checks’ that can reduce a population’s growth rate. Preventive checks are voluntary actions people can take to avoid contributing to the population.

Because of his religious beliefs, he supported a concept he called moral restraint, in which people resist the urge to marry and reproduce until they are capable of supporting a family. This often means waiting until a later age to marry. He also wrote that there are ‘immoral’ ways to check a population, such as vices, adultery, prostitution, and birth control. Due to his beliefs, he favored moral restraint and didn’t support the latter practices.Positive checks to population growth are things that may shorten the average lifespan, such as disease, warfare, famine, and poor living and working environments. According to Malthus, eventually these positive checks would result in a Malthusian catastrophe (also sometimes called a Malthusian crisis), which is a forced return of a population to basic survival.

The Irish potato famine of the 19th century has been considered a classic example of a Malthusian catastrophe. In addition to dealing with political and economic relations with England and fragmentation of their land, the rapidly growing Irish population was running out of food.There are often other factors involved in events that could be labeled as Malthusian catastrophes, so many scholars take caution when providing modern examples.

A graph illustrating the Malthusian theory of population growth
Malthusian Theory of Population


As the decades passed and technology improved to provide a better quality of life, people paid less attention to Malthus’s ideas. Medical advances and the agricultural revolution of the 19th century led to an enormous increase in lifespan and food production.

Many critics thought Malthus’s theory was too dismal a view of our abilities and our future. Others noted that he didn’t consider factors like immigration in areas like North America. A big sticking point with a lot of Malthus’s critics is his religious beliefs and how they were incorporated into his theory.

Contemporary Uses of the Theory

Despite these criticisms, the Malthusian theory of population growth has forever made an impact on the world.

It can be seen in other writing and even in pop culture. Charles Darwin was impressed by Malthus’s work and incorporated his ideas into his own theory of evolution. Aldous Huxley used the theory as a central theme in the novel, Brave New World. Some contemporary scholars have adapted his theory for use today.

For instance, proponents of neo-Malthusianism still focus on the dangers of unchecked population growth, but they disagree with Malthus’s view of contraception. They are also interested in discussing the impacts of war and environmental destruction on society.

Lesson Summary

Known for his work on population growth, Thomas Robert Malthus argued that, left unchecked, a population will outgrow its resources. He discussed two ways to ‘check’ a population: preventive checks, like the moral restraint of postponing marriage, or positive checks, like famine, disease and warfare. Positive checks can lead to a Malthusian catastrophe, or a forced return to basic survival. This theory is still widely used and debated today.

Malthusian Theory Key Terms

Malthusian Theory of Population Growth
Theory of Malthus
  • Thomas Robert Malthus – Malthus was a cleric and scholar from England who lived from 1766-1834.
  • Malthusian Theory of Population Growth – This theory states that population grows exponentially, thus out-growing a society’s resources.
  • Preventive Checks – Preventive checks are those ways in which nature may alter population changes like moral restraint (postponing marriage) or ‘immoral ways’ (birth control).
  • Positive Checks – Positive checks are natural holds on population growth such as disasters or disease.
  • Malthusian Catastrophe – This catastrophe is a forced return to survival mode such as a hurricane disaster over an island.

Learning Outcomes

After thoroughly perusing this lesson on the Malthusian theory of population growth, you could have the capacity to:

  • Characterize Thomas Robert Malthus
  • Detail his development of this theory
  • Contrast preventive checks and positive checks
  • Discuss criticisms of Malthus’s theory
  • Highlight the way in which this theory has influenced modern population philosophies and pop culture

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