More than two centuries ago (1798) one gentleman named Thomas Robert Malthus gave the pioneering theory on population growth in his book An Essay on the Principle of Population. The theory based on the facts that the population growth is potentially exponential, it increases in Geometric Progression, for example, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128 etc, where 2 is the common multiple. On the other hand, the growth of the food supply or other resources must be linear; it amplifies following the Arithmetic Progression. Example: 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14 etc where 2 is the common factor for addition. Now if we imagine a situation of 200 years the population growth if is not checked undoubtedly over strip food supply which will lead to an imbalance between food supply and population growth (Figure 1).
Malthus believed that there will be nature’s mechanism to keep the balance between food supply and population growth, which he named as “checks” – Preventive check and Positive Check. Positive Checks are painful, termed as “Malthusian catastrophe” which includes premature deaths like disease, hunger, war, epidemics, famines and other natural calamities. Such positive checks will reinstate the balance between population and food supply. The escape of this fury of the positive check is the preventive check. Abstinence and delaying marriage must be adopted by man to control the population and in turn the positive checks. Restricting marriage against persons suffering in disasters perceived as unproblematic.
His theory and perception were proved spectacularly wrong and it had evoked massive criticism. Of course, none of the mathematical propositions could have been taken and applied in any region of the world. Malthus did not anticipate that the pesticides, machinery, temperature control, and other technical advances would enable huge numbers of people to be very well fed. It has been thought that Malthus’ predictions will never come true.
Was Malthus fundamentally wrong? Or was he ahead of his time?
During the COVID 19 disaster, I am reminded of Thomas Robert Malthus. WHO has declared it a global pandemic in March 2020, a word that we rarely use. Should this be called a ‘positive check’ that Malthus has referred to? Yes, perhaps the world is undergoing a positive check, which is difficult to control because human beings have not taken enough measures to carry out preventive checks.
How and where exactly the coronavirus is infecting and will be infecting the human is not yet confirmed. But, as per the news, the outbreak started at Wuhan, a city in China’s Hubei province. Most health experts articulate that, this novel coronavirus strain possibly originated in bats or pangolins. The first human transmission occurred in Wuhan, China. These animal species are a major source of diet in China might be for supporting its large population base. Now, we are impending what Malthus has emphasized, ‘food’ as the ‘limiting factor’. This transmission means not enforcing safety measures. If it is a positive check, it is to control the outburst population and bring balance state that of supply of foodstuffs to population ratio.
It is pertinent to note that Malthus was criticized saying that calamities do not visit only the thickly populated countries. This is the tragic reality that high population is making this positive check even more severe and controlling the spread is a gigantic task in densely populated countries. In India with a population density of 464 per square kilometer or in Bangladesh, 12 thousand per square kilometre, this virus can produce inferno.
It has been said that Malthus failed to understand the vast resources of the Earth and foresee the technology to utilize those resources. Yet I believe what Malthus understood was regardless of how large the resources are and how advanced the technology they are still finite.
The alarm was there again and again
The earth was calling for adaptation and mitigating strategies for its recovery since long. Didn’t the excessive pressures on the infrastructure like the sewage system, bus, train, medical facilities in developing countries remind us of the Malthusian fear? Didn’t the pandemics like Plague, small-pox or flu strike a chord of what Malthusian warning? How can we forget the Black Death, took a couple of years to stretch across Europe and a disease that has killed possibly 2–4% of the population, or the multiple European wars of the centuries XVI and XVII and many other catastrophes? We have had many wars, diseases and famine over the years but they barely are registered at most periods of history. As they were confined to an area and didn’t affect the planet at large, we could not understand the warning. Being civilized and technologically advanced, given recent pandemics and epidemics, we could still have performed our duties. We have got used to a very high level of invulnerability. Lester Brown in the World watch Institute’s 1995 report, State of the World, said, “Scores of countries with rapid population growth-among them Iran, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Mexico-will find themselves facing huge food deficits in the years ahead,”. Paul Ehrlich, a famous apocalyptic predicted in 1968 that “massive famines” were likely in the 1970s. This didn’t become true and the alarm continued. Covid-19 is a wake-up call.
These make the Malthusian Theory of Population realistic today
The Malthusian theory suddenly looks relevant today. The world’s population has reached its largest figure of 8 billion. Due to an increase in economic prosperity, most countries do not follow population control measures. This involves lots of many other issues, such as balanced regional development, controlling rural to urban migration, expanding cities at the cost of greenery and developing smart cities etc. Thus, the preventive checks that should be carried out by man are not only limited to controlling the population through family planning but also to control the pressure on the existing resources. Only then can positive checks be taken care of. Man-resource ratio should be given priority in planning. The Malthusian Theory of Population must remain a background to such planning and recommended policies.
The famous biologists Charles Darwin built his theory of natural selection based on Malthus’ premise. Only assuming that Malthus was incorrect, and ignoring the scenario is no escape from his ‘trap’, today we will be rigorously mistaken to assume that the ‘trap’ has never existed, nor will it continue to exist.
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