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November 26, 2012 / compassioninpolitics

What did Thomas Malthus Get Wrong in His Theory and Predictions?

He didn’t take into account how affluence actually slows down birth rates enormously–in fact kind of solving the problem he spoke of from a shear numerical perspective.

Missed the value of knowledge and technology (requiring less and less extraction). The distinction between geometric growth of populations versus artithmetic growth seems to break down a bit–if not completely if you take this into account. He perhaps underestimated human drive for exploration and discovery–and how discoveries build on each other. He probably assumes assumed static amount of resources based on his time….the earth probably had significantly more resources than he anticipated and discovery technology and demand helped drive extraction.

Probably didn’t anticipate cultural, norming effects, environmental resilience and stasis (the ways in which systems self-correct in some situations). I’m curious if he relied on animal studies of population growth versus humans (where choice and delayed gratification become more pronounced)

He also didn’t take into account space exploration and colonies….and nanotechnology… technology or the power of the green revolution. He probably didn’t realize that health care would have such a dramatic role in checking disease–so that disease didn’t act as much as a “death check” as he might have anticipated.

I think he didn’t think about the ways in which population growth was regional (i.e. a function of density perhaps more).

I’m not sure he anticipated it…but economic division might have actually been good for the planet…instead of everyone consuming it. Increasingly this is going to be a challenge in the future.

I don’t think he was entirely wrong. Homer-Dixon takes up some of his theories….and issues like oil scarcity and water scarcity seem to be bubbling up a bit.…

Although less than perfect (there are author indictments) you might check out the work of Julian Simon:…

Seb, you might specifically like reading Peter Diamondis’ Abundance: which has a TED talk that goes along with it, mentioning about 10 to 15% of the examples in the book. Its not very theory oriented–its very technology driven and quite interesting (304 total footnotes). Reading just one chapter in the book seemed to be a water hose of interesting research and innovation:

Finally, this thread on carrying capacity might speak to similar issues, although not in the context of Malthus specifically–more in the context of Malthusian theory: Does the earth have a carrying capacity? If so, what is the carrying capacity of the earth?

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