Dissing Malthus Again

In, Adam’s Law of Slow-Moving Disasters, Scott Adams repeats the generally-taught idea that Thomas Malthus was some sort of doomer:

I’m skeptical of any claim so big and contrarian, but it does fit with The Adams Law of Slow-Moving Disasters. Simply stated, my observation is that whenever humanity can see a slow-moving disaster coming, we find a way to avoid it. Let’s run through some examples:

Thomas Malthus famously predicted that the world would run out of food as the population grew. Instead, humans improved their farming technology.

A few years ago on dagblog, I discussed what Malthus actually wrote. He didn’t predict that we would run out of food. In his An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it affects the Future Improvement of Society with remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers, he argued that rather than being freed to live in utopian conditions, the human population would continue to be resource-limited in bad times, self-limited in good times and that misery would result if these limits weren’t effective enough. In his own words:

On the whole, therefore, though our future prospects respecting the mitigation of the evils arising from the principle of population may not be so bright as we could wish, yet they are far from being entirely disheartening, and by no means preclude that gradual and progressive improvement in human satiety, which, before the late wild speculations on this subject, was the object of rational expectation. … A strict inquiry into the principle of population obliges us to conclude that we shall never be able to throw down the ladder, by which we have risen to this eminence; but it by no means proves, that we may not rise higher by the same means. … And although we cannot expect that the virtue and happiness of mankind will keep pace with the brilliant career of physical discovery; yet, if we are not wanting to ourselves, we may confidently indulge the hope that, to no unimportant extent, they will be influenced by its progress and will partake in its success.

All Malthus was doing was throwing a bit of cold water on the extremely utopian predictions of Godwin, Condorcet and others, who thought that man was about to escape the fetters of food and energy and live in philosophical enlightenment. As there are no reports of a utopian era since 1798, it seems that Malthus was correct.


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