Malthusian trap

The Malthusian trap, named after the 19th-century political economist Thomas Malthus, is the idea that population can or will outgrow the means to feed itself. The result would be widespread famine. (Malthus is one of the reasons economics is called “the dismal science.”) Malthus observed that plants and animals produced significantly more offspring than could survive. He argued that the potential existed for population to increase exponentially, while resources were finite, limiting the ability of society to increase food production.

He concluded that humans, unless restricted, could also overproduce and, with limited food production, outstrip their ability to feed themselves. Living in 19th-century England, Malthus saw declining living conditions and high birth rates among the poor. Malthus advocated regulation of birth rates so that poor families did not produce more offspring than they could support. Most criticism of the Malthusian trap centers on Malthus’ apparent inability to foresee the tremendous advances in technology and the ability to increase food production with a finite amount of land. Many economists and sociologists dismiss Malthus as being exceedingly pessimistic about humankind’s ability to adapt and overcome resource constraints. Recently sociologist William Catton Jr. and others have suggested that Malthus could not have foreseen the advances in technology that allow economic systems to temporarily “overshoot” their long-term PRODUCTION capacity. Catton contends, “Human economic growth and technology have only created the appearance that Malthus was wrong. . . . What our technological advances have actually done was to allow human loads to grow precariously beyond the earth’s long-term carrying capacity by drawing down the planet’s stocks of key RESOURCES accumulated over 4 billion years of evolution.” He adds, “By drawing down ‘savings accounts’ (i.e., using resources faster than their rates of renewal), populations can (and do) temporarily exceed carrying capacity. When the stockpile runs out, the once-thriving population finds itself in dire straits.” The British economist John Maynard Keynes also suggested that economies could temporarily expand output beyond their long-term capacity by extending the use of CAPITAL and HUMAN RESOURCES for short periods of time. Increasing resource prices due to increased DEMAND would then reduce aggregate SUPPLY back to the potential level of output, but at higher prices. Catton suggests the adjustment time frame is longer as economies continue to produce using large amounts of finite resources, particularly hydrocarbons, and CONSUMPTION of renewable resources beyond sustainable limits, thus overshooting the ecosystem’s carrying capacity. Malthus is credited with stimulating the idea of natural selection, developed by Charles Darwin and others. In his autobiography, Darwin states, “In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work.”

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