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ARTi19 DepositPhotos.com

ARTi19 DepositPhotos.com

Those who read or write dystopian and apocalyptic stories, are likely to know what a Malthusian Check is.  For those who don’t, a quick Wikipedia definition.

In 1798, Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he wrote:

The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.”

Also known as a Malthusian catastrophe, it refers to humanity’s forced return to subsistence-level conditions if population growth outpaces the world’s agricultural production.

It involves a subject we hear about in a regular stream of media events, population growth.  Today, the human population is estimated around 7 billion.   In the last two-thousand years, we’ve gone from just another mammalian species struggling for a niche, to the most dominant, animal life form on the planet.  We can thank our developed frontal lobe for allowing us to think our way out of natural selection limiters designed to keep numbers in check.  Today, humanity’s only real predator is …


We have all sorts of fictional choices to explain an alternate future of human devastation.  Natural disasters, cosmic mishaps, and alien invasions have been popular.  I have a macabre fascination of the big caldera bubbling beneath Yellowstone.  If that simmering cauldron of magma ever gets indigestion and burps, say goodbye to life as we know it.  Adequate sustenance would likely be a challenge for any humans surviving these calamities, but nothing stirs the emotions like the “active and able ministers of depopulation, the vices of mankind”.

A British economist by training, Malthus figured population would multiply geometrically, but food supply, arithmetically.  Nearly five centuries had passed since the plague nearly wiped out Europe and it had me wondering if his theory was unduly influenced by comparative data, isolated as the event was.  Numbers are speculative, but a few experts willing to stake their professional careers on it, estimate the population when Malthus wrote his treatise, at about a billion.  It’s still a big number and probably felt it since populations tend to congregate near each other, but nowhere near the seven fold we have today.



Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:World-Population-1800-2100.svg

As it relates to Malthus’ concept, what can we say about man’s ability to feed itself back in 1800?  We can debate mitigating factors, such as primitive agricultural methodology, petulance, spoilage, absence of healthcare knowledge, not to mention effects of serfdom and war.   Even then, for those not born or acquired into privilege, the masses still struggled with getting enough to eat.  Every civilization, large or small, knew famine at one point or another.

Back to the future, the debate continues as to what the estimate will be for 2100.  Even with mechanized and modernized agriculture, better storage and distribution, education and medicine, hunger and malnutrition is still prevalent in way too many places in today’s times.  That said, the estimate of humankind’s rise from obscurity a few thousand years ago to where it is today, is the kind of subject matter sci-fi writers love to speculate about.

Many great fiction authors have explored variations of overpopulation.  My very first sci-fi book was Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky (you always remember the first), where a Malthusian catastrophe is averted by the invention of teleportation that sent Earth’s excess population to colonize other planets.  Soylent Green, loosely based on Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room, and Alan Nourse’s book, Blade Runner, are two of my top ten movies.  If you haven’t seen it yet, the movie Elysium explores societal divisions of class because of too many people, not to mention Jodie Foster’s amazing role as the villain.

I stumbled on a blog site by Joachim Boaz, who consolidated a list of science fiction stories with Malthusian overtones.  In giving the list, he offers his own definition.

An overpopulated world is often characterized by a breakdown of existing cultural and moral barriers, the “mechanization” or increasing “programmability” of mankind, societal good increasingly aimed at production or reproduction, landscapes plagued by extreme pollution (disease, extinctions, etc), and of course, a protagonist with traditionalist philosophies (for example, remembering the allure of “working the land” in the past less-populated world).”

It pretty much characterizes dystopian fiction. Rather makes me wonder if Malthus was a sci-fi writer in disguise.

If you haven’t read Dan Brown’s Inferno, a high-energy chase into understanding the dark places imagined by Dante Alighieri’s, The Divine Comedy, now is a good time to consider it.  That’s all I’m going to tell you.

What’s your favorite Malthusian-inspired book?