default blog post image

The Malthus Question, Starting with Bob

In last week’s blog post, I promised to wrestle with the time-honored Malthus Question: Does population growth outrun food supply? The old question is coming back as soaring food prices spark discontent, bread lines, and even riots around the world. I’ll try to answer this question decisively in the next 400 words.

Just kidding. Shelves heave under the weight of books that have grappled with the ideas of Thomas Robert Malthus since he first wrote in 1798. So maybe the answer will take more than one post.

Malthus posited that, “the power of population is...superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man.” Conceiving children is always easy and fun, he argued, while growing food is hard—and gets harder as more people eat. (For more on this, see my book More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want, p. 162.)

First off, anyone who thinks that the Anglican rector and economist was known to his peers as “Thomas” Malthus should check out his Wikipedia entry. Wikipedia makes the point—as does More—that Malthus actually went by his middle name, Robert. His family called him, as mine calls me, Bob. His students at the training college for the British East India Company, where he taught as the world’s first political economist, affectionately dubbed him “Population” Malthus. Then they shortened that to Pop.

The fact that hundreds of population writers continue to call him Thomas makes clear that few have studied his life. That’s one reason I included a short biography of Malthus in More. Regardless of what you think of his ideas, it’s worth knowing a bit about the life and times of an influential thinker. And this one, after all, has been returning to the news—even to the front page of the Wall Street Journal, in a story inspired by the recent surges in energy and food prices. (The Journal’s classicdot-drawing of Bob, by the way, carried the caption “Thomas Malthus.”)

Here’s another name-related footnote on Pop Malthus, this one not in my book: His last name probably refers to a drinking establishment. For years, many people thought the rare and unusual surname couldn’t be English and suggested foreign—perhaps German—ancestry. In her magisterial biography Population Malthus, however, Patricia James makes the case that the name is thoroughly English and derives from—can you guess?—Malt House, a place to drink malt ale.

Okay, so it may take a few more posts to answer the Malthus Question. But at least we’re a bit closer to the man who inspired it. Would it help us deal with the population-food debate if we just think of him as “Bob, the bar guy”?