Arguably the first economist to concern himself with the problems of growing population was T.R Malthus at the very end of the 18th century. It was actually in 1709 that he published his world famous ’Essay on the Principle of Population’ which came to be knows as the Malthusian Theory. It was the huge increases in population of his home country England that gave birth to this rather disturbing treatise.
His rather concerning statement behind this theory was that there is a constant tendency of all organic life to tend towards the point where it’s noruishment was unsustainable. That is that the human population would keep increasing until it started running out of resources and starving. The mathematics was quite straight forward – population could increase geometrically doubling or trebling it’s numbers. Whereas food production was limited to an arithmatical progression such as 1,2,3,4,5, and 6 for instance.
The stark reality of this was that it was impossible for increases in food production to ever keep pace with any consistent population growths. His rather cheery argument did highlight two ways in which population could be checked
1) Positive checks – Events like war, misery, famine and disease could increase death rate and hence limit population growth.
2) Preventative checks – contraception, political policies restraining number of children and even moral restraints.
Obviously the latter sounds the most appealing and it Malthus who proposed these. The idea is that it’s much more beneficial to reduce birth rates than end up having to increase death rate to cope with population growth which was unsustainable.
It’s interesting that Malthus hasn’t appeared yet in the BBC programme on famous economists – Masters of Money. Although it’s early in the series so I’m still hopeful. You can catch up with this wonderful show on the BBC Iplayer. For anyone outside the UK who would like to watch I’d suggest checking out this helpful Facebook page I found. It shows you how anyone can access Iplayer abroad – http://www.iplayerabroad.com/ – simply by using a UK based server to provide you with a UK IP address.