Comments on Malthusianism

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss Malthusianism.

Programme information and audio


  • 1. At 09:23am on 23 Jun 2011, Andy Sloggett wrote:

    As well as a political economist Malthus is credited as the first real demographer. In fact Malthus's theories are still debated in the world of demography and Malthus's analysis is still recognised as a classic, if flawed, demography text. Leaving history aside Malthus's influence is, today, primarily demographic. So why no demographer in the discussion?
    Andy Sloggett
    Senior Lecturer in Demography
    London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

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  • 2. At 09:47am on 23 Jun 2011, Dr Martin Price wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 3. At 09:53am on 23 Jun 2011, David Martin wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 4. At 09:58am on 23 Jun 2011, Phril wrote:

    Thank-you for another excellent discussion. I very much enjoy In Our Time, please keep it up.
    Do you think there is a modern comparison with Malthusianism to our very high teenage pregnancy rate and our benefit culture?
    Surely a reduction in benefits being a career choice and becoming more of an earned privilege would be a good move.

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  • 5. At 09:58am on 23 Jun 2011, Dr Martin Price wrote:

    I greatly enjoyed today's edition on Malthus, but feel rather frustrated that the modern relevance of his writing was not explored. I understand that the panel mainly represented historical perspectives - and I learnt a great deal about the context of his work. However, having read and taught his Essay on the Principles of Population, I feel that your programe missed a trick.

    Malthus' work can be seen as an early "thought experiment" in the form of a systems analysis. As such, it has had a fundamental influence upon modern notions of environmentalism - most specifically on Paul Ehrlich, and on the Limits to Growth studies. In essence, global population is defined by inputs (births) and outputs (deaths). Births can be controlled by virtuous acts (abstension - since contraception was inadequate in Malthus' time) or vicious acts (abortion and infanticide - the main "contraceptives" open to Malthus' contemporaries). The capacity to support a population is controlled by a) the rate of technological growth (the capacity to expand resources faster than population) and b) ultimately, by the resources of a finite planet.

    One can argue about where we are now in this context, but the original (and still scientifically valid) truths of Malthus' analysis should not be ignored. What he had to say is much more important to humanity than why he said it!

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  • 6. At 10:11am on 23 Jun 2011, Robin Smith wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 7. At 10:18am on 23 Jun 2011, bearsall wrote:

    The historical context of Malthus's ideas is of course mildly interesting, but what's really interesting about him is whether he will at some stage be proved right. We may be able to carry on feeding ourselves, but what if it is only at the cost of enormous environmental degradation? When I heard the guests introduced at the top of the programme I thought, "Oh dear, an exercise in navel gazing", and that's pretty much what it proved to be. It would have been a much better programme with only one of the three pleasant and well informed guests, the other two being replaced by experts on demographics and the environment.
    But that would of course have been to lead the programme down the path of a debate on population control, as much an unmentionable in the halls of liberal academia as immigration once was....
    In fact the issue came up obliquely in the very last minute of the programme. Was that my imagination, or could I hear the participants' feet shuffling in embarrassment?

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  • 8. At 10:53am on 23 Jun 2011, Alison Moore wrote:

    I really enjoyed the programme but was concerned when one of the speakers referred to Malthus having a 'hare lip'. This is an outdated an unpleasant way of describing a 'cleft lip'. Those who endure the name calling and bullying that still prevails around this condition are not helped by the casual use of this term. I realise it was said without any insult intended of course.

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  • 9. At 11:40am on 23 Jun 2011, dysacre wrote:

    Surely Malthus's main influence on Darwin was to set an example of how humans could (and must) be studied as a biological species, and not solely by the methods of moral philosophy. There was a tendancy in the programme to imply Malthus had hidden motives, yet few writers so expose an honest struggle to make sense of a moral dilemma, and bare their intellectual journey. It was a great shame to hear an old error repeated, that the population growth of the 19th century proved him wrong. It didn't. Food supply has grown as he predicted and for much of the world poverty has grown with it - one in seven Britains officially paupers in 1800? One in seven humans live on edge of starvation today. QED. Only where contraception is widley practiced has the cycle been broken, which is what he said.

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  • 10. At 1:50pm on 23 Jun 2011, Eoin Dillon wrote:

    Malthus now acts as an imprecise reminder of the relationship between population growth and food production, particularly in poor countries. But the idea that this had ceased being a problem by the end of the eighteenth century in the United Kingdom, as was stated, is way off the mark, not to say complacent. Ireland, which had joined the union in 1801, would go on to have a massive famine in the middle of the nineteenth century. Two explanations, at least, are often given for the failure of the British government to provide food assistance. One is geographic: had it occurred in Yorkshire relief would have been provided. Another is the residual effect of Malthusianism: the only solution was to let people die on the side of the road; the cure for a crisis is a crisis. Malthus, whatever his intentions, could provide an excuse for some people to do what they wanted to do anyway: nothing.
    Eoin Dillon

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  • 11. At 3:29pm on 23 Jun 2011, kentb77 wrote:

    A disappointing programme. Why do we persist in talking about "Malthusianism" as if it's a religion or a political party. Instead, it's a statement of a truth, as true as Newton's falling apple. Again we heard the silly comment that Malthus' predictions have not happened. This is like Newton's apple, it doesn't fall if it's held by a string. In the case of population growth, which went more or less as Malthus said, we exported hosts of people to the colonies and imported food. We can certainly not feed ourselves even with the great advances in fertilizers and improved crops. Neither can about a billion other people in developing countries. Population growth is simply unsustainable and will be checked as Malthus said by famine, war and disease, as we can't take measures ourselves. Today's programme showed why. The experts simply did not get to the core of Malthus, discussing his impact on early 19th century society and whether he was rite or wrong. Of course his maths were correct and of course Darwin used his ideas as directly (to state that natural selection was within species and not the environment as one person said is complete nonsense.
    Malthus explains all our problems today, from why we have long waiting lists for hospitals, why British roads are clogged with traffic, why commodity prices are soaring, why the rain forests are being destroyed and why the global temperatures are soaring. These are the things to discuss, not what Coleridge and self-interested industrialists were saying 200 years ago.

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  • 12. At 4:23pm on 23 Jun 2011, Alison Thorne wrote:

    Was it a mistake that in the early minutes of the programme you referred to Malthus as a vicar? You said later he was a curate. He can't be both (though he could have been a curate first and a vicar later). It is such a common error that "vicar" means the same as "priest" whereas it is a job title, as is "curate". But surely the BBC knows that?

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  • 13. At 6:16pm on 23 Jun 2011, dllewellynfoster wrote:

    This was a useful introduction to what ought to be a much larger discussion. Archive on 4 recently broadcast a superb radio documentary 'Julian Huxley and the Invention of the Public Scientist,' hosted by Jim Al Khalili, that addressed some of the issues around eugenics briefly touched upon here. We tend to forget just how deeply embedded were our cultural, colonial and imperial frames of reference, until relatively recently. It is perhaps hard for a younger generation of contemporary thinkers to identify with the many of the assumptions and contexts of the last two centuries, that even now have not entirely disappeared and arguably, still permeate much contemporary discourse in habitual ways. Unless we interrogate the past intelligently, we cannot truly understand our present conditions and circumstances, but it is also true that past events and environments grow ever more complex the further from them we move in cultural space. We can gain deeper knowledge through the interpretive "long now" perspective of time's distance that broadens our reflective horizons, but we also need ever more sophisticated tools and methods of recall and analysis, the wider and deeper the scope of our inquiry. Our predecessors and their antecedents may seem remote and often old-fashioned, but they also represent lucid indices of a particular quality of intelligence and consciousness, peculiar to their own experience. We will always learn more from the archaeology of ideas, when our capacity for identification is enhanced by a fuller comprehension of the psychological, philosophical and cultural compass of a particular individual in their historic period and place, for no intellectual endeavour can ever be entirely distinct or removed from its universal context. The real point about sustainability and population, is not about our magnanimous "responsibility" to feed limitless droves of people with limited resources, but to understand the wisdom of not preventing those people from feeding themselves. The illicit imposition of monopolies, land restrictions and draconian controls may appear natural, normal and convenient, but it is really arrogant and presumptuous in the same way that the British thought they could teach the Indians how to farm, and ended up adopting their practices instead. The true function of government is to prevent abuses and facilitate virtuous action, not dictate the best "means of production" (Monsanto style) by enforced corporate fiat and to then criminally appropriate the legitimate ends of honest peasant labour, by privileging unregulated, contrived markets that sanction and support bankster fraud. That is not even civilised, it is sheer despotic illegality.

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  • 14. At 8:22pm on 23 Jun 2011, Johannis wrote:

    Great show again!

    But could you please try to fix the following episodes in the archive:

    The Siege of M√ľnster
    Brave New World

    as they are not working properly.


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  • 15. At 4:17pm on 24 Jun 2011, Peter Bolt wrote:

    I read ,with great interest in your Newsletter that Malthus was at one time employed by The East India Company.
    So was John Stuart Mill and it is not at all inconceivable that they were so employed at the same time.

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