What is the Malthusian Catastrophe?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A Malthusian catastrophe is a situation in which a society returns to a subsistence level of existence as a result of overtaxing its available agricultural resources. There are numerous alternate names for this situation; some people refer to it as a Malthusian crisis, trap, or disaster, for example. Some theorists also believe that every society has a Malthusian limit, a population tipping point which will spark such a crisis. The concept of a Malthusian check on population levels has been debated extensively, especially in the 20th century, with the rapidly growing human population raising concerns for some people.

A Malthusian catastrophe refers to a situation where the demands of a growing human population deplete available agricultural resources, thus leading to a state of misery.
A Malthusian catastrophe refers to a situation where the demands of a growing human population deplete available agricultural resources, thus leading to a state of misery.

The idea of a Malthusian catastrophe was put forward by Thomas Malthus in An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. Malthus pointed out that human populations tend to grow exponentially, while the capabilities of agricultural resources tend to grow arithmetically. Using these patterns, Malthus predicted that at a certain point, the demands of a human population would outstrip agricultural ability. This, in turn, would trigger radical social changes, including population decline and, according to Malthus, a state of misery.

Many impoverished countries are struggling with famine and disease.
Many impoverished countries are struggling with famine and disease.

The history of several cultures does seem to suggest that a Malthusian catastrophe may be a very real threat; societies such as Easter Island did utilize all of their available resources and collapse, for example. Overpopulation is also clearly linked to disease epidemics, starvation, and social unrest. Some people believe, however, that Malthus oversimplified the matter, and that there may be ways to address a growing population without causing misery. Others suggest that the growing disparity between First and Third world nations indicates that a Malthusian catastrophe may already be occurring.

Concerns about global population growth have led to numerous studies on the world's population, including estimates of the global population from periods before records were kept. These estimates do show an exponential rate of growth, but in the 20th century, this growth rate became hypoerexponential, meaning that it increased even more radically. However, in the developed world, populations are actually on the decline; this means that the growth is concentrated in developing countries, which could lead to serious problems in the future.

Developed nations also use a disproportionate amount of resources, which puts even more pressure on developing countries. If a Malthusian catastrophe does emerge, people who support this theory of population predict that it will appear in developing nations. Some parts of the Third World are already struggling with famine, disease, and violence, which means that this tipping point could be close at hand.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I would like to see some citations. We can only speculate what happened on Easter Island.

There was no mention that we are doing everything possible to extend our lives. We do not want to die. When we are struck with disease, we do everything possible to defeat our diseases. Hence, population growth.

Centuries ago, humans could not have leukemia and live, or develop cancer and receive treatments to prolong their lives.


I last commented as anon329529, Post 12, and would like to make the following correction to my mistyping: If the population doubles every 40 years, you get: One human per every square meter of the earth's surface within 600 years; humans totaling the mass of the universe within 8,000 years (I was actually being over generous last time!)


anon28999 is living in a dream world if he believes that human ingenuity will always solve the problem. Why? Because when the population doubles every four years without collapse, you get:

one human for every square meter of the earth's surface within 40 years; Humans totalling the mass of the known universe in less than 15,000 years.

It is blindingly obvious to anyone who understands exponential growth that we can't grow indefinitely.

Unless anon28999 means that the solution is population control, their remarks are self congratulatory optimism with no understanding of the hard figures.


Lifetimes go by so fast. Unless you're on a mission to personally repopulate your genes eternally, why do we care? Meanwhile, life is flying by.


The green revolution was, in fact, a black revolution (meaning oil). At some point all available oil will have to go to a tractor tank only, and we will be able to produce the same amount of food with less oil used and meat will be a very rare treat indeed. Even eggs and fish will be quite rare. We'll all be vegans.

Even with all this, population will still plummet to about 1/8 after there is no oil at all left, and if we manage to screw it all up (which we very well might, given human nature), we will be extinct. We won't be missed, either.


It seems obvious that the Malthusian presumption of a perpetual cycle is based on the limited view of a non-global society, in which collapse is temporary, because the surrounding ecology allows recovery of the local ecology. Since the advent of arbitraged world trade and maximized resource consumption (after the Reverend's 18th century observation), the supporting ecology will finally (practically) be destroyed.

There is a huge difference between ecological recovery from a local collapse and a global collapse. Humanity’s ability to avoid either is limited by 'autonomous' countries with even a small percentage of corrupt administrators, and corporate structures which prevent subjugating current profit to either 'long term' profits or social issues. These and more will tend to force a corporate and international race to the exhaustion of the most critical resources.

I might hope the stochastics of human behavior and variety of human social, technical, and environmental situations might still allow long-term survival of some small human communities. I might instead hope that the human experiment ends, in favor of a new badly scarred world ecology innocent of its long gone malefactor.


It is necessary to look at "Malthusian Catastrophe" as being global nature. So far, human ingenuity has appeared to keep up with demand for food, but this might not always be so. Among the things that might interfere are corruption or incompetence along the distribution chain and/or nuclear, biological or chemical contaminants.


Totally agree with anon 32293, however I think that water and not oil will be the tipping point first. Understand that the green revolution was not only spurred by the advances in science and technology, but also water. Irrigation is a huge user of water in parts of the US and other areas of the world. Production levels in these areas could not be sustained let alone achieved at these levels without that water. Now add in a thirsty population that gets larger every year and you have the recipe for future disaster. The question will come down to this. Do you want to eat or do you want to drink?


Anon- read Jared Diamond's 'Collapse.' He shows that Easter Island is not the only time a civilization has been wiped out.


would someone tell me the relevance of the malthusian theory of population to a country?


food production has been able to increase exponentially alongside population growth because of massive energy inputs (ie oil) since the 'green revolution' of the mid 20th century, but mature oil fields are declining in excess of 9.1% year over year at present so we are due for a horrendous malthusian catastrophe eventually, if not imminently... there's no way alternative energies will keep pace with the loss of a saudi arabia's worth of oil production every year.


you don't need to know anything about math or data; you just need to look at history to see that Malthus has been proved wrong. (Easter Island seems to be an isolated incident and in the last 200 years since Malthus, where else has agriculture -and not man- caused anything similar?) Human ingenuity has prevailed; necessity is the mother of invention! And so man found a way to provide more food, more quickly to more people than ever before. In some countries there is an over-abundance of food! That some Third World countries don't have enough has more to do with the greedy politicians and corrupt governments than over-population.


Good Article !

I believe the current situation tries to suggest us that this point may be very near or probably we may have reached this point. Although I would not call it a catastrophe yet, but definitely would say that it is time that we all think hard on our available resources be it agricultural, energy or other environmental.


Squeeze my mind. Develop the thoughts. In a matter I haven't consider before. A matter however that I find it crucial. Unprepared, but full of thoughts which I need to organize to reach to an answer. My answer.

Certainly there is a stalemate and a real problem. Populations do increase exponentially. But does agricultural produce increase arithmetically? I wonder? Since the time of Malthus, in the 18th century, agricultural produce has increased in unheard of levels of production, that Malthus and his contemporaries could never imagine. I would not attempt to make a comparison in terms of arithmetic or exponential increases since I lack the data necessary to do so, but I only have one thing in my mind. With the current level of the world population size, the world over agricultural produce suffices to feed it.

And this in my mind provides the answer. That at whatever level population size increases, in whatever age this might be, past or future, agricultural production follows suit, human ingenuity provide the answer.

Trying to apply Malthus's theories in an isolated way, for one or the other country instead of looking at the problem globally is misleading to say the least, if not intentionally creating a doom and despair scenario in support that justifies ... to be followed later on .. One World

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