Citizen Action Monitor

Our legacy of concern about material limits dates to Malthus’ 1798 Essay on runaway population growth

Tim Jackson explains what Malthus failed to see, why population growth did not outpace food supply.

No 2019 Posted by fw, July 31, 2017

To access all other synopses from Prosperity without Growth, click on the Tab titled “Prosperity without Growth” — Links to All Posts in the top left margin. 

Tim Jackson

“[Former US President] Reagan’s remarks [about no limits to human ingenuity] were a direct response to the most influential work on limits to emerge from the twentieth century, the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, published in 1972. That report stood in a long legacy of concern for material limits, dating back at least to the late eighteenth century, when Thomas Robert Malthus published his enormously influential “Essay on the Principle of Population.”… His argument … was that growth in population always runs faster than growth in the resources available to feed people. So sooner or later the population expands beyond the ‘means of subsistence’ and some people – the poorest inevitably – will suffer a harsh ‘struggle for existence’ from which ultimately there is no escape. … Malthus argued, suffering is inherent in nature and arises directly from the pressure of population on the means of subsistence.”Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth

In Jackson’s characteristic style, he links his new section, section 4, “The struggle for existence” with the previous one, section 3, “Confronting limits,” by referring to former President Reagan’s claim of “no great limits to growth” — delivered as a direct challenge to the 1972 publication of Limits to Growth.

A synopsis of section 4 of Chapter 1 is posted below.

Tim Jackson is a British ecological economist and professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey.


The struggle for existence: a synopsis, excerpted from Chapter 1 of Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity Without GrowthRoutledge, 2nd edition, 2016-17

Tim Jackson declares that Reagan’s “no great limits to growth” remark targeted the 1972 Limits to Growth report, which was the latest of many studies addressing concern about material limits.

One of the most famous contributions to the “limits to growth” literature was Thomas Robert Malthus’ 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population. According to Malthus, growth in population would always outpace growth in the resources available to feed people. Consequently, population would eventually outstrip the means of sustaining the masses. Facing food limits, in the ensuing and inevitable struggle for survival, the poor would be the biggest losers.

For cleric Malthus, “suffering is inherent in nature”; it is part of a “divine plan to rouse human beings from their natural sloth and achieve a higher purpose.” It was his “dismal theology” that gave economics a bad reputation.

Dismal theology notwithstanding, his Essay took its place in the debates which helped shape our ideas about limits and sustainability.

Too bad Parson Malthus failed to see that human suffering was not part of a “divine plan”. Rather, as Jackson points out, the cause of suffering was “structural inequality”, a condition that attributes to one segment of the population an unequal status relative to others based on the inequalities rooted in our social institutions – e.g., family stability, neighbourhoods, schools, public services, supermarkets, hospitals, and so forth.

Malthus was also wrong about population growth outpacing resource growth. Cheap fossil fuels facilitated massive technological changes, enabling resource growth to easily sustain a growing population.

Moreover, he did not foresee that massive technological changes would drive the transition from a rural agricultural economy to an urban industrial one, decreasing family size and spurring population growth.

In his closing paragraph to section 4 of Chapter 1, Jackson, in his customary style, provides a narrative link to section 5, to follow:

“And yet the massive increases in resource use associated with a vastly expanded global economy might still have given a sanguine observer of limits pause for thought. How could such increases possibly continue?”

How indeed?

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