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How Malthus Got It Wrong

Something that seems obvious if you think about it for a minute is that a growing population pushing on a finite planet means that resources will become pricier and people will become, on average, poorer. In 2019, Bill Maher, for example, who most people, including me, think is a smart person, stated, “In 1900, there were less [sic] than two billion people on Earth; now it’s approaching eight. We can’t just keep on like this. The world is just too crowded.” He went on to propose that we “not have kids, die, and stay dead.” Maher is a 21st-century Malthusian. Thomas Robert Malthus, recall, was the person who wrote the famous 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he argued that food production grows arithmetically while population tends to grow geometrically. Malthus did more thinking than Maher, by the way. The fact that Britain didn’t have widespread starvation was what led Malthus to examine the ways people did check their tendency to multiply. But Malthus did not foresee what actually happened: huge increases in standards of living for a much greater population.

Fortunately, we can think about this issue for much more than a minute. And our thinking can be informed not just by gut feelings but also by basic economic thinking about progress and by a vast economic history. It can also be informed by knowledge of a famous bet about resources. And the bottom line of all this thinking and economic history is that the vast majority of resources, especially those sold in relatively free markets, have become more plentiful relative to population.

These are the opening paragraphs of my latest article for Hoover, “How Malthus Got It Wrong,” Defining Ideas, January 11, 2024.

Another excerpt:

In their article, Blackman and Baumol give some striking data on five minerals: tin, copper, iron ore, lead, and zinc. They show world reserves in 1950, world production between 1950 and 2000, and reserves in 2000. If we were running out of ihose resources, all of the reserves should have been smaller in 2000 than in 1950. In fact, all were larger. The case of iron ore is the most striking. In 1950, there were 19 billion metric tons. Between 1950 and 2000, 37.6 billion metric tons of iron ore were produced, which was more than the number of tons to begin with. By 2000, world reserves were 140 billion metric tons, over seven times as many as in 1950!

Near the end, I propose a bet with former co-blogger Arnold Kling along the lines of the Simon bet with Ehrlich et al.

Read the whole thing.