The Malthus Question, Starting with Bob

In last week’s blog post, I promised to wrestle with the time-honored Malthus Question: Does population growth outrun food supply? The old question is coming back as soaring food prices spark discontent, bread lines, and even riots around the world. I’ll try to answer this question decisively in the next 400 words.

Just kidding. Shelves heave under the weight of books that have grappled with the ideas of Thomas Robert Malthus since he first wrote in 1798. So maybe the answer will take more than one post.

Malthus posited that, “the power of population is…superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man.” Conceiving children is always easy and fun, he argued, while growing food is hard—and gets harder as more people eat. (For more on this, see my book More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want, p. 162.)

First off, anyone who thinks that the Anglican rector and economist was known to his peers as “Thomas” Malthus should check out his Wikipedia entry. Wikipedia makes the point—as does More—that Malthus actually went by his middle name, Robert. His family called him, as mine calls me, Bob. His students at the training college for the British East India Company, where he taught as the world’s first political economist, affectionately dubbed him “Population” Malthus. Then they shortened that to Pop.

The fact that hundreds of population writers continue to call him Thomas makes clear that few have studied his life. That’s one reason I included a short biography of Malthus in More. Regardless of what you think of his ideas, it’s worth knowing a bit about the life and times of an influential thinker. And this one, after all, has been returning to the news—even to the front page of the Wall Street Journal, in a story inspired by the recent surges in energy and food prices. (The Journal’s classicdot-drawing of Bob, by the way, carried the caption “Thomas Malthus.”)

Here’s another name-related footnote on Pop Malthus, this one not in my book: His last name probably refers to a drinking establishment. For years, many people thought the rare and unusual surname couldn’t be English and suggested foreign—perhaps German—ancestry. In her magisterial biography Population Malthus, however, Patricia James makes the case that the name is thoroughly English and derives from—can you guess?—Malt House, a place to drink malt ale.

Okay, so it may take a few more posts to answer the Malthus Question. But at least we’re a bit closer to the man who inspired it. Would it help us deal with the population-food debate if we just think of him as “Bob, the bar guy”?


About Robert Engelman

After graduating from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1976 with a fellowship, Robert Engelman traveled for nearly a year in Latin America, where he reported for the Associated Press and several U.S. newspapers. He later returned to Central America as a reporter for The Kansas City Times as one civil war ended in Nicaragua and another was flaring in El Salvador. Engelman's conversations with women and men in villages and shantytowns, and his up-close views of denuded forests, ill health, poverty, and violent conflict inspired a deep interest in the link between natural-resource scarcity and the steady growth of populations. Equally striking for Engelman were the women who shared with him their wish to wait as long as possible before having more children. After another dozen years as a newspaper reporter, covering stories that ranged from presidential campaigns to climate change, Engelman followed a growing conviction that the link among women’s lives, population and the environment was central to the world’s biggest challenges and took a job directing research for a non-profit focused on population and family-planning policy. Traveling to countries throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, he conducted the interviews and heard the stories that enliven the pages of More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want (May 2008, Island Press). Engelman is now vice president for programs at the Worldwatch Institute, a globally focused environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C., where he provides strategic direction for the Institute’s research and programs. He has written extensively on population’s connections to environmental change, economic growth, and civil conflict. He was founding board chair of the Center for a New American Dream, a non-governmental organization working to make U.S. consumption of energy and natural resources a sustainable model for the world. He has served on the faculty of Yale University as a visiting lecturer, and his writing has appeared in Nature, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.