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In 1798, ThomasRobert Malthus (1766–1834) published his Essay on Population in which he put forward the theory that the power of a population to increase is greater than that of the Earth to provide food. He asserted that population would grow geometrically, while food supply would grow arithmetically. When population outstrips resources, Malthusian checks to population occur: misery, vice, and moral restraint.

Malthus' predictions were not borne out in 18th-century Britain, perhaps because of the increases in food output, and emigration to the colonies; A. Macfarlane (1997) refers to the ‘great escape’ from the Malthusian trap by large chunks of humanity. P. Wissoker (forthcoming) shows how Malthusian theory is deployed to underpin the theory of European historical superiority by arguing that Europeans, uniquely, have generally (and rationally) avoided the Malthusian disasters of overpopulation while non-Europeans (irrationally) have not done so and therefore not developed as Europe has.

‘While old-style Malthusians simply saw an inevitable tendency of human population to outgrow food production, neo-Malthusian scholars offered a more complicated, political argument: overpopulation would cause resource depletion and hunger which in turn would lead to political instability threatening Western interests and world peace’ (Flitner and Heins (2002) Pol. Geog. 21, 3). Brander (2007) Can. J. Econ./Rev. can d'écon. 40, 1 sees lower fertility as the central element in achieving sustainable development, ‘which is very much a modern translation of what Malthus wrote in 1798’. Furlong et al. (2006) Int. Interact. 32, 1 find that the neo-Malthusian factors are significant, but not dramatic, factors in boundary disputes.

Subjects: Earth Sciences and Geography.

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