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I finally read Malthus's "Essay on Population" last semester, and it struck me that there's a definite difference between Malthus's classic presentation of the theory, and neo-Malthusian ideas today (e.g. "The Population Bomb" and "The Limits to Growth"). Neo-Malthusians see the outpacing of food by population as a scenario looming in our future which we may be able to avoid if we take action. Malthus, on the other hand, saw it as a condition already existing in most places, and unsolvable except by temporary means. I think the differences have to do with the social context in which they were writing.

Malthus's essay was addressed to social reformers who had high hopes of being able to eliminate poverty and usher in an age of plenty. Malthus's response was that the only thing that keeps population in check is the fear that one would not be able to feed one's children. The sexual urge was so strong, in his view, that only very grim and immediate prospects could convince people to keep their pants on. The upshot is that the poor will always be with us, and it's futile to try to help them.

Neo-Malthusians, on the other hand, are writing to a society experiencing affluence, confident in its ability to keep wealth expanding faster than population. Thus, the ill effects of running out of resources are something in the future. By calling attention to the coming crisis, neo-Malthusians hope that we will be more competent than Malthus's paupers and put the brakes on population now, before our children gobble up our surplus.


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