When I was in high school, I worked with a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses who earnestly proclaimed the approaching “end of times.” I since have heard these dire warnings many times during my 73 years, all of which I readily have dismissed.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic that recently has made my imagination run wild at times. Life on Earth can’t last forever, so why not now? This message of Earth’s demise made me think of an influential prognosticator of the globe’s fate — Thomas Malthus.
Malthus was an English cleric, scholar and economist who devoted most of his career to writing and lecturing on the living and the dead. His influential book, “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” published in 1798, and followed by numerous revisions, posited that world population would continue to surge until disease, famine, war or natural disaster reversed the trend.
Most philosophers of the 18th and early 19th centuries contended that progress was inevitable and that the human population would keep growing, eventually reaching a high standard of living or even utopia. Malthus, on the other hand, argued that available land for the production of food for humans was finite and that over time we would be unable to sustain ourselves.
“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power to produce subsistence for man,” he argued.
Furthermore, every effort to increase food production only can lead to a population increase that would more than cancel out the food supply, a state of affairs that became known as the “Malthusian Trap.”
Achieving utopia was impossible, wrote Malthus. Humanity is doomed, and forever is at the edge of starvation. He also contended that charity only serves to slow the plight of the poor. As anthropological writer Charles Mann observes of Malthus, “No matter how big the banquet table grows, he believed that there will always be too many hungry people wanting a seat at the table.”
The story of the human species is a continuing cycle of expansion and retraction.
Have his theories relating to the survival of the human race been proven valid? Take Malthus’ premise that the world’s population could double within 25 years barring natural disasters, pandemics, famines or major wars. In the 20th century, at least 50 million victims were claimed by the worldwide flu pandemic of 1918-19.
Add to that the death of nearly 80 million soldiers and civilians in the two world wars, and you would think that Malthus had it figured out. Despite those horrific numbers, the globe actually experienced a population explosion in the 20th century.
Although the number of years required exceeded Malthus’ calculation, the peopling of the earth required just 40 years after 1950 to more than double from 2.5 billion to 6 billion. At the current rate it could reach more than 12 billion by the end of the century.
Where had Malthus gone wrong? Most important was that his calculation did not take any scientific developments into account. In his lifetime, germs, viruses and bacterial infections were unheard of. A lack of understanding about basic sanitation, personal hygiene, the importance of clean drinking water and a healthy diet meant that people lived short, dirty and often miserable lives.
The practice of medicine was no more sophisticated in 1798 than it had been for centuries. Physicians relied on concoctions of their own making that might have killed as many people as they cured. Bleeding of patients was common.
With no knowledge of their causes and how they spread, typhoid fever, malaria, measles and cholera periodically swept through towns and cities, leaving thousands dead in their wake. When Malthus published his essay, the average life expectancy of a human only was about 25 years, with infant mortality rates of 400 deaths per 1,000 live births.
Not until the late 19th century did doctors truly begin to embrace science in the practice of medicine. The germ theory gained acceptance, as did the importance of sanitation in treating patients. The education and licensing of physicians became standard.
Pharmaceuticals became strictly regulated by government authority and more effective in their application to patients. The public began to understand the importance of exercise and diet.
The development of public health systems was just as significant. Modern clinics and hospitals, staffed by trained medical personnel, spread throughout most developed countries. Government and private funding for medical research led to cures and improved treatment of numerous diseases. Mass inoculations for polio, smallpox, influenza and mumps have saved countless lives. Infant mortality rates have plunged to only about seven per 1,000 live births.
Scientific farming also has played a significant role in the population explosion. Take the United States, for example. Despite Malthus’ prediction that population growth would result in less land for food production and eventual starvation, just the opposite has occurred. In 1870, about half of the American population lived on farms and produced enough food to feed the country’s 38.5 million people.
According to the latest census, only 2% of the American population produces enough to feed 330 million people and to export to millions more abroad.
So is the “end of times” near? It could be if you believe Cambridge astronomer Martin Rees, who has been called the Malthus of our age. In his sobering book “Our Final Hour,” Rees calculates that we humans “are more at risk than at any phase in history” and only have a 50% chance of living until 2100.
The threat of our planet colliding with an asteroid is not new, nor is the increasing awareness of ever-growing population and global warming. But, Rees observes, the power that science now gives a small number of people endangers our species unlike anything before. One person’s mistake or irrational decision could doom us all. In addition to threats from biological and nuclear weapons, developments such as genetic engineering could create new forms of life that uncontrollably consume or destroy vital materials in the environment.
Would the world’s major powers come together to resist any of these threats? If the response to the global pandemic is any example, we should be concerned. In that case, let’s hope that Rees’ predictions for the future are as wrong as those of Malthus.
Charles F. Bryan Jr., Ph.D., is president and CEO emeritus of the Virginia Historical Society. Contact him at: email@example.com