Defending Thomas Malthus

25 February 2011 | Catholic Herald

Africa and the Middle East are proving Thomas Malthus right

SIR- ‘Malthus: the prophet who keeps failing’ is the headline to Quentin de la Bedoyere’s review of Fred Pearce’s new book, Peoplequake. (Art & Books February 4) Certainly, Malthus did not foresee that the widespread use of contraception would save most of the world from the catastrophes he prophesied. He was opposed to contraception and considered it a vice. Today, contraception has become an almost universal right, and the majority of couples use it – over 60% worldwide, 70% in Europe and Latin America, and 90% in China. (UN World contraceptive use 2009)

Nevertheless, it was the realisation that Malthus was right and that without contraception Malthusian power would overwhelm all efforts to prevent famine and deprivation that has caused governments to allow, promote, and provide effective family planning.

There is, however, one region of the world where – for religious, political and cultural reasons – contraception is not easily available and where Malthusian power can still be seen: this is Africa and the Middle East to Pakistan, where the population has doubled twice since 1950 and is expect to double again before 2050. Even now, after only two doubling (from 300 million to 1,200 million) we can see the deprivations Malthus foresaw. After the next doubling to 2,400 million the distress will be so great that most people will be convinced that Malthus was right. Fred Pearce himself can see the point: in an article in The Times magazine Eureka of February 2011 he writes: “I agree that Africa faces big problems if its women don’t follow the rest of the world. But most likely they will, given the chance. Contraception should be a right not an obligation.”

Gerald Danaher

The following week, the Catholic Herald published a riposte from a reader. They gave this letter the headline: The principle asserted by Malthus no longer holds true today. The Catholic Herald printed a second letter from me, which I print below.

Catholic Herald

11 March 2011

Worry about Africa and the Middle East, not about Europe and Japan

SIR – Patrick Carroll is quite right: The difficulties experienced in Europe and Japan “are a far cry from…Malthusian-style famine”. (Letter March 4) This is because they have controlled Malthusian power – the repeated doubling of their populations – by family planning. As Mr Carroll points out, this will cause difficulties with pension provision, finding staff for basic services, and other problems.

There is however one large region where there is little family planning and populations double repeatedly; this is Africa and the Middle East to Pakistan. Here, unless family planning becomes available soon, we will see extreme poverty, hunger, water shortage, disease, civil disorder, conflict, and huge migrations. These troubles are of an entirely different order to those in Europe and Japan.

Gerald Danaher