Are We Approaching a Malthusian Catastrophe? Maybe, It’s Complicated

Chuckles Freely

Like bacteria in a Petri dish, humans might be on the road to a population collapse due to dwindling resources, overpopulation, and an increasingly contaminated environment.
The growth and death of bacteria in a Petri dish might offer clues to the future of humanity.Adrian Lange from Unsplash

In 1944, as the Pacific Theater of World War 2 was still raging and the threat of post-war Soviet hostility was becoming obvious, the US Coast Guard introduced 29 reindeer to St. Matthew Island, a remote island in the Bering Sea, to create a strategic food reserve for military personnel operating in the area. In the following years, the reindeer population exploded to 6,000. By 1968, only 42 remained. Such a drastic collapse was caused by exponential population growth outpacing the environment’s ability to regenerate its food supply. In other words, the virtually untouched food sources of the island were depleted so quickly and so rapturously that they couldn’t keep up, leading not to modest decline in population but a sharp, catastrophic drop.
If properly managed St. Matthew Island could’ve supported a reindeer population of nearly 2000By Saudibert97 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Named after Thomas Malthus, the unfortunate fate of the St. Matthew Island’s reindeer is one of many examples of a Malthusian catastrophe. A controversial English scholar, Malthus first explored the complex relationship between a country’s population and its food production. In his 1798 work An Essay on the Principle of Population, he first explained that food production grows linearly, whereas population, if unchecked by outside forces, grows exponentially. He claimed, therefore, that countries often fall into a trap, in which they instinctually invest excess food into growing the population, leading to a decrease in well-being. He conjectured, as did many other scholars at the time, that this tendency might lead to a population collapse, much like the reindeer on St. Matthew Island.

“I said that population, when unchecked, increased in a geometrical ratio, and subsistence for man in an arithmetical ratio.”-Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population
Malthusian catastrophes happen when the population exceeds food production(Creative Commons)

Malthus’ speculation led to quite the controversy in his time and in the centuries since. Was he right? Are we expanding our population faster than the Earth can provide food? It depends on who you ask and which assumptions they’ve made. If he is right, though, we have a problem.

Modern Food Production and Population Growth

One of the main pushbacks against Malthus is that food production in the modern era does not increase linearly. In Malthus’ time, increasing food production meant expanding farm land, fishing in new waters, etc., but since then, many scientific and technological advancements have resulted in an unprecedented growth of food production yields.

For example, in 1918 German chemist Fritz Haber invented a method of synthesizing fertilizer on a global scale. Known as the Haber-Bosch process, Haber found a way to convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, a main ingredient in crop fertilizer. Today, this method is still widely used and is responsible for 2/3rds of global food production, feeding some half the world. For his contribution to humanity, Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Likewise, Gregor Mendel revolutionized food production. In 1866, he published the results of his experiments with pea plants, in which he demonstrated the concepts of genes and heredity. Although farmers had been manipulating plants to bring forth desirable qualities for millennia, Mendel’s work laid the foundation for what would become the entire scientific field of genetics. Beginning in the early 1900s, farmers and researchers used Mendel’s laws of inheritance to breed highly specific strains of crops and animals that could produce substantially higher yields.
Like many other food sources, modern soybean production doesn’t match the linear growth predicted by Malthus(Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser from Our World in Data)

Haber and Mendel are just 2 examples on a long list of people who’ve revolutionized food production, allowing yields to grow far faster than Malthus could’ve ever realized. For example, the graph above shows that soybean production in the US and Brazil, 2 of the biggest producers, has certainly not grown linearly. In fact, it resembles a graph of an exponential function, thanks to human ingenuity.
The growth of the human population took off thanks to the Industrial Revolution(Max Roser, Hannah Ritchie and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina from Our World in Data)

Furthermore, when it comes to population, modern humans have shown again that we are not simple animals. Yes, it’s true that the human population has grown exponentially, from teetering on a few million for over 10 thousand years, to well over 7 billion today, with the first sharp increase in fertility happening in the early 1800s. In the graph to the left, the rapid growth from the many scientific achievements during the 1st Industrial Revolution is clear.

However, in the last few decades, a trend reversal is becoming apparent. The growth rate for the human population has been in a steady decline, and this trend is expected to continue, causing the governments of some countries to worry. For example, Japan’s population has been falling steadily from the 1970s, from above the 2.1 babies per woman replacement threshold to as low as 1.26.
Although the global population is still growing, the growth rate is slowing down(Max Roser, Hannah Ritchie and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina from Our World in Data)

So the human population is growing, but it’s decelerating. This can be explained by a variety of factors, including war, famine, lack of access to medical care, etc. Most importantly for this discussion, though, is the fact that people are increasingly choosing to have less children. Malthus himself explained why. He said that animals are “impelled by a powerful instinct to the increase of their species, and this instinct is interrupted by no reasoning or doubts about providing for their offspring," and that although man is “Impelled to the increase of his species by an equally powerful instinct, reason interrupts his career and asks him whether he may not bring beings into the world for whom he cannot provide the means of subsistence.” Here, Malthus is making the argument that humans might not be at risk of a population collapse, as we have the ability and foresight to manage our resources and our population better than other species.

Therefore, if a Malthusian catastrophe is defined in terms of only population and food, then it seems humans are likely to avoid the same fate of St. Matthew Island’s reindeer. But this discussion gets a lot more complicated when we consider our long-term affects on the global environment.

Neo-Malthusianism: Bacteria in a Petri Dish

The above example of reindeer on St. Matthew Island is too simple, as it only accounts for the reindeer’s effect on food supplies, not their overall environment. Instead, let’s look at bacteria in a Petri Dish, the growth and death of which happens in 4 distinct phases.
With limited resources and space, a population of bacteria go through the typical growth and decline phase(Michał Komorniczak, Creative Commons)

Lag Phase: When initially placed in a Petri dish full of agar, their favorite food, the bacteria will begin to consume it to synthesize proteins and prepare for division. During this stage, the population remains stagnant, resources are nearly untouched, and waste is minimal.

Exponential Phase: Once the bacteria are ready for division, they begin to divide at an exponential rate. The population grows rapidly, resources are consumed at an increasing rate, and waste begins to accumulate.

Stationary Phase: At this point, the growth and death rate have become balanced. This is due to resources being strained and the amount of waste reaching a toxic level.

Death Phase: Here, the death rate overtakes the growth rate. Resources are at a minimum, and the Petri dish has enough waste to become unlivable. At this point, the population collapses.

So what about humans? Are we making Earth, our Petri dish, unlivable? Below are just a few examples of the many causes for concern.

Microplastics: Every year, the world produces roughly 380 million tons of plastic, most of which is not recycled and dumped into landfills and the ocean. Over time, it’s broken down by the elements to microscopic pieces, some small enough to escape detection from the human eye. These are so small and there’re so many of them, that researchers are finding them virtually everywhere they look, such as at the top of mountains, at the bottom of the ocean, in most land-based and marine life, and even in us. In fact, Albert Koelmans from Wageningen University in the Netherlands found thatFrom limited surveys of microplastics in the air, water, salt and seafood, children and adults might ingest anywhere from dozens to more than 100,000 microplastic specks each day.” Scientists still don’t know the effect this will have, though microplastics are known to contain contaminants like heavy metals from the production process and smaller pieces might be able to enter the bloodstream and permeate cell walls, which is certainly not good for humans or wildlife.

Forever Chemicals: In 1946, the American chemical company DuPont introduced the revolutionary material Teflon, a non-stick coating for cookware, and this space-age material spawned thousands of similar coatings, known today as forever chemicals or PFAs. Countless products use them due to their stain-resistant, water-resistant, non-stick, etc. properties. The problem, though, is that what makes them so amazing also makes them dangerous, in that they’re difficult to destroy. As products containing them are discarded, PFAs enter the environment and accumulate in animals, including us. The Environmental Working Group claims thatDecades of heavy use have resulted in contamination of water, soil and the blood of people and animals in the farthest corners of the world.” Like microplastics, we don’t know what the result of this will be. A 2021 study from the National Academy of Sciences found that PFAs can have a significant impact on our immune systems. The authors claim that an increase in exposure to PFAs at birth led made children “2.4 to 4.2 times more likely to fall below a protective level for both tetanus and diphtheria antibodies at age 7.” Other research has shown that PFAs are linked with low birth weights, testicular cancer, kidney and liver cancer, and endocrine disruption, just to name a few.

Air Pollution: According to the World Health Organization, about 7 million people die each year from air pollution. Due to burning hydrocarbons, power plants, factories, etc. , dirt, soot, dust, smoke, and drops of liquid are spewed into the atmosphere. Some of this particulate matter is small enough to permeate the lungs and enter the blood stream, the effects of which include low birth weight, lung cancer, and heart disease. WHO data shows that9 out of 10 people breathe air that exceeds WHO guideline limits containing high levels of pollutants, with low- and middle-income countries suffering from the highest exposures.”

Biodiversity Collapse: Earth is currently going through the 6th known mass extinction event. Known as the Holocene or Anthropocene extinction, the rate of species extinction is far beyond what it should be, mainly due to human activity. Estimates put this rate between 100s and 1000s of times above normal, and it’s accelerating. According to the UN, some 25% of the Earth’s species are at risk of extinction. The culprits are anthropogenic climate change, overexploitation of resources, habitat loss, poor land management, and various forms of pollution. If these are not curbed soon, then such a stark loss in biodiversity certainly puts humanity at risk, as the many species and ecosystems we depend on simply won’t exist any more.

Final Thoughts

Looking at the above, it’s not crazy to be a bit worried about humans experiencing a Neo-Malthusian catastrophe, in that we expanded Malthus’ original idea to include environmental destruction. The real question, then, is if we are doing enough to reverse biodiversity collapse and clean up the many types of environmental contaminants like microplastics, forever chemicals, and particulate matter in the air. That is, we seem to be trending in the right direction when it comes to food production and population, but when it comes to keeping the environment clean, only time will tell.

Some projects are already underway to clean up the environment, such as The Ocean Cleanup. Founded in 2013 by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat when he was only 18, this project aims to rid Earth’s oceans and rivers of 90% of their plastic waste. Likewise, some efforts are underway to reverse biodiversity collapse. For example, the Great Green Wall of Africa is being built across the continent on the southern border of the Sahara desert to stop desertification and return the natural plants and animals to the region. So far, the multi-nation effort is 15% finished, but “Once complete, the Great Green Wall will be the largest living structure on the planet, 3 times the size of the Great Barrier Reef.” Air pollution is being fixed through clean air laws like the US Clean Air Act which has resulted in a 68% decline of air pollutants between 1990 and 2014. However, in emerging and developing countries, the numbers are not quite as encouraging. And when it comes to forever chemicals, some methods are being implemented to extract them from the environment. For example, on the Cape Fear River a “new facility will house four 12 m long beds of granular activated carbon, about 7 m wide and 3.7 m deep, to suck PFAS from the water.”

So humans are actively trying to avoid a Neo-Malthusian catastrophe, yet the future is not certain. The continuation of our civilization is not guaranteed, but through innovation, science-backed policy, and personal responsibility we might have a chance.

Originally published at on July 7, 2021.

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Politics and science writer at The Happy Neuron

New York, NY

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