Most of us have heard that Thomas Malthus made a forecast in 1798 that the world would run short of food. He expected that this would happen because in a world with limited agricultural land, food supply would fail to rise as rapidly as population. In fact, at the time of his writing, he believed that population was already in danger of outstripping food supply. As a result, he expected that a great famine would ensue.
Most of us don’t understand why he was wrong. A common misbelief is that the reason he was wrong is that he failed to anticipate improved technology. My analysis suggests that there were really two underlying factors which enabled the development and widespread use of technology. These were (1) the beginning of fossil fuel use, which ramped up immediately after his writing, and (2) a ramp up in non-governmental debt after World War II, which enabled the rapid uptake of new technology such as the sale of cars and trucks. Without fossil fuels, availability of materials such as metal and glass (needed for most types of technology) would have been severely restricted. Without increased debt, common people would not have been able to afford the new types of high-tech products that businesses were able to produce.
This issue of why Malthus’s forecast was wrong is relevant today, as we grapple with the issues of world hunger and of oil consumption that is not growing as rapidly as consumers would like–certainly it is not keeping oil prices down at historic levels.
What Malthus Didn’t Anticipate
Malthus was writing immediately before fossil fuel use started to ramp up.