Malthusian Theory

With the world population having arrived at the 8 billion mark in November 2022, the topic of population growth and resources is one that continues to be very topical. Many are probably wondering how this growing global population will continue to be supported given the distribution of resources around the world. As a geographer, when you think about population growth and what happens with resources, perhaps no other theory stands out to you as vividly as the one put forward by Malthus. Infamous for presenting a very pessimistic outlook, the Malthusian theory of population is still one that causes a great deal of debate, especially as our global population continues to grow and surpass milestones. Continue to read to learn more about this famous population growth theory.

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    Malthusian Theory of Population

    Thomas Malthus was the first person to give proper consideration to the reasoning behind population growth. He put forward his theory as a response to the view that society was always improving, which was prevalent in Europe in the 18th century. He was specifically concerned with England's rapidly rising population, facilitated by the Poor Law, and felt that if continued, it would mean disaster for the nation. Malthus published his theory in 1798 as "An Essay on the Principle of Population" in an attempt to illustrate the danger of uncontrolled and excessive population growth.1,2

    The Poor Law refers to a set of regulations developed in 16th century England to provide relief for the poor. Over the years they included relief for the elderly, the sick, and children. They also provided work for able-bodied paupers in workhouses. In the latter part of the 18th century, allowances were also provided to workers whose salaries were too low. Prior to 1834, when the new Poor Law, which restricted the measures, was passed, the provisions greatly increased England's public expenditure.

    Malthusian Theory inside a workhouse St James Parish England StudySmarterFig. 1 - Inside a workhouse, St. James Parish, England

    The Malthusian theory looks at the relationship between population growth and resources (specifically food supply). It states that there is an optimum population size that the world's food supply can support. If the population increases beyond this figure, there would be a reduction in living standards, coupled with events to curb the population.

    Assumptions of Malthusian Theory of Population

    In designing his theory, Malthus made a series of assumptions which are presented below:

    1. Food is necessary for life.

    2. Food production increases arithmetically (1,2,3,4,5 etc.)

    3. Population, on the other hand, increases geometrically or exponentially (1,2,4,8,16, etc.).

    4. Passion between men and women is necessary and will continue unchanged.

    5. Population is limited by food—population increases when food increases, unless prevented by some checks.

    Using these assumptions, Malthus posited that the food supply would eventually be unable to keep up with population growth as the latter would double in 25 years, while the former would not. This is because the country could only grow a finite amount of food, based on land availability. As a result, in an attempt for the system to correct itself and return to a state of equilibrium, there would be checks. These checks would either be positive (natural) or negative (preventive).

    Positive checks (natural checks) refer to the natural events that would reduce population size back to a level that can be supported by the available food supply.

    Positive checks come from nature. They include epidemics, famines, earthquakes, floods, and war. All of these would result in lower life expectancies and higher mortality rates.

    Negative checks (preventive checks) are methods that could be used to limit population growth.

    Preventative checks come from man. With more children, it is likely that the standard of living would decline and the children will be exposed to poverty. Therefore, in an effort to avoid the aforementioned, people would limit their family size. Negative checks include birth control, abstinence, or postponing marriage. This would reduce fertility rates and birth rates and also prevent the potentially disastrous impacts of positive checks.

    According to Malthus, mankind should use preventative checks to save themselves from the misery that would come from a lack of food. If not effectively implemented, then positive checks would kick in to correct the situation.

    These checks bringing down the population to a more sustainable level is known as the Malthusian catastrophe.3,4

    Malthusian Theory graphical representation of Malthusian theory StudySmarterFig. 2 - Graphical representation of Malthusian theory

    Limitations of the Malthusian Population Theory

    The following are some, not all, of the limitations of Malthus' theory.

    Malthus could not foresee the improvement of technology in agriculture. These include the use of fertilizers, better seeds, and advancement machinery, among others. In fact, the Green Revolution in places such as India has actually caused the rate of food production to surpass the population growth rate. Hence, population growth does not always exceed food supply.

    The Malthusian theory was limited to England and based on that country's unavailability of land for agricultural purposes and the resultant low agricultural yields.

    At the time, Malthus looked at the limited availability of land as the constraining factor of food production. However, as a result of globalization, food is traded across borders, which results in an increase in its availability in countries.

    Malthus neglected to show how he calculated the arithmetic growth rate of food and the geometric growth rate of the population. Therefore, it has been pointed out that empirical data shows that growth rates are not consistent with Malthus' predictions.

    It has been asserted that Malthus looked at the wrong relationship. The relationship between population and food supply is a weak one and the correct relationship is that between population and a country's wealth. It stands to reason that if a country has enough material wealth, even if it cannot grow enough food domestically to feed its population, it can feed them by importing food. E.g. Great Britain imports a large proportion of its food.

    Malthus linked population growth only to birth rates, whereas globally, the population has grown due to a decline in death rates, which has been realized as a result of advances in the medical field.

    Importance of Malthusian Theory of Population

    Although it had its limitations and criticisms, Malthus' theory was important for a variety of reasons. It revolutionalized the way in which population growth was conceptualized in that it acknowledged that it was related to people's welfare. Malthus' theory also forced people to consider the effects of food supply and the availability of food on the population and paved the way for other theories of population growth, including Esther Boserup's, which was largely considered anti-Malthusian.

    In spite of its largely pessimistic outlook, the Malthusian theory educated people about the negative impacts of overpopulation and motivated them to take steps to prevent it. In this way, it impacted public policies. India, for example, was one of the first countries to adopt family planning at the state level. In addition, the theory influenced declining populations, particularly in Europe, out of the fear of the Malthus "doom and gloom" predictions becoming a reality. Furthermore, it has been suggested that it is the legacy of Malthus that has influenced the use of contraceptives to this day. Moreover, Malthus' principles have been incorporated into the theories of other researchers, such as Darwin and Pigou.

    Malthusian Theory family planning messaging on an Indian stamp StudySmarterFig. 3 - Family planning was so important in India that messaging was even included on the country's stamps

    Malthusian Theory Example

    As an example of Malthus' theory, we will look at rice production and population growth in Nigeria. Between 1960-2015, local rice production increased from an average of 268,840 thousand metric tons from 1960-1969 to an average of 2,678,900 thousand metric tons from 2010-2015. At the same time, the demand for rice, which can be used as a proxy for population growth, increased from an average of 300,569 thousand metric tons to an average of 3,399,000 metric tons. While the population here has not grown exponentially, growth has been significant. Therefore, the data support Malthus' assumption that the population grows faster than food production.

    As the trend continued, there was a so-called "point of crisis" which can be likened to the Malthusian catastrophe, where the country faced misery, characterized by food insecurity, epidemics, conflicts, and poverty. Of particular concern was the HIV/AIDS epidemic which can be likened to a positive check as it took a lot of lives.

    In 2020, Nigeria had the fifth-highest number of HIV cases in the world—1.7 million.

    Despite the country's vast resources, the rate of poverty is quite high in Nigeria. This also fits in with Malthus' assertion that increasing population would reduce the standard of living and cause poverty. Additionally, advancements in birth control and other negative check methods have not been widely accepted in Nigeria.

    One thing that Malthus didn't account for in his model was the growth in the importation of food as well as the delivery of aid from the developed world and the impact this would have on food availability. Nigeria is a net food importer to feed its population. As a result of all of the aforementioned, it can be concluded that some of Malthus' predictions do apply to Nigeria.6,7

    Malthusian Theory - Key takeaways

    • Thomas Malthus was the first person to examine the reasoning behind population growth in his 1798 paper, "An Essay on the Principle of Population."
    • The Malthusian theory of population growth states that if the population goes beyond the optimum size that can be supported by the available food supply, there will be a reduction in living standards coupled with checks to lower the population.
    • The theory has several limitations such as not foreseeing globalization or technological advancements, being too England-centric, and not showing calculations, amongst others.
    • Despite its limitations, Malthus' theory is still significant as it forced the re-conceptualization of the way in which people viewed population growth and influenced many nations to take steps to control their populations.
    • Some of the predictions of the Malthusian theory have manifested in Nigeria.


    1. Seth, T (n.d.) Malthusian theory of population: explained with its criticism. Available at: (Accessed: 10 November 2022)
    2. Sakanko, M.A. and David, J. (2018) "An econometrics validation of Malthusian theory: evidence in Nigeria', Signifikan: Jurnal Ilmu Ekonomi, 7(1), pp. 77-90
    3. Dooley, P.C. (1988) 'Malthus on long swings: the general case', Canadian Journal of Economics, 21 (1) 200-207.
    4. EconomicsOnline (2021) What is the Malthusian theory of population? Available at: (Accessed: 16 November 2022)
    5. Fig. 2: graphical representation of Malthusian theory ( by Natasha Kwat, Max Roser, Malthus PL. svg: Kravietz ( Licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    6. Oladimeji, Y. (2017) 'Food production trend in Nigeria and Malthus theory of population: empirical evidence from rice production', Nigerian Journal of Agriculture, Food and Environment, 13(1), pp. 126-132
    7. Ewugi, M.S. and Yakibu, I. (2012) 'Malthusian theory and the Nigerian economy: A political economy approach,' International Journal of Human Resource Studies, 2(4), pp. 197-206
    Frequently Asked Questions about Malthusian Theory

    What is Malthusian theory of population? 

    The Malthusian theory of population attempts to explain the relationship between population and food. It states that once population growth exceeds the limit that can be supported by the available food resources, there will be a decline in the standard of living , a rise in poverty and checks which will cause the population to decline. 

    What are the criticisms of Malthusian theory? 

    The criticisms of Malthusian theory include that it did not foresee advances in technology nor the rise of globalization. Both of which have made food more readily available. It has also been criticized for only considering events that were happening in England and for not showing calculations. Furthermore, Malthus should have examined the relationship between population growth and country wealth. Lastly, the model does not consider that population growth is actually a function of declining death rates, rather than increasing birth rates. 

    Why is the Malthusian theory wrong? 

    The Malthusian theory is wrong because empirical evidence has shown that population does not grow geometrically and food production does not grow arithmetically. 

    Is the Malthusian theory of population applicable today? 

    Some predictions of the Malthusian theory are applicable today in countries like Nigeria. However, the theory did influence population policies in several nations across the globe. 

    What are the two types of checks in the Malthus law of population? 

    The two types of checks in the Malthus law of population are positive checks and negative checks. Positive or natural checks refer to those which relate to increases in the death rate. Examples include famines and epidemics. Negative or preventive checks are those which relate to decreases in the birth and fertility rates. Examples include abstinence and delaying marriages. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    In what year did Thomas Malthus publish "An Essay on the Principle of Population"?

    True or False:The Poor Law provided for allowances to be paid to employed paupers.

    Malthus examined the relationship between population growth and _____.


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