Book review – Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet

Thomas Robert Malthus, a man so praised and vilified that his name has been immortalised in the noun “Malthusianism”. Many people will have heard of him in the context of overpopulation, but how many of you know the title of his famous book? Robert J. Mayhew is a Professor of Historical Geography and Intellectual History and with Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet he makes the case that Malthus’s book is a good example of the unread classic. Deeply researched, this is a scholarly book for the patient reader that charts Malthus’s life and, especially, his intellectual legacy. As Mayhew shows, Malthus remains as relevant as ever, though he continues to be misinterpreted in manifold ways.

Malthus

Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet“, written by Robert J. Mayhew, published by Harvard University Press in April 2014 (paperback, 284 pages)

Malthus’s book An Essay on the Principle of Population was originally published in 1798, followed by a much-reworked second edition in 1803. Yale University Press reissued it with supporting essays four years after this book, see my review here. To understand its stormy reception, Mayhew starts with two chapters sketching the life and economy of Malthus’s England in the decades leading up to 1800, as well as the social and intellectual climate into which his book was born. In particular, Mayhew highlights the French Revolution of 1789 and how it shaped the thinking of scholars such as Richard Price, Marquis de Condorcet, and William Godwin. Concerns about population and food scarcity were already in the air, though little empirical or census data were available.

Malthus and his work only make their entrance in chapter 3, which charts his education and the period leading up to the publication of the first edition, while chapter 5 explores Malthus “the environmental economist”. As Mayhew clarifies, though, it is misleading of me to call him that. His work was a precursor leading to that discipline, but Malthus did, for example, not consider air, water, or ecosystems as limiting resources. It took “the extractive volumes of the twentieth century” before these were taken along in economic analyses. These two chapters are really the biographical part of this book (a fuller biography is given in Population Malthus: His Life and Times). Throughout, Mayhew highlights Malthus’s humane side and his caution, assiduousness, and empiricism in collecting more data to prepare the 1803 rewrite.

“Malthus “the environmental economist” […] is misleading […] his work was a precursor leading to that discipline.”

The remainder of the book deals with Malthus’s intellectual legacy in a chronological fashion. Mayhew mentions how “the tracks of intellectual history are not so straight and simple as to lead from Wordsworth to the Green Party, and from Malthus to capitalism and climate change”. The body of scholarship on Malthus and his influence spans many decades and Mayhew mines it deeply to show convincingly how Malthus’s thinking has been applied to different concerns over time. The below-mentioned are just some of the themes and players.

Mayhew starts with the fierce criticism from the Romantics, such as the Lake Poets (including Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and the Marlow school (including Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron), whose utopian Enlightenment thinking on human perfectibility clashed with Malthus’s vision. After his death in 1834, with the Industrial Revolution well underway, Victorian thinkers such as John Ruskin, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx took aim at him, though for different reasons. Simultaneously, he inspired both Darwin and Wallace, shaping evolutionary theory. And this era also saw the birth of the term “Malthusian” with the foundation of the Malthusian League, a society dedicated to making birth control a respectable topic.

“scholarship on Malthus […] spans many decades and Mayhew mines it deeply to show convincingly how Malthus’s thinking has been applied to different concerns over time”

As an aside, Mayhew’s writing in these early chapters is quite rich. He threads together long sentences with quotes from original works that, given the style of the time, are no less wordy. But it is Mayhew’s vocabulary that stands out; advocates of war are bellicose, warrants for arrest are promulgated, complaints are valetudinarian, critics vituperative, and Malthus’s first job was in homiletics. I initially had to keep a dictionary at hand, though the purple prose lets up considerably as the book progresses.

Mayhew argues that there are good reasons to expect Malthus’s star to have waned as the 1900s rolled around. Economics matured as a discipline to the point that his insights were absorbed but his words went unread, birth control advocates disconnected themselves from his name, and birth rates declined in Europe, not least because of the loss of life in World War I. But this period also saw the rise of eugenics, economic depression (John Maynard Keynes was important here), Churchill’s perhaps little-known role in the Bengal famine in India in 1942-1943, and, of course, Hitler’s fascism. All of these drew on the work of Malthus in one way or another.

“After World War II […] biologists and ecologist […] joined the fray and starting penning many gloomy tracts”

After World War II, the US played a notable role in keeping Malthus’s flame alive, his work inspiring writers such as Isaac Asimov and Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), while remaining centre-stage in scholarly debates. But it was especially biologists and ecologist who now joined the fray and starting penning many gloomy tracts. Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb is the most infamous, but far from the only one. It was the time of Apollo 8’s famous Earthrise photo, the popularisation of the phrase “Spaceship Earth” (see e.g. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth), and the publication of the Club of Rome’s influential report (see The Limits to Growth and Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update). In turn, demographers and economists pushed back relentlessly, notably Julian Simon (see also A Life Against the Grain: The Autobiography of an Unconventional Economist). Interestingly, though, he mostly had a bone to pick with the late-20th Century neo-Malthusians rather than with Malthus himself.

That brings Mayhew to our time. The concerns may have shifted to climate change, the Anthropocene, and (after this book was published) Extinction Rebellion, but Malthus continues to underpin this thinking. Of note is the rise of the field of “environmental security” that links population, climate, agriculture, and culture. It sees policymakers worrying about climate refugees and food crises. And, of course, there is continued pushback on the topic of overpopulation (see e.g. my review of Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline).

Clearly, Malthus is here to stay, which is why this book is so important. With the 1803 edition of the Essay readily available again, there is no excuse not to read Malthus’s own words. But to help readers properly understand and contextualize his work and its legacy, a good biography is invaluable, making the deeply researched Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet required reading. Keeping in mind above remarks about the writing, I do think this is for the patient reader, but they should find it a very rewarding book.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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