The Malthusian Trap

  • IASbaba
  • September 30, 2022
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In News: Malthus’ idea has often been cited by modern environmentalists and others who believe that rising human population puts unsustainable pressure on earth’s resources.

About Malthusian trap:

  • The Malthusian trap is a theory of population that says as the human population grows there is unsustainable pressure on earth’s resources, which in turn acts as a check on the further rise in population.
  • It is named after English economist Thomas Malthus who elaborated on the concept in his 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population, which also inspired Charles Darwin.
  • While rise in food production in a country can lead to improved living standards for the general population, the benefit is likely to be temporary. This is because, Malthus argued, increasing availability of food would encourage people to have more kids since they could afford to feed them now, thus leading to a rise in the total population and a drop in per capita income levels.
  • The Malthusian trap was at the core of the Simon-Ehrlich wager in 1980. While Ehrlich, like Malthus, argued that there are natural limits to economic growth; Simon argued that private property rights and the price mechanism in a market economy offered tremendous incentives for people to use scarce resources carefully and to come up with innovations and living standards could rise along with increasing population levels.

How it works:

  • In the pre-modern age, whenever there was a rise in food production, it caused per capita income to rise for a while as long as population levels remained stable.
  • However, the population of the country rose quite quickly which ensured that per capita income decreased and returned to its historical trend.
  • Whenever food production dropped on the other hand, there was famine which caused the death of a large number of people. The drop in human population continued until the country’s per capita income rose to subsistence levels.
  • Either way, resource constraints kept a check on human population.


  • Malthusian trap provided an inverse relationship between human population and living standards i.e.; with rising population, living standards lower.
  • The theory allows us to understand concepts of poverty and sustained economic growth.
  • It can help in planning preventive measures such as late marriage, contraceptives, self-control, and simple living to balance the population growth and food supply.


  • The industrial revolution of 18th and 19th centuries broke the historical relationship between human population and living standards and refuted Malthus.
  • The rising use of man-made technology made sure that human beings could produce more output for each unit of the earth’s resource that they exploited. In other words, human productivity rose massively as a result of the rise of technology.
  • Human population levels and living standards have risen in tandem ever since the industrial revolution.
  • Some argue that as human population rises, the chances of breakthrough innovations happening rise manifold as there would be more human minds working on solving humanity’s problems.

Source: The Hindu                         


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