Famine, Disease and War


John Scales Avery, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

Malthus’ “Essay on the Principle of Population

10 Aug 2022 – T.R. Malthus’ “Essay on The Principle of Population”, the first edition of which was published in 1798, was one of the first systematic studies of the problem of population in relation to resources. Earlier discussions of the problem had been published by Boterro in Italy, Robert Wallace in England, and Benjamin Franklin in America. However, Malthus’ “Essay” was the first to stress the fact that, in general, powerful checks operate continuously to keep human populations from increasing beyond their available food supply. In a later edition, published in 1803, he buttressed this assertion with carefully collected demographic and sociological data from many societies at various periods of their histories.

The publication of Malthus’ “Essay” coincided with a wave of disillusionment which followed the optimism of the Enlightenment. The utopian societies predicted by the philosophers of the Enlightenment were compared with reign of terror in Robespierre’s France and with the miseries of industrial workers in England; and the discrepancy required an explanation.

The optimism which preceded the French Revolution, and the disappointment which followed a few years later, closely paralleled the optimistic expectations of our own century, in the period after the Second World War, when it was thought that the transfer of technology to the less developed parts of the world would eliminate poverty, and the subsequent disappointment when poverty persisted.

Science and technology developed rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century, but the benefits which they conferred were just as rapidly consumed by a global population which today is increasing at the rate of one billion people every fourteen years. Because of the close parallel between the optimism and disappointments of Malthus’ time and those of our own, much light can be  thrown on our present situation by rereading the debate between Malthus and his contemporaries.

Famine, Disease and War

Malthus classified the checks to population growth as “preventative” and “positive”. Among the preventative checks he mentioned late marriage, and what he called “vice”. This included birth control, of which he disapproved. If he had been living today, I think that Malthus would consider birth control to be the most humane method for preventing excessive growth of population.

Among the positive checks to population growth, are the three terrible Malthusian forces, famine, disease and war. Today, each of these has taken on new and terrifying dimensions.

The Climate Emergency

The threat of catastrophic climate change came to the attention of scientists after the time of Malthus. However, this existential threat to the future of human civilization is connected to Malthus’ work by the fact that one of the driving forces behind climate change is population growth. Furthermore, climate change contributes to threats from famine, disease and war.

Our Footprint on Nature’s Face Has Grown Too Large

At present, the total human economy is demanding more from the environment than the environment can regenerate. If we go on with business as usual, then within a decade it would take two Earths to regenerate the resources that we collectively demand. Most economists are focused on growth, but endless growth of anything physical on a finite planet is a logical impossibility. We need a new economic system, a new social contract, and a new and more considerate relationship with our environment.

Famine Today

I have for decades been predicting that by 2050, population growth, climate change, and the end of the fossil fuel era would combine to produce a severe and widespread global famine, involving billions rather than millions of people. However, population has grown faster than predicted, reaching 8 billion in November, 2022. Climate change has also developed more rapidly than predicted. Already today drought is threatening agriculture in many parts of the world, and heat is damaging crops. Food prices have risen dramatically during the last few years, and a considerable fraction of the world’s population is already experiencing food insecurity. According to the United Nations, in 2020, 40 percent of the world’s population could not afford a healthy diet.

Disease Today

The last two years have been dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but other diseases, such as tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, malaria, water-borne diseases, and infection with worms continue to produce many millions of deaths every year. The World Health Organization needs money to combat these diseases, but instead the world continues to spend immense amounts of money on war. Currently 2 trillion dollars are spent every year on armaments, and the total amount spent on war is much larger.

War Today

Today the United States is waging a proxy war against Russia, with Ukraine as the battle-ground. Simultaneously the US is threatening China. In both cases, there is a great danger that nuclear weapons may be used.

War was always madness, always immoral, always the cause of unspeakable suffering, economic waste and widespread destruction, and always a source of poverty, hate, barbarism and endless cycles of revenge and counter-revenge. It has always been a crime for soldiers to kill people, just as it is a crime for murderers in civil society to kill people.

But today, the development of all-destroying thermonuclear weapons has put war completely beyond the bounds of sanity and elementary humanity. A thermonuclear war would destroy human civilization, together with most of the plants and animals with which we share the gift of life. We must strive to abolish not only nuclear weapons but also the institution of war itself.

A Freely Downloadable Book

I would like to announce the publication of a book which deals in detail with the issues discussed above. It may be downloaded free of charge from the following link:


Other books on global problems and on cultural history may be found at the following web addresses:





John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent books are Information Theory and Evolution and Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf). Website: https://www.johnavery.info/

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 15 Aug 2022.

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