Malthus' Revenge

Luc Soete


In this paper, we take inspiration from Thomas Malthus' hypothesis that food shortage and hunger would remain "nature's last most dreadful resource" and that "the power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race". We revise and reinterprete it into a modern and thus global version and we elaborate on such a possible new interpretation and what its policy implications might be. In a first section, and somewhat as a parenthesis, we briefly comment on the financial crisis as it has unfolded over the last four months of 2008 and impacted gradually the real economy. In the second section of the paper we review the different policy responses to past Malthusian challenges: how food production succeeded particularly over the second half of the 20th Century to keep pace with rapid population growth. In a third section, we replace the word "population" in the above cited Malthus' quote with "consumption" and illustrate what this might imply for global world growth and Europe's place in the world in 2025. In a fourth and final section, we then draw some initial policy conclusions. The nature of the Malthusian challenges raised today appears both global and local in nature. On the one hand it raises questions with respect to the need for open, international research collaboration. Imposing national, or regional, boundaries with respect to research participation and funding, certainly appears (with respect to some of the most urgent Malthusian research problems) to be the expression of an outdated and wasteful research nationalism. On the other hand, the growing need for local knowledge re-use, adaptation and embedment in many emerging and developing countries involving efforts at local innovation, is in many ways similar to, and reminiscent of the development of the many innovation policy tools in European countries and regions. The first policy challenge, we refer to as "recherche sans frontières"; the second one as "innovation for local development".

Keywords: Thomas Malthus, economic forecasting, population growth, economic growth, resource scarcity, innovation, globalisation, economic development, regional development.

JEL classification: E17, O11, O13, O21, O33

UNU-MERIT Working Papers ISSN 1871-9872