The Malthusian trap is a theory originally proposed by the economist Thomas Robert Malthus in the late eighteenth century. Malthus proposed that improvements in technology would inevitably lead to a population increase that would put more pressure on resources. This would result in no change in quality of life, or a decrease in quality of life, as a result of technological advances. He believed that it was not possible to make social progress that would improve living standards and income, such as the steps in which direction it would only create more people and more social pressures.
Malthus’s work sought to interpret the economic inequality, misery, and poverty of the working masses under capitalism as a practical consequence of population growth and resource scarcity.
Malthus wrote in an interesting period of history, when human societies were in the midst of a rapid change. The Industrial Revolution was about to break into the world and deny Malthus, in some ways. Malthus believed that growing population created an excess of manpower, driving wages down as people competed for food and other supplies to lower up costs. One consequence of the Industrial Revolution was actually a decrease in the cost of many goods because they were cheaper to produce.
Although the forecast clearly failed because wars and famines were not taken into account, for example, nor other imponderables such as epidemics, Malthusianism remains in force, the term Malthusian catastrophe is still used to describe critical situations that can make it unworkable or very difficult the survival of the human population if its growth persists.
The Malthusian trap theory relied heavily on the means of production which tended to be highly individualized and labor-intensive. Malthus wrote at a time when agriculture, for example, was made by hand and with animals. The development of mechanized tractors and other agricultural equipment allowed the production of fast and cheap food in many regions of the world and led to an increase in the standard of living for many people.
Malthus’s law thus predicted the future occurrence of a phenomenon called the Malthusian castastrophe in which food resources would be clearly unsustainable in order to maintain the world’s population and serious wars and famines that would decimate humanity. This section formalizes the ideas of Malthus in the form of differential equations and calculates according to certain parameters the time of occurrence of the Malthusian catastrophe where the quantity of food available is not sufficient to support the whole population.
Retrospectively, the Malthusian trap can be applied to some historical human societies. Cultures that Malthus would have studied as part of his training made him enter a form of Malthusian trap where the technology improved, but few people benefited. Growth of human populations also puts great pressure on available resources and contributed to difficulties among the lower classes. In some cases this led to situations such as wars because of scarcity of resources as citizens competed for limited supplies as their numbers grew.
Even in the Industrial Revolution, with its great social benefits, some members of society still experienced difficulties that often seemed more extreme in contrast to the standard of living much better to other people. However, some of the benefits of this era apply to all; the Industrial Revolution caused a reliable supply of drinking water, for example, and improvements in medical treatment. It seems to refute the Malthusian trap, showing that it was possible for technological advances to create social improvements.