Malthusian ideas, used and abused (Chronicle of Higher Education)

June 9, 2014

Sandra J. Peart, dean of University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies, reviews a new book on influential political economist Thomas Robert Malthus.

Few scholars have been so maligned as Thomas Robert Malthus. Charles Dickens parodied him in Scrooge’s invective, "If they would rather die … they had better do it and leave off the surplus population!"

But in Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet, Robert J. Mayhew, a professor of historical geography and intellectual history at the University of Bristol, argues that "Malthus should be read rather than merely caricatured." Mayhew’s book should help, doing "Old Pop," as Malthus’s students affectionately called him, a great service.

Mayhew places Malthus in the context of his contemporaries in political economy, anthropology, and literature, then explains how Malthusian ideas have for more than two centuries been invoked, extrapolated from, and polemicized. Malthus emerges as that "untimely prophet" whose work continues to evoke passionate responses to political, economic, and, important for Mayhew’s telling, environmental challenges.

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