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Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet Hardcover – April 28, 2014
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Thomas Robert Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population was an immediate succès de scandale when it appeared in 1798. Arguing that nature is niggardly and that societies, both human and animal, tend to overstep the limits of natural resources in "perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery," he found himself attacked on all sides--by Romantic poets, utopian thinkers, and the religious establishment. Though Malthus has never disappeared, he has been perpetually misunderstood. This book is at once a major reassessment of Malthus's ideas and an intellectual history of the origins of modern debates about demography, resources, and the environment.
Against the ferment of Enlightenment ideals about the perfectibility of mankind and the grim realities of life in the eighteenth century, Robert Mayhew explains the genesis of the Essay and Malthus's preoccupation with birth and death rates. He traces Malthus's collision course with the Lake poets, his important revisions to the Essay, and composition of his other great work, Principles of Political Economy. Mayhew suggests we see the author in his later writings as an environmental economist for his persistent concern with natural resources, land, and the conditions of their use. Mayhew then pursues Malthus's many afterlives in the Victorian world and beyond.
Today, the Malthusian dilemma makes itself felt once again, as demography and climate change come together on the same environmental agenda. By opening a new door onto Malthus's arguments and their transmission to the present day, Robert Mayhew gives historical depth to our current planetary concerns.
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“A stylish, well-written, exuberant, and cleverly conceived book. Malthus is a thoughtful and skillful achievement.”―Donald Winch, author of Wealth and Life: Essays on the Intellectual History of Political Economy in Britain
“Though critics saw Malthus as contemptuous of the poor and entrenched in his beliefs, Mayhew reveals him as a humane observer and insightful commentator, preoccupied with poverty and intent on reviewing his own earlier utterances, including his contentious 1803 claim that the poor deserved no place at life’s table. By his death in 1834, Malthus was an authoritative voice on population and economy, but his reputation--and notoriety--lived on in new versions of Malthusianism, including some, such as the advocacy of artificial contraception, he would never have endorsed. Indeed, Malthus was adopted as a bogeyman in post-1950s U.S. debates about ‘overpopulation,’ environment and security. Mayhew pushes beyond the stereotypes of Malthus to recover the historical reality...This is a compelling read.”―David Arnold, BBC History Magazine
“It is the wide range of techniques [the book] interweaves to recreate the unique fabric of Malthus’ intellectual life--including comparative biography, comparative literature and the study of contemporary journals--that make this a singularly rich portrait…[Mayhew] is surely right that an attention to the complexities of Malthus’ ideas and legacies will better equip us to deal with our present environmental challenges than will simplistic, self-edifying binaries.”―Niall O’Flaherty, Times Higher Education
“[A] fine book…Mayhew describes the continuously contested legacy of what it meant to be a Malthusian, to commend or condemn Malthusianism in the two centuries after the Essay [on the Principle of Population] was published. But his book is also inevitably about us--as we too are obliged to think about our numbers, about nature and its resources, and about policies for living in a finite world.”―Steven Shapin, London Review of Books
“Mayhew treats his subject sympathetically, but the book admirably exposes the complete Malthus, warts and all. Nor is any quarter spared for critics, from the Romantics to Freud, all of whom twist Malthus to suit their agenda…Mayhew’s signal contribution is to remind us that the population debate has been contentious for much of the period since Malthus’s original Essay of 1798. The book also helps us to understand the dangers of both pro- and anti-Malthusianism.”―Eric Kaufmann, Literary Review
“In our era of global warming, mass urbanization, nuclear contamination, rampant pollution, deforestation, strip mining, and fracking, Malthus’s very attention to the dangers of unchecked population growth can seem nothing less than prescient…Malthusian thought has found itself applied to dizzyingly opposite policies and politics. You’ll find it ingrained in worldviews ranging in label from radical to reactionary. Mayhew’s book, then, compels us not only to reread Malthus and consider the background and the arguable moderation of his reasoning but also to consider, more broadly, the complicated and fickle ways by which ideas, once they enter the public domain, become fodder for politically charged disputes.”―Sandra J. Peart, Chronicle of Higher Education
“In his admirably rounded Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet Mayhew draws our attention to the actual writings of this pioneer of demography and political economy, and to his historical context, especially the revolutionary enthusiasm which Malthus was concerned to dampen…Though Malthus did not go so far as to interpret our planet as an ecosystem with limited supplies of clean air and water, Mayhew makes a convincing claim for him as a founder of what is now called environmental economics...[For] Mayhew, it is the questions Malthus asked which are still important.”―Jonathan Benthall, Times Literary Supplement
“Loathed by Karl Marx and admired by Charles Darwin, Enlightenment scholar Thomas Malthus still polarizes, notes historian Robert Mayhew. The flashpoint was Malthus’s 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population, which posits that although humans are prodigal, nature and resources are limited. Mayhew traces that theory through revolutionary and reactionary traditions, arguing that it remains pertinent in an era of economic downturn and shrinking resources, with predictions of 10 billion humans by 2050.”―Barbara Kiser, Nature
“Robert Mayhew helpfully dusts off Malthus and recounts his influence up to the present day, explaining why, with his one big idea, he became such an influential figure in European and North American intellectual history…Mayhew tries to rescue Malthus’ reputation by saying that many of his readers used him without really understanding him.”―Alister Chapman, Books & Culture
“Robert Mayhew’s account of the intellectual life and legacy of Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) is a fascinating, erudite and readable interdisciplinary―indeed, multidisciplinary―intellectual history… Mayhew is very good not just at contextualizing Malthus but in breaking down the binary divide separating Malthus and his enemies―in the process, teasing out from Malthus’s work (and how we have understood him) so much that is of value then and now.”―Matthew Hughes, English Historical Review
About the Author
- Publisher : Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press (April 28, 2014)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 304 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0674728718
- ISBN-13 : 978-0674728714
- Item Weight : 1.27 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.3 x 1.3 x 9.2 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #2,138,158 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
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Malthus, a talented mathematician, based his analysis on empirical rather than theological truth. His dismal prediction, he argued, was beyond government power to mitigate. He also took aim at the Poor Laws which he argued did far more harm than good. These controversial theories were widely challenged, particularly by the British Romantics (particularly Wordsworth and Coleridge and the Lake Poets) who saw a bountiful future in contrast to that of Malthus. Particularly his criticism of the Poor Laws set these folks off against Malthus. The author credits Malthus with the creation of environmental economics in particular and modern economics in general. Malthus continued to seek empirical support for this theories after he published his book (often updated), through extensive travel, reading, and the accumulation of economic and census data.
The author traces Malthus' influence after his 1834 death through the Victorians. He discusses Carlyle, Ruskin, Herbert Spencer, and Thomas Huxley among others. I found it most interesting that Malthus made a real impact in the 20th century of all things. Some writers traced the interest in Eugenics, the spread of contraceptives, and the decline in population all to Malthus. Both H.G. Wells and Keynes advocated his ideas. The themes of overpopulation and resource depletion attracted writers like C.P. Snow, Bertrand Russell, Sartre, Buckminster Fuller, and Julian and Aldous Huxley. At mid-century, Ehrlich and his "Population Bomb," the Green Revolution, carbon footprints, and Spaceship Earth were all traceable to Malthus' ideas. The final chapter on "Malthus Today" demonstrates his continued relevance particularly in connection with our concerns about environment, water supplies, and migration.
This is a pretty concentrated volume--heavy on analysis and ideas. It is a remarkable thorough and thoughtful analysis of a number of important intellectual ideas and public intellectuals. It has ample endnotes but no bibliography. The author's ability to demonstrate Malthus' relevance even till today makes this an extremely interesting book--but one that is best read in small pieces at a time.
Not terribly analytical [but provides sufficient notes to guide rigorous study].
Best insights: exurban Britain's semi-medieval, brutal world -- the inevitability of dynamics -- and the path to Keynes.
has to say about his writings. We learn everyone's opinion about Malthus without learning what Malthus actually thought and wrote.
The book is reminiscent of Robert Skidelsky's great biography and analysis of John Maynard Keynes, though not as extensive. Mayhew calls Malthus the first ecological economist. Malthus considered himself the inheritor of the mantle of Adam Smith. He was the first to apply empirical analysis to population growth and ecology in place of the prior religiously motivated theories. For for all his obvious admiration of Malthus, Mayhew presents counter augments with well written fairness.
Mayhew skillfully writes about the popular impressions of society and opinions of dozens of social commentators through the two centuries since Malthus first published his essay. They including Marx, G.B. Shaw and dozens of others, many well known and some not so much. He describes the anti-Malthus movement endorsed by Italy and the Vatican. Especially interesting is the opinion of Keynes, who said Malthus was his favorite economist and the world would be better off if more economists patterned their science after him instead of his more popular friend and rival David Ricardo. Keynes' opinion went a long way to reviving the reputation of Malthus after a long period out of public favor. Modern debate is characterized by Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon.
Mayhew incorporates views of Rousseau, Hume and Ben Franklin who predicted population doubling every 20 years. Opposing views come from Dr. Edward Price, Condorcet, Edmund Burke and many others later. J.S. Mill is credited with starting the drift to a socialist position on population growth.
There are familiar ideas of geometric growth of population limited by arithmetic growth in food production mitigated by technology improvements. Not so familiar ideas opposing government intervention as self defeating, refering to the “wretched system of government too much.” (Shades of 2014.) There is very interesting politics of the times regarding chartists, Corn Laws and Poor Laws.
Social programming harms more than benefits. Aid has always backfired. Even liberal economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman see impending limits to population growth. A more modern view expressed Jack Goldstone is dependent on population distribution. Rather than a world wide problem there are geographical limits. Mayhew references Jared Diamond's 'Collapse'. Malthusian checks of war pestilence, famine are already happening in locals around the world, exemplified by population driven wars in Biafra. Katanga. Sudan and Rwanda. Life will be sustainable somewhere, although where might be difficult to predict.