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What Is the Malthusian Trap?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Malthusian trap is a theory originally proposed by economist Thomas Robert Malthus in the late 18th century. Malthus suggested that improvements in technology would inevitably lead to an increase in population that would put increasing strain on resources. This would lead to no change in quality of life, or a decrease in quality of life, as a result of those technological developments. He believed it was not possible to make social progress that would improve living standards and incomes, as any steps in that direction would just create more people and more social pressures.

Malthus wrote at an interesting period in history, when human societies were in the throes of rapid change. The Industrial Revolution was about to burst onto the world and prove Malthus wrong, in some senses. Malthus believed that increased population created a labor glut, driving wages down even as people competed for food and other supplies to drive cost up. One consequence of the Industrial Revolution was actually a decrease in cost for many goods because they were cheaper to produce.

Mechanized farm equipment like tractors increased farm productivity.
Mechanized farm equipment like tractors increased farm productivity.

The theory of the Malthusian trap relied heavily on means of production that tended to be highly individualized and demanded manual labor. Malthus wrote in an era when farming, for example, was done by hand and with animals. The development of mechanized tractors and other farming equipment enabled rapid and cheap food production in many regions of the world and led to a rise in the standard of living for many people.

Retrospectively, the Malthusian trap may apply to some historic human societies. Many cultures that Malthus would have studied as part of his training did enter a form of Malthusian trap, where technology improved, but few people benefited. Growing human populations also put tremendous strain on available resources and contributed to hardship among the lower classes. In some cases this led to situations like wars over resource scarcity as citizens competed for limited supplies even as their numbers grew.

Even in the Industrial Revolution, with its great social benefits, some members of society still experienced hardships that often seemed more extreme in contrast with the greatly improved standard of living available to other people. However, some benefits of this era applied to all; the Industrial Revolution brought about reliable supplies of clean water, for instance, and vast improvements in medical treatment. It seemed to disprove the Malthusian trap by showing that it was possible for technological advances to create social improvements.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a SmartCapitalMind researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a SmartCapitalMind researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments


We recently studied this theory in my class and my Professor mentioned that Thomas Robert Malthus' theory influenced Charles Darwin a lot. In fact, Charles Darwin thought of his famous natural selection theory thanks to Malthus' ideas.

Apparently, around the same time period that Charles Darwin was carrying out his studies about how some members of a species survive others, Malthus was writing about his theory for why technology and industrialization is not the solution to poverty. He argued that as the population grew, people would have to fight harder for limited resources and the strong would survive.

Whether the Malthusian trap theory is economically correct or not, I think it deserves huge recognition for leading Darwin in the right direction in his studies. And I do think that there is a close connection between struggle of species to survive in nature and the economics of population and resources.


@golf07-- That's interesting, you also included time and enjoyment as factors of a high standard of life. I had not thought of that.

Does the Malthus' theory also take into account these non-monetary factors?

I think it would be difficult to measure quality of life when these factors are included though because pleasure and time are subjective. You clearly value family and relationships and feel that these are also necessary in a high quality life, but it might not be the same for someone else.

I always thought that Malthus was only talking about economic resources- money and buying power essentially. But your point could be another argument in favor of this theory. We could say that technology does not always improve non-monetary standards like pleasure, happiness or peace and so does not guarantee a better quality of life for that reason.


I don't think the Malthusian population trap is coming true in the developed world, but perhaps in the third world. Living standards there remain incredibly low.

In the US, life has unquestionably improved, and anyone who doesn't think so hasn't really thought about it! When you buy milk at the store, you know that it contains only milk and that it is safe to drink. People once had no such assurance. Your kid isn't going to get polio next summer. You can go to the hospital to have a baby without dying because the doctor did an autopsy first and didn't wash his hands.

What technology has never done is give anyone more free time. When the washing machine was invented, suddenly washing your clothes weekly wasn't good enough--they had to be washed every day. No time savings.

I read an essay once that Laura Ingalls Wilder had written for her local newspaper, for which she wrote Farm Home articles. She asked, "Whatever happened to all the time the automobile was supposed to save us?" And a hundred years later we're still asking that question about our laptops and iPhones!


I agree that technological advancement does not necessarily translate into better standards of life for all. But I don't think that this is because of a strain of resources like the Malthusian trap theory suggests. I think this is because of the disproportionate distribution of wealth across the globe.

I read an article recently that talked about how we have more than enough resources to feed and take care of everyone on earth. But it's not happening because these resources are not available equally to everybody.

So even though technological advancements create more wealth, food and resources; most of this ends up going to a certain percentage of the population. So the living standards of only some improve, while others live in poverty. The Malthusian trap theory has the right idea I think, but Malthus seems to have missed the real cause of the problem, which is the disproportionate distribution of resources in my view.


One thing I agree with about the Malthusian theory is that with all the increase in technology, it doesn't seem like it has really improved our quality of life.

With the invention of so many machines and gadgets, you would think we would have all kinds of time to spare. This seems to be the opposite as there are never enough hours in the day to get everything done.

When I think about how much simpler life was generations ago it seems like they had a lot more time for family and relationships. I think they got a lot of enjoyment out of life instead of rushing through each day.

I don't know if I would want to give up my favorite technology gadgets, but think there is something to a slower paced, simple life that has its advantages.

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    • Mechanized farm equipment like tractors increased farm productivity.
      By: Andrey Bandurenko
      Mechanized farm equipment like tractors increased farm productivity.