Transcript Learn@Lunch with Professor Alison Bashford
The History of Australia's Population: Malthus revisited | 11 April 2018

Welcoming remarks from Professor Susan Dodds, Dean, UNSW Arts & Social Sciences. 

Good afternoon, everyone. I'm conscious of the fact that as we call this a Learn@Lunch lecture series, that we should try to stick, promptly, to time so the people who need to move on at the end are able to do so. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, humans, friends of UNSW. Thank you for joining us at this year's Learn@Lunch, our bite-sized lecture series with UNSW's Australia's leading academics. I'm Susan Dodds. I'm Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at UNSW and Professor of Philosophy. I'm delighted that you can join us here today.

I'd like to begin by taking this moment to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, who are the traditional custodians of this land. And I'd like to pay my respects to elders, both past and present. And to extend that respect to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who may be here today.

 

I have a few housekeeping notes. Please be aware that today's session will be recorded and available for podcasting by the UNSW alumni website, and please have your mobile phones switched to silent mode.

 

So I'd like to give you a short introduction to our speaker, Alison Bashford is a new Professor at the University of New South Wales. And she's come to us, just in October of 2016. She was educated at the University of Sydney, where she was awarded the University Medal in 1990. For nearly 20 years, she taught and researched from her Sydney-base, taking regular visitor fellowships in the United Kingdom. In 2009, she was the Whitlam and Fraser chair of Australian studies at Harvard University. In 2013, she joined the University of Cambridge as the Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History. She's a fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities and a fellow of the British Academy.

 

Alison came to us as a Strategic Hire and Retention Pathway recruitment, which is part of UNSW Sydney's 2025 Strategy, trying to bring world-class researchers to you in UNSW to work with us and to help us to develop our research capacity further. It demonstrates the ability of USNW to attract the leading researchers from around the world of the highest calibre. This is also in line with our commitment to research excellence within the strategy.

 

Now Alison's going to give a presentation as you can see on the History of Australia's population, which is a very topical issue for many of us. She's going to give a presentation for around 40 minutes, followed by 10 minutes of question and answer. So, please join me in welcoming Professor Alison Bashford.

 

2.45 Presentation by Professor Alison Bashford, UNSW Arts & Sciences        

Thank you very much, indeed and thank you, Sue. What a pleasure to be here. Thanks for sparing your lunch, your precious lunchtimes. It occurs to me that bite-sized lunch is appropriate for a talk on Malthus and vise versa, the great theorist as we'll find out of food and people.

What a pleasure for me to back in Sydney, recently returned and of course a great honour and pleasure to be part of the exemplary faculty of arts and social sciences at UNSW.

 

So, I'm going to talk to you about this strange combination of Thomas Robert Malthus and Australia. And I do think that it's research that I've done recently with my colleague from Harvard University, I should say, Joyce Chaplin. The two of us have written a book about Malthus and what we've called the New World, which includes discussion about Malthus in Australia. And I think that, in fact I know, that humbly this combination of Malthus and Australia has not been analysis of that has not been undertaken before, except as we'll discover. Malthus was extremely interested in the brand new for him, colony of New South Wales and as we'll find out in an extraordinary way, completely involved in the new colony of South Australia. So in fact there's a very long connection between these two.

 

Now I'm going to explain Malthus shortly but why does Malthus matter? Malthus matters because he wrote the most famous book on population ever written or I would say ever likely to be written. So his famous essay on the principle of population which in way back in 1798 and then it ran through multiple editions. It's a book, and you can't say this of many books, it's a book that is in fact, never been out of print. And it's also never been out of print in multiple languages. So it's an extraordinarily resonant and powerful book that is still Malthus and his ideas are still used by world economists today and here we have the quite famous and very influential Jeffrey Sachs from the Earth Institute of Columbia who constantly calls back to Malthus' ideas. So what Malthus said all those years ago, certainly mattered.

 

Now I'm a historian. And so old books are clearly my profession but they are absolutely what drives me in terms of fascination, interest, as well as work. Can you hear me perfectly well at the back? Excellent.

 

So old books absolutely drive my life. And let me pause and tell you how I came to this project on Malthus and Australia through this constant delight in old books. So I was on a research trip quite a few years ago in the unlikely city of Houston, Texas, doing another project altogether. And I arrive ... we're all very familiar this is actually a jet lag story. We're all very familiar with the phenomena of jet lag, correct? So I was in Houston, Texas, flown from Sydney. You know that wide awake, 2 a.m. jet lag feel, which a lot of people don't like, I have to say I love. So I love being wide awake at 2 o'clock and suddenly in this productive and efficient mode and so it always seem to me this super efficiency that you get in jet lag, you get another 12 hours of extra reading and work that you can do. So I actually love jet lag.

 

So I was in that wide-awake, 2 a.m. mode in Houston, Texas, and I looked outside. I was at Rice University, a very wealthy, wonderful American private university. And because of its' wealth and private nature, it was ... It has a library that is open 24 hours a day. So I looked out my window and there were students going to and from the library, so I thought, "That's how I'm going to spend my jet-lag moments. I'm going to go into the library and find something. I'm going to just browse."

 

I'm a great believer in the browsing of library shelves, sadly something that we're less and less able to do. So, I went to the economic history shelves, because I was starting to think about Malthus and a project on population. I'd worked on population for a long time. Went to the economic history shelves and I was quite surprised to see, actually an 1803 edition, which is the second edition of the Essay on the Principle of Population. Pulled it down, opened it up, and to my complete surprise, I saw the word Bennelong. And I thought, "What ..." And I literally had ... And it was an original edition, I had to go back to the title page and make sure I was looking at the right book. And I had worked on population as a historian for a long time, I had read Malthus, like many of you, I'm sure as a student. And I had never known, and neither had many of my colleagues, that Malthus was in the least interested about ... In Australia, let alone knowledgeable of any of the Indigenous history then unfolding.

 

This was 1803, very early in these colonies' history, old of course in Bennelong's history. So there was this page with this word, Bennelong. And of course, as a Sydney-sider, my attention went straight to that word. And I flipped over more pages, the Hawksbury River, David Collins, many of you may know ... I mean, Collins Street, Collins Flat ... References, constant references, in this chapter to James Cook. References to the early history, so the colony of New South Wales. And page after page after page about Aboriginal dietary practises, Aboriginal modes of hunting and gathering, Aboriginal modes of managing fertility and mortality. So that combination of course, of fertility and mortality on the one hand, and food practises on the other is Malthus' thesis.

 

So I quickly ... And I thought, "This is altogether a surprise." And as I always tell my PHD students, the moment you open a book like that, and you have that, from a reasonably learned basis, you have a surprise, and you think, "I never knew that," that is usually a key ... Sue Dodd is nodding at me ... That is usually a key that you follow that and you would usually answering what is to you a surprise really is what drives so many of us in the humanities and social sciences. I have to say, I thought, "I better check in with some of my learned colleagues." And this is where the time difference in jet-lag really helped me because the first person I emailed was one of my very esteemed new colleagues at New South Wales, in the faculty of arts and social sciences, John Gascoigne. Very distinguished historian of 18th and 19th Century Sciences.

And I said, "John, did you know that Malthus ever wrote about Australia, let alone mentioned Bennelong?"

 

"No," was the very quick, probably 10 a.m. response from John Gascoigne, and I thought, "I'm going to pursue this."

So, I first of all wondered why ... This is partly a history of books. And I wondered why is it that John Gascoigne, myself, a number of other learned colleagues around the planet had never put this combination together? Why was it that scholars in fact, of Bennelong, of which there are many, had not put this together? And it's a publishing reason. The very first edition of this famous book that Malthus wrote, The Essay on the Principle of Population, most famous book ever to be written on population, was published, a very short version, anonymously, 1798. Quite radical. Quite controversial, theologically controversial for a range of reasons we can discuss later. And that meant that for Johnson, you see there at the bottom, ‘St Paul’s Churchyard’, the printer and publisher of this early pamphlet, was absolutely delighted that it was so controversial and it sold out immediately. And he turned to Malthus and said, "I want you to write another version. Another edition." And Malthus was quite a disorganised, I say this very respectfully, because I've become very attached to this political economist ... He was extremely disorganised.

Having worked through all of his letters, I can tell you they all start with, "Dear so and so ..." Whoever he is writing to, all the fantastic economists of that era, Jeremy Bentham, for example. "Dear Bentham," he would write. "I'm sorry not to have responded for the last three months, but I can't find your letter. I think it's under some books ..." And "oh, yes," he will say. "I've just found it." And so, for someone of his milieu this was an intellectual milleu who ... Which really thrived on letter-writing and communication, so someone like Jeremy Bentham would have written ... Who's much more organised, would have written, probably 40 letters a day, so Malthus should have been much more organised. He was not.

 

So, when the publisher said, "I want another edition," it took Malthus five years to produce it. But when he did, in 1803 ... There's the first edition, anonymous. There's the second edition. He said, "I've written another edition, very much enlarged." In fact, the first edition was about 10,000 words, this one came up in two volumes, it's about 100,000 words. And what does it start with, this very much enlarged 1803 edition? It starts with the colony of New South Wales. So, the most important book on population that was ever written and I would say ever will be, in fact starts right here. I mean, literally right here, with the colony of New South Wales, close to Government House. And I'll come to the information that he received in a moment.

 

But because ... Here is the publishing history, for those of us here who love old books. Because the 1798 edition was tiny, it was 10,000 words, a tiny little pamphlet. Ever since then, that's the one that publishers have wanted to reprint. And when the long edition, this 1803 edition, comes online ... Not online, I mean when people wanted it to be published. What happened was my predecessors, historians of political economy, historians of demography, historians of population, for some strange reason, started a tradition of excerpting three chapters at the beginning because they thought they were uninteresting, dull, boring, unimportant to the thesis. So what Malthus had put first, which is his analysis of the colony of New South Wales, a publishing tradition that lasted about two centuries took place and if you look up Penguin editions, Faber editions, the three chapters at the beginning are not there. And that's why scholars like myself and my colleagues, John Gascoigne and others, had no real knowledge that ... It came as a surprise to us that Malthus started the book with the colony of New South Wales.

 

So, off I went, thinking, "Why was he interested in Bennelong?" He named Bennelong in the very much enlarged 1803 edition, there is Aboriginal language that he translates and he uses a lot of information that he got from people in the colony of New South Wales about Aboriginal habits, customs, and Aboriginal economy, actually. Most of his information came from this book, David Collins' Account of the English Colony in New South Wales. And David Collins was in fact someone in this very area here. He came with the first fleet, he was a magistrate, and he spent a lot of time befriending, and from all accounts, we can understand that quite genuinely he befriended, in kind of a mutual friendship, a lot of key Aboriginal people, including Bennelong. And it is from this very important book about this colony that Malthus gleaned his information.

 

But not only that, the more I hunted, the more I realised that Malthus was entirely consumed with this extraordinary thing that was the British colonisation of this part of the world. In his Essay on the Principle of Population, once I started looking for the right thing, I realised that in fact, footnote after footnote after footnote was to James Cook's work. And James Cook's slightly earlier than his lifetime accounts of his journeys to the South Seas.

 

And these three early chapters that the publishers started to excerpt completely, the first one was on New South Wales, the second one was one what Malthus called the South Sea. It was about New Zealand, Hawaiians, Polynesians across the Pacific that Cook had written about. And the third one was actually about Native Americans. Incidentally, these wonderful, this lovely series of books here, and you can see Cook's, with the incorrect spelling, Cook's voyage here, Foster's voyage ... I am very happy to say that what one of the ... I'm so delighted to be at UNSW, but it has to be said that one of the delights of being in a Cambridge college is that you could access beautiful libraries of these original books at any point. And I mention that because the college I was in in Cambridge, which is called Jesus College, was the college where Malthus himself was a fellow in the late 18th Century and the college has Malthus' own library.

 

And here, it was the great honour and privilege for me to be able to work through Malthus' own copy of James Cook's works. This is Malthus' copy. Scribbled down the side. Malthus' copy of David Collins, which describes the colony of New South Wales. And so I was able to spend many wonderful hours looking through his own work.

 

Now, as I pursued my work, and in a moment, I'm going to lift us out of the early 19th Century Malthus world and into the 19th and 20th Century. But the other thing that I found in this project that completely took me by surprise is that at the very end of his life, Malthus lived from 1766 to 1834. And at the very end of his life, from 1829, 1830, 31, 32, it turns out that he was completely involved in the new plan to set up a colony which turned ... They actually technically called it a province, of South Australia. So you may have heard of Wakefield. When you go to, many of you may be from, or have certainly visited Adelaide ... All of those central streets in Adelaide, Wakefield, Guges street ... They're all ... They're named after this sweet of young political economist, much younger than Malthus.

 

And they came up with the idea of what was called systematic colonisation. They obviously would know this. They wanted to set up the colony of South Australia on completely different political economy principles than the convict or the penal colony of either Van Diemen's Land or New South Wales. And they came up with this term, systematic colonisation, but they were a group of young and radical political economists. But my research has shown is that in fact they turned to the old statesmen of political economy, certainly Thomas Robert Malthus, and said essentially, "What do you think of our ideas? What do you think of this plan?" And, it turns out that Thomas Robert Malthus carried on a very extensive, almost consulting, that's too 20th Century a term, but we may think of him as a consultant essentially, to these early political economists who were setting up the new colony of New South Wales.

 

And let me, before I bring us forward into time, let me tell you one reason why I think this matters a great deal. Now, Malthus ... Let's go back to him. You probably ... You may know a lot, you may know very little about Malthus. You've probably heard of him. He's usually connected with a great controversy. He is usually, sometimes even connected with being an inspiration for genocidal programmes over the 19th and 20th Century. And the reason why he is, in my view, mistakenly understood in this way ... It's actually quite important, I think ... Is that Malthus' core thesis was, as you may know, that population will increase at a greater rate than resources, consumable resources, for food essentially, can increase for humans. And we have to remember although for us, the idea ... You know that upward population trajectory that we all think of the graph, I'm sure it's all in your mind, is very familiar idea ... Where we for probably 150 years, the expectation that population will increase is normal. For Malthus' generation, that was in fact not the case at all.

 

Even someone who was a student of population, expected population just to stay the same. That was his expectation. He had no idea, actually, in the future, population was going to grow. Nor did he have any idea that there was going to be a thing called the Industrial Revolution, which meant that there were technologies by which food could be increased and yields could be increased as well. He had no idea about that. And people often take him to task for not knowing something that was to actually happen in his future. And well into his future. But Malthus ... People mistake Malthus as saying that because population grows faster than food can, in fact what we need to do is implement a whole lot of measures to reduce population numbers. This is in fact not what Malthus said. He, and for the philosophers amongst us today, he was drawing a distinction between what is and what ought to be. He thought what ought to be is ... What would happen is that if, theoretically population increased and food was only down here, that nature would kick in and people would either ... Well, usually, he said, people would starve and have very short life spans and the population would come back down to a normal level or a sustainable level. So he actually imagined a cyclical arrangement between food and natural resources.

 

But he was a deeply concerned humanitarian, actually. And he did not like and was completely opposed to the idea that on that upward swing where there were too many people feed that people would suffer and starve and in fact his whole programme was designed to implement policy measures whereby the number of people in want, as he would put it, was reduced. So he was trying to develop ways in which the number of people who were on what later came to be called the poverty line, would be minimised. So, there is no sense in which Malthus thought this was inevitable suffering. In fact, he was trying to mitigate that suffering.

 

Anyway, Malthus was misunderstood from the beginning and has been put in kind of bad books ever since. And over the 20th Century, in a very strange way, got connected to some of the worst 20th Century programmes to do with population questions.

So when I went back and started reading very, very carefully The Essay on the Principle of Population, a few things ... And his interest in Aboriginal people and Native Americans and South Sea islanders ... I thought, "What is he going to say?" And he said what were to me actually quite extraordinary, extremely important things. He said ... He was taking stock of what this new wave of English colonists were doing in places like Sydney and he said, "The fact that we, English people, are pushing back ..." Or what he actually said, the term he actually used was exterminating. I'm going to come back to that. That we are exterminating, by which he meant moving, actually. Displacing people from one place to another in order to make room for ourselves. That is to say, in order for us to grow wheat, to grow cattle and sheep, is immoral. So in fact, this person whose been maligned all these years for you know, kind of an association with the worse of population control measures, was actually deeply concerned with what actually happened to these people who moved or were forced to move ... Bennelong's people ... In order to make room for us.

 

And time and time again, in the essay, he said, "Extermination is a moral problem and we should be taking account of it." And very interestingly, it sent me as a, you know as a ... Well, you know, as an 18th Century historian deeply interested in the origin and use of words, it sent me on quite a journey, thinking about what did extermination actually mean in the 18th Century? But for him, it very clearly meant, the roots of it, extermination, movement from here to there, displacement. So here we have what to me became quite an important ... Not a kind of a rescuing of Malthus, because there are other things that he stood for which are deeply problematic in all kinds of ways, but nonetheless, I'm very dedicated as a historian to reading people in their time and not necessarily by our own standards. But even in his own world, he was raising this deeply important question of removal of Indigenous people from one place to another in order to grow food essentially for colonists.

So, I said at the beginning that what Malthus had to say mattered because he still is a reference point. He's a reference point for the likes of economists of Sachs' status and his Essay on the Principle of Population still kind of stands as a benchmark. I've learned with my colleagues that he had all kinds of things to say about Australia. He was deeply involved in the colonial history of South Australia. He died in 1834, the year that South Australia began. And as we move forward, over the 20th Century, not only what Malthus had to say, but what Malthus had to say about Australia ended up becoming quite important.

 

Let me pull you from Malthus' world then into the 19th and 20th Century world, where I've done a lot of work on population questions over the whole world, and the era when population growth starts to rise. The more familiar picture that we have. And in that research, a whole series of economists in the 19th and 20th Century are still rehearsing Malthus' ideas and to my surprise again ,the continent of Australia in 19th and 20th Century Malthusian work remains extremely important. And it remained important, the endless maps like this, I'm going to go back over them. Endless maps about the distribution where in the world people are. And the whole significance for our continent here is that Australia was constantly noted and written about because it was quote on quote, "Empty, uninhabited regions," here. Density under one person per square mile, most of this continent. The continent of ... And I can't emphasise this enough, how important it was in this problematizing of world population, how important it was that Australia was an extremely low density continent. And that it was sitting next to high density regions.

So in this Asia-Pacific region, these economists over and over again, and I'm talking 1890s, right through to 1960s and 70s. We're constantly saying here is this continent, underutilised in a world of massive population growth and because they were all Malthusians, a world of increasing starvation. Food resources were everything over this generation. Why wasn't the Australian continent lifting its game and producing more food for the underfed peoples of the world? And so there's all kinds of books get written by very distinguished economists in this period, all Malthusian economists, books like a very distinguished demographer-economist called Sripati Chandrasekhar, wrote a book called Hungry People and Empty Land. And it was written for UNESCO, actually. And it's almost all about Australia. Why is this land empty when it should be growing all kinds of food for the rest of the world?

 

Of course, we know why. Because there's a particular environment here. But over and over again, in the 20th Century, not only was Malthus retained and used, but the Australian continent was noted again and again for having this remarkably small population in a great area.

So many of you may be familiar with this kind of map. And I can't emphasise enough how, on the one hand, in an international sphere, on the other hand, four successive Australian governments, this was not just an abstract economic problem. Especially for Australian governments, it was actually a deeply political question about security of Australia's borders. And the reason that was so was that because you have this global idea that Australia was not producing, not as agricultural as it should be or could be, when you match that with a very old international legal principal of occupation being verified by use of land ... It's actually John Locke's old idea ... This was mobilised again and again in the 20th Century. Even to the extent that some economists in international circles were saying Australia's not using its' land, therefore does it actually have claim to that territory? If it's not tilling, if it's not utilising the land as it should be, does Australia in fact have claim to the territory? And unlikely as this may seem, I have read document after document after document at very high international levels, 1920s through 1950s, that suggested that in fact Australia should cede ... The Australian commonwealth government should cede the whole northern part of the continent to those countries that would use it better. By which they meant ... Crops. Better crops would be grown.

 

And so, it seems so unlikely, but there's an entirely serious discussion before the Second World War, about ceding the northern half of Australia to Japan. Ceding the northern half of Australia perhaps to India. Ceding the northern half of Australia to perhaps to Indonesia. And I know this seems ... This is the wonderful thing about being a historian, actually. Is that there are these statements that one finds as you flip through the archives that constantly take you aback. And think, how ... Is this a strange fringe statement? This is my job as a historian. Or is this something that people are taking seriously? And I can't begin to tell you how seriously successive Australian governments took this question about the ... What was being framed as the illegitimate occupation of the underutilised northern parts, tropical parts of Australia, and the extent to which this possibility that in fact, in a world that was increasingly being understood as one ... That there was this possibility that parts of Australia could be ceded to other national governments and utilised better.

 

And to put that just in slightly more context. Often, it was put that way ... And this again sounds unlikely, but it's the case ... It was put that way as a means to avert future wars. So this is the other reason why population and international relations were in fact completely tied up, much more so than they are now. It dropped away sometime in the later 20th Century, but in this era, political economy and population and international relations and use of land ... Because population was always about food ... Were absolutely tied together. And the need for people to feed themselves was understood to be kind of a long, chronic problem in international relations. And for people like John Maynard Keynes, for example, actually a cause of war.

 

And so after the First World War, there were so many Malthusian economists who were kind of alert to this continent of Australia, saying we may well avert another war by more evenly distributing people across the globe, raising general standards of living, feeding people across the world better, so that they don't want to move places to be fed, and in that context, this radical idea about ceding parts of Australia to other national governments was actually understood by so many world economists to be a way in which a future war was ... Might be averted. Which of course, we know, was not the case.

 

I've included this just to give you a sense of how Malthus' ideas were just pushed right through the 19th and 20th Century. George, I can talk more about him in our question time if you'd like, but George Handley Knibbs was actually Australia's first ... The commonwealth's first statistician. And so he actually drove the first censuses in Australia, deeply interested in the demography and the ... Of Australia on the one hand, but he was operating in these world international circles ... Economic circles ... As a Malthusian economist at a point when the great catastrophe as he would put it, of our world population grew. And he wrote this very distinguished book, The Shadow of the World's Future: All the Earth's Population Possibilities and the Consequences of the Present Rate of Increase of the Earth's Inhabitants. And he was also someone, the chief statistician of the first commonwealth ... The first chief statistician of the Commonwealth of Australia, was also someone remarkably who was pushing with various prime ministers that parts of Australia would in fact be ceded to other countries.

We're much more familiar, I think, with this era of population, politics and economics and by this era, definitely, ecology. This famous book, The Population Bomb, by the ecologist Paul Ehrlich, enormously influential. And Ehrlich saw himself in 1968, if I remember correctly when this was published, as the Malthus of a new era. Who again was drawing attention to this crisis of food limitations and population increase. Population, as we all know, is deeply connected to extremely difficult questions. One other pamphlet from that era, it's not by Paul Ehrlich, but it derived from his ideas, Is Voluntary Human Sterilisation the Answer? The Population Bomb. This new 1960s, probably quite familiar 1960s and 70s idea of a new one-world problem that the environment of the entire planet was not going to sustain growing populations.

 

And then of course, in our own time, and this is what makes Malthus continually important, in our own time we reach seven billion, but even as I put that slide up, I thought, "We're actually approaching 7.5 billion." And we're even there and that's a measure, of course, of how very, very quickly the population of the entire planet is increasing.

 

Malthus was very himself ... Who in some ways started the whole political economy of population ... Malthus himself was as I say, not aware that over time population would increase at that rate at all. It would have completely surprised him. He imagined a world ... A pre-industrial world where population grew and fell in relation to food ... Amounts of food. So that graph that we understand of population just skyrocketing is completely unfamiliar to Malthus for reasons I can talk about in our question time.

 

But over this very long history of the population, the world population, problem, that in some ways began with Thomas Robert Malthus, this phenomenon of the Australian continent ... How Aboriginal people managed food and mortality and fertility questions, in conversation with a very particular environment. How the English colonists came here and attempted to manage that. How over time, Australian agriculturalists and economists knew themselves very well that there was probably a limit environmentally to what this land could produce, probably. But nonetheless, how Malthusian economists elsewhere in the world looked to this continent and saw something that was being underutilised and threw the Australian continent into the international arena, is something that has fascinated me for a very long time, now. And about which I'm ... I still want to pursue some questions. But these are the two books that I've written about this.

 

This one was about the 20th Century question with all of the Australian material and this more recent book, I've gone back in time and that's the book in which I explored, with Joyce Chaplain from Harvard University, this fascinating to me discovery, really, that Malthus himself was deeply interested in the new colony of New South Wales, in Van Diemen's Land, Tasmania, in South Australia, and that Malthus himself ... The most amazing thing in so many ways, and the most surprising thing, is that Malthus himself mentioned and quoted Bennelong, who we know of course was the great Aboriginal statesman who went to London and so many parts of Sydney were part of Bennelong's world and life. Not least of course is where the opera house is now built. So that Bennelong and Malthus were contemporaries and this remarkable connection, actually, that Bennelong came into Malthus' book, is something that successive publishers have deemed unimportant, but which I hope we agree, many of us here, especially as Sydney-siders, would deem to be most important.

 

Thank you very much.

 

43.38 Q&A Session

Sue:                Thank you, Alison. We have time for some questions, if people have any. And you may want to indicate that you would like to ask a question. Please do. If you could project.

Speaker 3:       I'm interested, looking forward, because ... And I was frightened recently ... The speaker I think was either a geologist or someone like you, from America, who was interested in population. One of the things he said was the known oil supply will run out in 2054. And he said when that happens, food production will halve, because tractors and harvesters use oil to gather the food. And his prediction was shortly after 2054, half the world's population will die of starvation.  You've heard of this before?

Alison:             I haven't heard of that particular thing, but that framing is in fact, very common, and that framing is Malthus. The content of it, oil, tractors, a post-industrial world is not Malthus' work, but that whole idea is why Malthus is so important. Because that whole premise ... I'm unable as a historian to say whether that is valid, invalid, reasonable, unreasonable, actually, as a historian. The future ... We always say as historians the past is a foreign country. For historians, the future is even more foreign. But what I can tell you is that package that statement that half the people will die if we can't keep up resources, that link between population and resource ... Food, oil, energy. Let's call it energy ... Is Malthusian from beginning to end. And there aren't that many late-18th Century figures. Adam Smith is probably one other, whose idea, whose core idea ... Whether it's misunderstood or well-understood, actually travels through time in that way. So what you talk about there is the connection between energy and population, which was exactly Malthus' thesis.

                        He was ... Poor old Malthus, you know. He's so maligned. Everybody in his era hated what he had to say, but really liked him, kind of reluctantly. And so many people say, "I wanted to have Malthus over for dinner, because I like him. I hate what he says." And he was very mild-mannered and very softly spoken. Everybody really liked him and when they read his books, they didn't like him. But he, and he had a hair-lip and cleft palette and he was an ordained minister. Most of his life was spent at ... Actually teaching political economy for the East India Company. But his life was pre-industry. Pre-oil, pre-fossil fuels. Pre-Industrial Revolution. And so his mapping of all of this, his thesis and his theory, was from out of what we call an organic economy. What he was interested in was in land and agriculture, horsepower. The very beginning of some very rudimentary coal. But he was writing before the Industrial Revolution.

Alison:             So that content there, the oil question, was something we have to just remember that he's writing about wealth and poverty and resources and food from a pre-industrial world.

Speaker 4:       Can you tell us something about what he actually said about the colony of New South Wales?

Alison:             Yes, thank you. So what did he say about the colony of New South Wales? So he was really ... Malthus was operating in what was called in the 18th Century stadial theory. So he was interested in different kinds of economies, hunter-gatherer economies ... What he would have called shepherd economies, pastoral economies, domesticated animals, through to commercial and merchant economies. Stadial theory.

And so he was deeply ... What he wanted to say was that in all societies, in any different ... In any kind of economy that you can imagine, from hunter-gatherer to commerce, the principal of population operated. In all time and in all places, he said. How the poor ... How starvation was mitigated, changed, according to the actions of government and societies, but the principle of population operated in all times and all places. So he was deeply interested ... That's why he starts his book with aboriginal people in New South Wales. Because he understood in 18th Century, what was called universal history terms, that this is the prime example of a hunter-gatherer community. How many people were born, he was very interested in a very low ... What he assessed as a low fertility rate, that's what he got from David Collins. He said things like, "Aboriginal women ..." Whether or not this is true is actually another question entirely. What Malthus said was, "Aboriginal women carrying newborn infants and gathering foods would be less likely to repeat." ... Have a high fertility rate, have a repeat pregnancy.

                        He was deeply ... One of the real problems was ... One of the deep problems about his essay is that he did write about the Smallpox epidemic on the ground, that took place on the ground that we're sitting here. The very important, devastating Smallpox epidemic of 1789. And he wrote about that, but he completely misunderstood it as actually, so to speak, an Indigenous issue. And so he said, "There is a very high mortality amongst Aboriginal people in New South Wales." Look at the Smallpox data. Look at the mortality from Smallpox. And he misunderstood that in fact, the reason there was the high Smallpox mortality we're 99 percent clear now, was because it was brought with Europeans who had only arrived the year before.

                        And so he was interested in that kind of data, essentially. And the difference, just very quickly, the difference between his very short pamphlet, 1798, and the long, very much enlarged edition, was that he wanted to put data in front of ... What he considered data. It doesn't serve as data by our own standards, of course, but it's that those kinds of instances of detailed information, as he saw it, about mortality and fertility and food practises that he was documenting.

Speaker 5:       Hi, interested in that you said that he ... That the foundation in New South Wales as a colony was immoral, and yet became a consultant to those advising the establishment of South Australia. What influence did he have in terms of particular policies that he was suggesting and were those adopted? And how ... yeah, what was Malthus thinking about advising on something that he considered immoral?

Alison:             Thank you. Great question. Well, maybe we don't know. But the ... I'm going to get this slightly wrong. The statue that is the South Australia Act actually includes recognition of local Aboriginal people. I'm not saying that that was directly because of Malthus' influence. It was something ... Many historians have worked on this ... It was something the colonial office itself was very concerned about. And so there is a huge difference between the settlement of this colony ... This colony. I'm such a historian. I live in what became the state of New South Wales in the 1780s. And in the 1830s, it's a free colony, there's no convicts and Aboriginal ... There is a recognition of Aboriginal people.

Alison:             In the South Australia Act. And so there is some influence there of Malthus. The political economy influence for Malthus was quite direct. He was not an advocate of the state, the British state ... The colonial office funding the immigration of British people to the colonies. He thought that made no economic sense. However, he was quite supportive of private colonisation schemes. Private colonisation companies. Which is increasingly what happened in South Australia, in New Zealand, over the 1830s and 40s. Less government immigration schemes and more private enterprise, actually. And so that was the influence, the direct influence on the South Australian circumstance.

Sue:                 We have time for one more question.

Speaker 6:      Thank you for the talk. You mentioned that Malthus expected that population growth might be cyclical.

                        However, maybe the patterns that we've seen throughout our lifetimes hasn't supported exactly what he may have expected. Resources, supply, demand, and of course, survival, is something that affects us all. But we've seen increasing efficiencies in almost everything that we do, probably actually more so in our own lifetimes that ever before. Could the framework for population growth and the way that we deal with those scarce resources be something that changes the way that we actually anticipate the future to look? Could it be less cyclical and much more efficient? And could the scarcity of resource actually be much less of an issue than what we anticipate, as it may have been in Malthus' time, compared to where we are today?

Alison:             Thank you. It is the big, important question in the long history and future here in population and resources. And the way you frame that is something that generations of economists across the world have thought through exactly this question. How can we ... What might we legitimately do about human reproduction on the one hand and resource efficiency, food efficiency, energy efficiency, on the other? Essentially how might we bring these two things into better balance is a very long-standing question and something that after the Second World War was extremely alive, especially in the United States ... Has never really gone away, but politically has become very difficult.

                        And I'm very interested as a kind of long-term student of the history of population politics, in a way, I'm continually interested that up until probably the 1970s, perhaps 1980, people could put the population and resource question together very explicitly. U.S. presidents did it all the time ... You know, very wealthy people like John D. Rockefeller did it ... Governments all over the world, United Nations, would be very explicit about this problem. From the 1980s onwards, the politics about doing something, anything in a kind of directed way about human population, became so thorny and so difficult that in fact most governments across the world bar China, which of course, does this very directly ... Have just stepped aside from the problem altogether.

                        So it's too difficult, these days, for many governments to in fact enter, certainly politicians, to enter this question of population and resources. But if you scratch the surface, sometimes people can't quite put their finger on why it's so difficult. Why is it so controversial? Beyond a very kind of a thin reading. Nonetheless it's the case that usually within the environmentalist framework these days, and that's why I reference Jeffrey Sachs' Earth Institute ... It's usually within the environmentalist framework that the population question is re-entering at the moment.

Sue:                Thank you, Alison, very much, for that fascinating talk. For extolling the unexpected virtues of jet-lag and late night library browsing. For reminding and excavating Malthus' interests in the colony of New South ... What eventually became New South Wales and Australia. And for reminding us of the way in which the enduring questions about population, about migration, about dispossession, and about land use and resources and food security are enduring questions and not just things that we've found in our recent times.

                        So thank you very much for your talk and I'd like to thank you all for attending. A talk is always enhanced by the quality of the audience. The next Learn@Lunch will on Wednesday, the ninth of May, with Scientia Professor Toby Walsh, on another topical issue of artificial intelligence from the faculty of engineering. Professor Walsh was last named by the Australian as the rock star of Australia's digital revolution. So be sure to note the date on your calendars, or visit the UNSW Alumni website to find out more information. But in particular, you may wish to download the podcast of today's lecture. So thank you all for coming today and please enjoy the rest of your week.