Tom Hanks – of all people  – was recently discussing overpopulation on NBC’s Today show. He was doing it to promote his upcoming movie, Inferno, which is all about an overpopulation crisis. The actor claimed that we will have too many people “in an instant” and that the planet will be unable to support them. This is not a new idea. It dates back to the late 1700s, when Thomas Robert Malthus feared that large population would exhaust Earth’s resources and result in mass poverty and starvation.

Mr Hanks is not the first to echo his concerns. Hollywood has a long history of making dystopian movies painting a gloomy portrait of humanity’s future and Malthusianism even remains popular among some university professors. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, who directs the Earth Institute at Columbia University, fears that “we might yet confirm the Malthusian curse”.

Yet in over 200 years, Malthus’ fears have not come to pass. We are not facing species-wide starvation: human innovation has brought hunger and poverty to record-lows and food production has climbed to new highs, as farmers have found new ways to produce ever more food per hectare of land.


According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the amount of land dedicated to agriculture globally has remained roughly stable from the early 1990s – approximately when the previous trend of expansion of agricultural land came to an end. In fact, since the turn of the new millennium, use of land for agriculture has fallen slightly. Around 26 million fewer hectares of land were farmed in 2013 than in 2000. Even so, this reduction occurred alongside a dramatic decrease in world hunger. We were able to reduce hunger because agricultural productivity increased.