I. What is the question?

A few days ago I started writing an idle thought into a short post. It turned into a long post. So I split it in two. Then I realised it was reliant on ideas I had but hadn’t written down, which might confuse others. So I wrote posts on them. Then they required another post. Eventually I ended up with a series – later entries somewhat reliant on former ones – although they’re not really built on top of each other and they don’t form a thesis. Maybe I’ll tie the ideas together into a more detailed and too large for blog piece later, but this is a chance to get the thoughts together roughly. I’m tagging each one with “modernity virus” and I’ll post each every 3 or so days so they don’t clog up the front page.

Lets take a very materialistic view of history. In this view we are concerned mainly with material human welfare. We are concerned with how many humans there are, and we are concerned with their material level of well being. We treat one human life as equal to another in our evaluations. Kings, dates, battles, ideas and technology may all figure, but only for how they effect the most important elements of the human existence – life and material comfort (if effect, food).

If we do this, we find there are essentially only two important events in all human history. Everything else is details. These are the Agrarian Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. The first allowed humanity to break the population limits set by food availability in nature, by allowing us to increase our own food supply, and thus population. The latter allowed, for the first time, large populations to rise above subsistence.

The latter point is striking, and it’s what really took me when I read Gregory Clarke’s “A Farewell to Alms”. The first half of the book is a rigourous empirical look at living standards throughout history in the form of caloric intake. In short, whether they were hunter gatherers, roman citizens or dark age peasants, or whether they lived under Chinese Emperors, Mughals, Caliphs, kings, republics or in anarchy, average caloric intake remained constant.

Think about the implications of this compared to the history we’re used to. As far as long terms effects on how much you, as an average person, ate, the decline and fall of Rome meant nothing. The cultured Song were no better than the barbaric Yuan. The Dark Ages were not famine followed by feat in the Renaissance. Changes and advances still occured of course, but they were not what we celebrate. A nameless soul in the dark ages inventing the horse drawn plough allowed a population to expand. Plutarch and Gutenberg are worth celebrating, but we can see no legacy of their deeds in either population nor sustenance – the most intrinsic interests of humanity. The chaos of the War of the Roses or the black death saw caloric intake rise as the population dropped and more food was around for those who were left, but the Tudor golden age saw the population expand again, driving the average intake back down to sustenance.

It’s no wonder that when Malthus wrote, he could not anticipate any sustained increase in human welfare. Population would just expand to eat up any gains, just like it had always done for all of human history. It is just unfortunate for Malthus that he was writing right as history was breaking. The modern age, the age of growth had broken this iron rule, but there is no reason on earth why Malthus should have anticipated it. It really was a Black Swan, and the greatest we’ve ever seen.

For the vast vast vast vast vast majority of human history, it was unimaginable that a society could have more obesity than hunger. The modern world takes alot of explaining.

Clarke does an amazing job illustrating that why it so important we find out why this happened. What caused the industrial revolution? He then does a rather unconvincing job of doing so. This isn’t his fault. Many, many, many people have tried to answer the greatest question in human history, and have failed. We do not have a single theory, and I enjoy studying as many as possible, that is satisfying in its explanatory power. Some get tied up by nationalist agendas, and others get tied up by teleological fallacies (i.e that we should view all history as inevitably leading to the present) . Many more are sincere, but come across the simple fact that because the phenomena of industrialization, of growth, spreads so quickly, it only spontaneously started once.  Everywhere else it has appeared has received it from contact.
The modernity virus (as I’ll call it) started in North West Europe, but we cannot experiment to determine what was important. We can’t rerun time, adding or removing a feature at a time as controls to see if they are important – we can guess, but without a counterfactual this is informed speculation. We can’t even run the same Earth over and over from some time to see if it always occurs in North West Europe, or whether it happens much at all. If we could look across the quantum multiverse, would we discover that roughly half the time it first occurs in China, or Zimbabwe or Peru? Maybe we are one of the tiny minority of universes where the exceedingly improbable phenomena occurs at all.

We have difficulties answering why the modernity virus began . We cannot adequately explain why it happened in North West Europe. We can’t even be sure whether the fact it happened in North West Europe matters at all.1 Since we only live in one world we have no choice but to compare and contrast North West Europe with other countries as our only counterfactuals, in an effort to try and work out what mattered and what didn’t.

Since I scheduled these posts I’ve had a flareup in my arthritis, so I may not be able to reply to any comments, but I will be reading them.

1 Jared Diamond does do a relatively good job of answering similar questions about the agrarian revolution, but there’s not much in his work to explain the latter revolution. If we were to accept that the former was necessary for the latter, we may know why the modernity virus didn’t happen in Australia, but there’s nothing that really differentiate between, say, Britain and China, or even Britain and Sulawesi.

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About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
13 years ago

I look forward to the sequels Richard.

If I understand correctly, you/Clark are saying the calories per head remained relatively constant because of Malthusian effects. If the calorie/head stat is the same before and after the agrarian revolution then it is a bad stat. A better statistic for measuring progress would be calorie per hour work. Presumably this increased drastically at the agrarian revolution. This measures how much time we had left over to think about how the world works and start to mould it into even better farming practices. So it continued to increase.

So productivity increased but production of food (per head) did not. Pre industrial revolution people had the option to pay themselves a productivity premium by either (a) eating more than they really needed or (b) building stuff. They obviously chose to build stuff. Oh, yeah. And heaps of wars while human civilisation tried to catch up with the new realities of increased mobility and weapons.

The question then is why the food/build/war choice changed. After the IR, way more food and goods were produced per head – at the same time as food becoming a smaller proportion of total economic activity. I have trouble thinking of a simple utility/cost model that would explain these facts. But I am not really good at this kind of thing, not being an economist. However, I find it hard to believe that economic historians have not at least had a good crack at it.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
13 years ago

I have long thought we have three overpopulations in our past: the hunter-gatherer one, the agricultural one, and our present industrial one. There might have been a yet earlier overpopulation in Africa, prior the colonisation of Europe.

Perhaps hunter-gatherer overpopulation did not “cause” agriculture but overpopulation would have been a necessary precondition for the adoption of agriculture.

The second overpopulation, resulting from agriculture, made itself felt almost immediately – the earliest city fortifications are about 8000 BC I think – and so there followed millenniums of overpopulated thrashing around (fighting over resources) before the industrial revolution came along.

Presumably the first agriculturalists prospered marvellously for a brief period until overpopulation negated the advantage. Now it seems we have enjoyed a few centuries where industry allowed increased prosperity but population has again caught up.

If the first overpopulation gave rise to agriculture, and the second gave rise to industry, what will the third bring? It seems the only resolution would be the colonisation of space.

As an aside, I thought Diamond did explain why Europe was the venue for the industrial revolution. Because Europe is so topographically rugged, regimes were many and small so the entrepreneur had a choice of patrons and could abscond to the neighbour if the local one was repressive.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
13 years ago

As regards European geography, I was merely saying that Diamond had offered an explanation. As for my opinion, I think there’s something in it but that there were other essentials, such as the development of the horse about 1000BC which was probably necessary to permit the Roman empire and the empire to permit the spread of monotheism.

Clearly, overpopulation is not precipitous. Ultimately it is the normal process of natural selection: there are more offspring than can live to reproduce. So in Africa, prior to 100K years ago, there was “overpopulation” for as many millions of years as you care to nominate. The selection was relentless enough for humans to begin to diversify toward sub-species.

What was precipitous was the population explosion when they left Africa. How long did the new prosperity last till Malthus arrived in the Levant? A few centuries? Whatever it was, it was brief compared with Clarke’s (I haven’t read him) normal overpopulated, edge-of-starvation conditions. After many tens of thousands of years of this hunter-gatherer overpopulation, agriculture turned up and there was a new, precipitous population explosion. It makes sense that they didn’t eat more calories per head but just had more surviving children – and so the normal state of overpopulation was promptly restored, though at a higher level. However there was some economic surplus, which supported new elites (who surely got extra calories).

That overpopulated state obtained for 10K years till the industrial revolution when there was another precipitous increase which has produced, in a mere couple of centuries, our present overpopulation.

Did those overpopulations create pressures that led to the agricultural and industrial revolutions? Yes. Without the pressure surely the revolutions would not have occurred.

What will be the result of today’s overpopulation? It is a bit different for it has become a matter of practical fact that we have only one human population and it lives in only one place.

We know that Malthus does not rule as directly as he used to, but because we substitute “minimum standard of living” for “edge of starvation” we make the pressure on resources so great that despite low birth-rates, we are surely in another overpopulated state, a state that must worsen as more of our population bring their standard of living up toward the minimum. Technology will help but the laws of physics must impose limits to growth.

Will this overpopulation also persist for millenniums? Well, we have the past to learn from.

Nicholas Gruen
13 years ago

Chris, Richard, the agriculture was a disaster according to lots of research – it jacked up the work rate something terrible – but enabled the intensification of work. If you believe this then pre-agricultural humanity had a way of blocking the Malthusian response – population growth – which somehow came unstuck in agricultural societies – which is where class and inequality emerge. Then one has to fast forward say ten thousand odd years for Malthus to finally be thrown off by the prodigious productivity of capitalism and the eventual emergence of population restraint in the face of rising living standards.

I’ve always thought someone was playing a trick on Malthus and us humangoes that Malthus came to understand and advocate this hugely important principle of human development . . . just at the point when it was becoming obsolete!