Ensorcelled by þe Devil of Malthus
Yes, I do think "Þe Enlarging of þe Bounds of Human Empire: A History of Economic Growth" may well be my next book project...
The post-agriculture post-metalworking pre-industrialization pre-globalization human economy is a good place to start our narrative of the history of economic growth. So let us ask: What was human life like in the long bronze and iron agrarian-ages, after the discovery of metals but before reliable trans-oceanic travel, in the years from, say, -3000 to 1500?
Our standard of living back then? If we had to slot it into emerging-markets standards of living in the world today, then for typical people—not the élite—we might call it $2.50 a day. Back then technological progress was so slow and resource scarcity so great that if the average human population grew at 8% per century—which it did from -3000 to 1500—potential benefits from technology enabling better use of resources and thus higher productivity would be offset by scarcer resources per capita and thus lower productivity. From -3000 to 1500, I cannot see any significant difference in the material standard of living of the typical person. (Of course, the élite of 1500 had lives far outstripping in wealth those of -3000, and the typical person in 1500 had much greater cultural wealth accessible to them, if they could grasp it, than their predecessors in -3000.)
Now civilized human populations growing at an average pace of 8% per century for 4.5 millennia should make us sit up and take notice. We know a preindustrial pre-artificial birth-control population that is nutritionally unstressed will triple in numbers every 50 years or so. That was the experience of the conquistadores and their descendants in Latin America. That was the experience of the English and French settlers coming in behind the waves of plague and genocide that had decimated the indigenous Amerindian population in North America. That was the experience of the Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian settlers on the Pontic-Caspian steppe, after the armies of the gunpowder empires, most notably of Yekaterina II Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov (neé Sophie), Tsarina of All the Russias, drove out the horse nomads and opened the black-earth regions to the plow.
And yet it took not 50 but 1500 years for human populations to double in the long Agrarian Age of civilization from -3000 to 1500.
Thomas Robert Malthus taught us that there are two ways that a human population can be kept from exploding—from doubling every fifty years, and multiplying by a thousand-fold every 5000. There is the positive check: people so poor and malnourished that children’s immune systems are compromised so that they get carried off by the common cold, and women so poor and hungry that ovulation becomes hit-or-miss. And there is the preventative check: late marriage for women, social shunning of those who engage in extra-marital intercourse, and conscious fertility limitation by couples so that you can live relatively well without the population exploding.
Back in the Agrarian Age, the check for the typical family was overwhelmingly the positive one: poverty, malnourishment, hunger, and their consequences.
There is a story told about Eli’sha (“Father God Is My Salvation”), Prophet in Israel in the first half of the -800s:
[In] Shunem… a wealthy woman lived…. And she said unto her husband, “Behold now, I perceive that this is an holy man…. Let us make a small roof chamber… so that whenever he comes to us, he can go in there.” One day he came there… turned into the chamber and rested there And he said to Geha’zi his servant… “What then is to be done for her?” Geha’zi answered, “Well, she has no son, and her husband is old.” He said, “Call her.” And when he had called her, she stood in the doorway. And he said, “At this season, when the time comes round, you shall embrace a son”… (2 Kings 4:8-16 RSV)
The question is: What can a prophet with mighty and magical powers do for this wealthy woman who has assisted him? The answer is: Get her a son!
In the year -3000 we think the population of the world was about 15 million. By 1500 we are pretty confident that it was about 480 million. That is an average human population growth rate of 0.077% per year. That is an average population growth rate of 2% per generation. Typical women in the years from -3000 to 1500 would thus have, an average. 1.02 sons who themselves survive to reproductive age Do the Poisson-distribution math. Recognize that that means only two women in three have sons who survive into their mothers’ middle age.
What did it mean back then to be in the other one-third of women—those without surviving adult sons?
Well, having a surviving son was a great gift. Under conditions of strong patriarchy, indeed, not having a surviving son was close to—not quite, but close to—social death. If you don’t have a surviving adult son, then when your—perhaps older—husband is dead, who is going to speak up for you, and make sure you get any resources at all? Your daughters? Only if you have very good relationships with your sons-in-law. Your nephews? Perhaps. Wherever patriarchy was sufficiently strong—and that was lots of places—the consequence of winding up sonless were dire. And the chance of winding up sonless was high: 1/3.
The result was that whenever, wherever there were extra resources, the pressure to use those resources to try to have more sons as insurance was immense. Thus whenever, wherever we gained the ability to grow more food, we would simply have more children. Population thus pressed on the means of subsistence. People are trying to have many sons given that infant and early childhood mortality was between 1/3 and 1/2 and the expected number of surviving sons was just a hair over one. Figure eight or nine pregnancies, six or seven live births—and lifetime maternal childbed mortality between 1/10 and 1/5—three or four children surviving to age 5 and two or three surviving to adulthood, leaving just over two surviving and reproducing.
But we did not get the sixfold technological dividend from -3000 to 1500 all at once. instead, technology crawled forward, at an average pace of perhaps 4% per century.
Thus even though technology in 1500 was far advanced over technology in -3000, the typical person in 1500 was not much better off; life remained nasty, brutish, and short in spite of a human technological competence perhaps six times as great. Had that upward leap in technology taken place all at once, it would have been vastly more than enough for us to escape from the Malthusian trap. Sixfold higher incomes would have pushed nutrition standards and life expectancy way up and infant mortality way down.
In the absence of patriarchy the risks would not have been nearly as dire: A population reproducing itself plus a little more would have left you with only a 1/9 probability of having no surviving child, a much lower risk. But Geha′zi and Elishi in the year -875 are not discussing whether the wealthy Shunamite woman has surviving daughters, nieces, or even nephews, but only that she does not have a son.
Sixteen Bible verses after Elisha promises the wealthy Shunamite woman that God will grant her a son, we read: “When Eli′sha came into the house, he saw the child lying dead on his bed…” (2 Kings 4:32 RSV). And in the next five verses Eli’sha went above and beyond his tasks as Prophet of Israel, and raised the boy from the dead—a feat I do not think is found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible save for a similar resurrection of the son of the widow of Zar’ephath by Eli’sha’s teacher and patron Eli’jah (“My Storm God Is Father God”).
“Ensorcelled by the Devil of Malthus”—that was the fate of the typical human in the long agrarian age. The logic is simple: as food production increases, so does population; as population increases, so does demand for food; as demand for food increases, so does pressure on resources; as pressure on resources increases, so does scarcity; as scarcity increases, so does poverty; as poverty increases, so does mortality; as mortality increases, so does population decline; as population decline occurs, so does food surplus; as food surplus occurs, so does population recovery; and the cycle repeats itself. Thus this Malthusian cycle kept us at a constant level of “subsistence”. This level of “subsistence” did vary substantially across time and space, depending on cultural factors. But we guess that the typical human standard of living in the agrarian age was roughly $2.50/day.
How confident are we of this? Quite confident. One of the main sources of evidence is anthropometric data: the measurement of human body size and shape. People in the agrarian age were short, really short: perhaps four inches shorter than we are today. That means substantial malnutrition during individual human growth. And population growth was really low: 2% per generation, and we know that a nutritionally unstressed preindustrial human population typically doubles every generation. That means substantial malnutrition during life: immune systems so compromised as to be unable to fight off even small infections, and women so skinny that ovulation is hit-or-miss.
Slow technological progress—perhaps 4% per century. Slow population growth that, through smaller farm sizes and more additional other forms of resource scarcity, more-or-less offset any effect of better technology on living standards—figure 2% population growth on average, 8% per century. Very strong pressures to devote resources to having more sons, at least where High Patriarchy ruled—and, in the Old World, at least after the year -3500, it did rule across all of Eurasia and down Africa from the north to the tsetse fly belt. Brutal nutritional scarcity and poverty—figure typical lifespans of 25 years, income levels of $2.50/day, more than half of a typical family’s resources going to the uncertain provision of their 2000 calories plus essential nutrients a day, and people’s adult heights stunted relative to ours by four inches or more.
Thus in such an agrarian-age world there was no possibility of humanity baking a sufficiently large economic pie for everyone, or nearly everyone, to have enough. Micah the prophet talked about the utopia to come “in the latter days” when the Storm God of the Semites would “judge between many peoples”, and so “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks… they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid…” (Micah 4:1-4 RSV). But, given the level of technology relative to population and hence resource scarcity in the agrarian age, there simply could not be enough vines and fig trees.
So what were the consequences in the -3000 to 1500 bronze and iron agrarian ages of this general human vine-and-fig-tree shortage?