A world of woe: Why Malthus was right

Would you rather have lived in a more violent hunter-gatherer society, where working demands were less and food was more plentiful or pre-industrial England? The hunter-gatherer would have been better, says economic historian Gregory Clark. Photo by Flickr user Jonrawlinson.

Up until the time of Napoleon, population was limited by the limited resources for keeping humans alive, making a hunter-gatherer society, like the Amazon above, a more comfortable place to live than pre-industrial England. Photo by Flickr user Jonrawlinson.

A note from Paul Solman: Around the world of economic history, in 80 words: In the beginning, humans were hunter-gatherers and lived a pretty easy life, though only until the age of 35 or so, on average. About 12,000 years ago or less, folks discovered agriculture, and population exploded — but material life actually became harder than before. Then came the Industrial Revolution and at least in the West, sudden and steady economic growth that made us rich: “A Farewell to Alms,” as economic historian Greg Clark put it in his first controversial book seven years ago.

The controversial part: he claimed that in England, where the Industrial Revolution was born, the takeoff was due, above all, to “the survival of the richest.”

Clark.A farewell to alms

I interviewed Clark right after the book came out, but for various reasons, our discussion never made it to air. The interview began with the Pleistocene (circa 2.5 million to 12,000 BCE), well before the agricultural so-called “Neolithic” revolution. But, says Clark, up until the time of Napoleon — 1800 CE — the world as we know it conforms well to a “Malthusian” view of economic history: population limited by the limited resources for keeping humans alive. When Thomas Malthus laid out this vision in 1798, he was dead on about the entire past history of humankind, though the Industrial Revolution was about to prove him wrong about the future.

This week, we’re presenting the interview with Clark, never before published, broken into five pieces. It’s as good an overview of economic history as you’re likely ever to get.

Greg Clark: You start off as a hunter-gatherer and your tribe grows until the animals or nuts and berries start thinning out or you run into another tribe’s turf. You do very well. But you can’t stop the population growing. And so you start off with 100,000 people, but by 1800 you’ve got a world of 700 million people, and it’s the nature of that pre-industrial world that all the time you’re improving technology; what you’re doing is generating more people.

We get a pretty good idea of what life was like 100,000 years ago just by looking at the kind of surviving remnant hunter-gatherer groups in the Amazonian jungle, and life is actually surprisingly good compared with societies like England even as late as 1800. People get a fairly decent diet. They’re not over-fed. There’s a lot of variety.

Surprisingly, people actually don’t have to work that long. It seems to be something like five to six hours per day for all work activities that people do, whereas even in affluent, modern America, if you count all of the things that I count as work like home repair and child care, men are doing about nine hours a day in modern America. [Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins once described hunter-gathers as living in “the original affluent society.”]

Life expectancy wasn’t long, but it was no worse than England in 1800 — about 35 years at birth – and if you made it to age 20, you actually had a decent chance of getting into your sixties. So a hunter-gatherer life was not great, but it wasn’t as bad as people might think.

The evidence is that they were living as well, or probably better, than most societies around about 1800.

But a defining feature was that technology changed very, very slowly. What that meant was that the population would expand to the point where the birth rate equalled the death rate. And so the Malthusian world is dominated by this fact: that for every birth, someone has to die, and the way that’s accomplished is by living standards eventually being driven low enough to actually achieve the balance.

“And so the Malthusian world is dominated by this fact: that for every birth, someone has to die…”

Every society that we know of before 1800 was constrained in that way. All long- established societies, eventually, expanded to fill every niche.

If you go to somewhere like England in 1300, it’s all occupied. There’s no extra space. Everything has to be accommodated within that society. Take Japan. Already by 1600 it’s all occupied by people. It takes a surprisingly short time in most of these societies for a population to grow rapidly enough that you’ve basically occupied everything [given the productivity of the land to feed its people].

The Yangtze Delta, around about 1800, they had very, very high yield from each acre of land, but it takes a huge amount of human labor to get that extra yield. You have to dig out the drainage ditches, get the manure in from the cities, and output per worker becomes very low.

Image of Thomas Malthus courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Image of Thomas Malthus courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s the interesting thing: if you look at a hunter-gatherer society, it tends to have enormously high output per worker, because they don’t work that much, and so per worker hour, they tended to do very well.

If you go to England in 1800, even though it’s a much more sophisticated society, the average agricultural worker is only producing about half the number of calories per hour of work as in a typical hunter-gatherer society. And so the problem you run into with a fixed area of land is that you can always expand the amount of output. It’s amazing how much more you can do, and China shows just how dramatic that can be. But the output per worker eventually just keeps on moving down.

Paul Solman: So the story up until modernity is hunter-gatherers multiplying and filling more and more land, up to the point that they can’t be hunter-gatherers anymore because there are no more nuts and berries?

Greg Clark: Yes.

Paul Solman: Or antelope to slay?

Greg Clark: Hunter-gatherers around 100,000 BC could only catch really slow moving things. There were a lot of snails and mollusks in their diet. They learned to catch bigger things, they increased their population density, but then someone comes along with the idea of well, “What about if we cultivated grains?”

That’s a great idea at first. You do very well. But you can’t stop the population from growing. And so you start off with 100,000 people, but by 1800, you’ve got a world of 700 million people, and it’s the nature of that pre-industrial world, that all the time you’re improving technology, all you’re doing is generating more people. That’s all the effect of technology in this world — in terms of living conditions — before 1800.

Paul Solman: And just to be specific, you get more people why and how?

Greg Clark: Because every time you improve living standards, people produce more children, they’re more fertile, and more of those children live to adulthood.


Clark asked me to consider, for example, the South Seas Mutiny on the HMS Bounty in 1789, made famous by Hollywood. A handful of mutineers ran off first to Tahiti and then brought a number of native women with them to uninhabited Pitcairn Island, 1357 miles away.

Greg Clark: Eleven women and 12 men, and that actually led to fighting, trouble. The island is only a mile long and half-a-mile wide, and eventually there was only one man left, but 10 women.

Within 50 years, in those circumstances, with food and without disease, population just exploded and eventually they had to remove people from the island — a large fraction of the population.

And so you can see that if living conditions are good in the pre-industrial world, eventually you run into a population constraint, and then it’s got to be disease, poor housing, low material wealth that actually keeps the population down.

Just read Samuel Pepys’ diary, says Clark, to see how prevalent disease was, even in Restoration England.

Greg Clark: It’s a wonderful window into English society in the 1660s. Pepys is at the very apex. He is in the major government department, the Navy, running most of their operations. We know from 10 years of his diaries, where he records everything, that in that time his wife seems to have taken one bath, and it’s notable enough that he actually writes it down, and notes that now she pretends to this resolution of being clean, and she won’t let him come to bed with her that night, now that she is clean.

There’s no record of that bath ever occurring again. This is the upper level of the society.

The other thing in Pepys’ diary is he’s got problems because of the human effluents kept in the basement of houses in London, emptied every six months. So basically, these people are living above human waste, and your neighbor’s waste runs into your house.

In contrast, Japan, from the earliest times, was a society of very orderly hygiene, careful separation of toilet facilities and housing. And the bizarre feature of this in the pre-industrial world is that the Japanese then were able to live on kind of stinted material rations, whereas in somewhere like England, you had to be fairly well off if you’re going to actually survive the resulting diseases and other problems.

“And so a lot about the Malthusian world is the exact opposite of what we expect now. What’s vice now is virtue then. You know, bad hygiene actually makes for good living conditions.”

And so a lot about the Malthusian world is the exact opposite of what we expect now. What’s vice now is virtue then. You know, bad hygiene actually makes for good living conditions.

Paul Solman: Because so many people die.

Greg Clark: Yes. Areas that have bad climate in terms of disease, like sub-Saharan Africa, we believe, were actually wealthy areas in the pre-industrial period because disease helped kill so many people.

Paul Solman: And therefore, the people who are left can live much better.

Greg Clark: They can share the bounty. In hunter-gatherer society, one of the reasons that living standards are high is that they tended to have a high degree of violence. There’s a lot of death through violence.

That’s actually a good thing in a world like this because you’ve got to die some way. It’s better to die at the end of a spear than to die from miserable material living conditions.

Paul Solman: Now you’re smiling and you’re saying “good thing,” but you mean “good” for the living standards of the people who surive.

Greg Clark: No, I mean “good” in an absolute sense: that given a choice between living in a society like Japan and living in hunter-gatherer society — one with hygiene and ordor, and the other with violence and mayhem – that in every respect, you’d be better off in hunter-gatherer society. You live just as long as you do in Japan, but you live better, until you finally meet your end. And so I’m smiling because it actually is the case that in this pre-industrial world, if you have a choice, go for the violent society. In every sense you’ll be better off.

Paul Solman: Because you really would be better off dying at the end of a spear than dying of malnutrition.

Greg Clark: Yes. In the sense that you’re going to live for the same average length of time, but you live so much better in a society with these larger extraneous sources of death than you would in a society where everything is orderly, everything is neat, and you basically get your bowl of rice every day.

In hunter-gatherer society, you live just as long, but eat a lot of meat; you don’t work that much. That’s why the bizarre thing is that for most people in the world, things were getting worse, all the way up, until 1800. A lot of other things changed about the world, and if you’re interested in the intellectual life, there’s a lot of difference by 1800. But if you’re just thinking about the material world, the bizarre feature is that hunter-gatherer society is where you want to go.

Paul Solman: So no growth in all these centuries in Europe? How about the kings, the nobles?

Greg Clark: Oh, yes. In all of these societies there was a very rich upper stratum, and certainly when you moved to societies in 1800, these new agrarian societies, that stratum could live better than in the hunter-gatherer world. But that’s a tiny fraction of the population, and for some place like England, we can actually calculate in 1800 what was the average calorie ration per day, per person.

Paul Solman: Including the rich?

Greg Clark: Including the rich. And it’s something like 2,300 calories. What is it in modern hunter-gatherer or forager societies? It’s about the same, on average.

And so at the very upper end of the spectrum, certainly these societies offer new possibilities. But for the average person in England who is down at the bottom, nothing has changed. Now you can get some enjoyment from watching the antics of the rich in your society. But hunter-gatherer society was actually much more egalitarian. And since we like equality in the modern world, again, it would seem to be an argument for saying that you should choose hunter-gatherer society if you have the choice.