For Anyone Who Doubts a Major Turning Point in Human History Arrived: As Economies Grew, So Did Population
As we have seen, economic growth began about 200 years ago and has increased exponentially since then; human population has followed the same pattern.
Historian David Christian describes this as “a sudden breakdown in an ancient equilibrium between a large mammal species and the environment it inhabits.”
According to Christian, “A biologist, looking at the diagram showing the recent growth in world population in a long-range perspective, said that he had the impression of being in the presence of the growth curve of a microbe population in a body suddenly struck by some infectious disease” (“Big History”).
This may be somewhat hyperbolic, but is not too much of an exaggeration. The sudden population growth is perhaps the single most significant event in the history of mankind.
For our purposes, two facts are worthy of note: the charts showing population and economic growth look almost exactly the same, and no one knows why either occurred.
Thomas Malthus became most famous—and infamous—for An Essay on the Principle of Population, which predicted that as of the late 18th century human population could not grow because “the power in the earth” had reached its food-producing limits.
Famine seems to be the last, and most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to produce subsistence in man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race….gigantic inevitable famine stalks…..that [is true] in every age and in every state in which has existed, or does now exist. (An Essay on the Principle of Population)
Malthus then explained that “the two powers of population and of production of the earth” form an “insurmountable” barrier and “great law” that prevent anything but a constant struggle for scarce resources.
“No fancied equality,” he wrote, “no agrarian regulations in their utmost extent could remove the pressure of it even for a single century… And it appears, therefore, to be decisive against a society, all of the members of which should live in ease, happiness, and comparative leisure; and feel no anxiety about providing the means of subsistence for themselves and families.”
He was, by many measures, extraordinarily wrong. World population, then about 900 million, is now more than 7.3 billion and still rising.
Nonetheless, in an analysis little noticed at the time and which most scholars still ignore, Malthus opened his Essay on the Principle of Population by describing what virtually none of his contemporaries even imagined: an era of great change was already well underway:
The great and unlooked for discoveries that have taken place of late years…the increasing diffusion of general knowledge from the extension of the art of printing, the ardent and unshackled spirit of inquiry that prevails…the new and extraordinary lights that have been thrown on political subjects…have all concurred to lead many able men into the opinion that we are touching on a period big with the most important changes, changes that would in some measure be decisive of the future fate of mankind.