For most of its existence, Homo sapiens lived in far-flung hunter-and-gathering communities, each of which was quite small and barely able to reproduce itself. Life expectancy at birth was hardly twenty-five years on average, and those persons who survived childhood often died violently, in combat with other hunters, at relatively young ages. (Robert William Fogel, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, 48)
For much of human history, average life expectancy used to be 20-30 years. By 1900, it had climbed to about 31 years … By 2003 it was 66.8 years. (Indur Goklany, The Improving State of the World, 31)
History is a tale of humanity living precariously above subsistence levels. Famine, disease, natural disasters, and war have always waiting in the wings to bring devastation to human communities. Several millennia ago humanity began to perfect animal husbandry and crop production. These skills led for the first time to an excess of food production, freeing some from agricultural work. This gave rise to artisans, religious officials, and governmental work; in other words, the birth of civilization. With these innovations, the worldwide human population began to grow at a faster rate but still at a glacial pace by recent standards.
Writing at the end of the 18th Century, Thomas Malthus, an Anglican parson, considered to be the father of demography and an important political economist, explained the pervasive pattern of human history. Occasionally, human groups have managed to achieve a favorable combination of land, weather, and absence of civil strife. The usual consequence was that population began to grow. It tended to grow at a geometric rate (i.e., 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32). Meanwhile, food production grew at an arithmetic rate (i.e., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Very quickly the population outstripped the ability of the land to provide for the population. Famine set in. Disease spread more easily through weakened bodies. Violence broke out over scarce resources. If food did not become the issue then water or some other resource might become contested. Some civilizations sustained their growth by annexing other land and resources which not infrequently meant the death of those living in the annexed land. Thus, from a global perspective, this was not a net increase in population.
At the end of the 18th Century there were maybe a billion people on the planet. Malthus detected that population growth had begun to accelerate. This spelled impending doom to him. As there had been no other case of humanity escaping checks on population growth like disease, pestilence, famine, and war, an unhappy human fate seemed inevitable. Being a good churchman, the only ethical response he could envision was delaying marriage and limiting childbirth through abstinence.
Yet, as I showed in my World Social Indicators series, Malthus was utterly mistaken. The world population grew by more than sixfold over the nest two centuries while real per capita income (worldwide), which took nearly 12,000 years to double from $90 a day in 10,000 BCE to $180 in 1750 CE, grew to $6,600 by year 2000. The number of people living on less than a dollar a day has shrunk from 84% in 1820 to less than 20% today. The cost of food has dropped by 82% over the past 100 years in the United States and commodity prices are a fraction of what they were a century ago even with the recent spike in the markets. Life expectancy has risen from the historical norm of 20-30 years to nearly 70 years.
No one who is serious about bringing greater shalom to the world can ignore these developments and the trajectory in which the world is moving. Unfortunately, this is precisely what all too many social justice activists do. They routinely take a moment-in-time picture of the world, see injustices, and then prophetically denounce the current state of affairs as they call for revolutionary reform. They ignore the historical trajectory of the events above. When they do suggest a trajectory of events, they treat our present affluence as the historical norm and poverty as the unjust anomaly created by affluence, when in fact pervasive poverty has been the norm and our widespread affluence is the anomaly. The question is not about what causes poverty for poverty has been the normal state of affairs. The question is where did affluence come from?
We must ask what happened that broke us out of Rev. Malthus’ well articulated and historically accurate trap? Can we learn something about achieving widespread affluence on a sustainable basis? Many present models of pursuing social justice may make us feel good about our commitment to “speaking truth to power” and “standing with the oppressed” but what if our modes of engagement are actually blocking the liberation of the poor instead of liberating them? True justice demands that we seek the best for the poor even if it means losing some of our cherished conceptualizations of the poor and their plight.
In the next few posts I’m going to attempt to answer these questions. I’ve chosen to take an organic and diagnostic approach in addressing these issues. When examining a patient a doctor does a number of tests and then compares these against established benchmarks. The human body is complex organism with many interacting sub-systems. So is a society. I will begin by sketching a general model I call “the cycle of prosperity.” It contains at least five discreet elements and flourishes best within a particular socio-cultural environment. From there I think we can begin to understand what happened in recent centuries and then we can look at the challenges that plague the bottom one billion of the world’s population living today.