Population has always been a critical driver of events and prior to the Industrial Revolution we lived in a zero sum world, with energy and resources effectively limited to that which could be harvested from photosynthesis, one person’s gain was at the limit, always someone else’s loss. Very low density hunter gather populations could thrive (often quite nicely) because they rarely approached their local resource limits, but the invention of agriculture changed this dramatically. The next 10,000 odd years of recorded history is a long story of local competition for fundamentally constrained opportunities.
There were only three ways to survive and dominate, use what you had more efficiently, take what someone else already had, or move to somewhere not yet occupied. One drove warfare, conquest and empire, the other drove innovation and intensification … yet the diffuse and intermittent nature of sunshine and climate imposed a strict zero sum game on both of these strategies, at least locally.
Eventually we expanded ourselves across the entire globe until there was no terra nullis left. And for a very long time our total global population hovered under 1b, this was as much we could sustain. Economic performance reflected this same logic; in the aftermath of the Black Death there was a surge of prosperity for the survivors, but within a century or so population rebounded and poverty was once again the harsh reality for most. This demographic stalemate slowly became apparent to the intellectual classes, most noteably the English cleric Robert Thomas Malthus.
In the context of the era in which he wrote, Malthus was entirely correct:
In his 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus observed that an increase in a nation’s food production improved the well-being of the populace, but the improvement was temporary because it led to population growth, which in turn restored the original per capita production level. In other words, humans had a propensity to utilize abundance for population growth rather than for maintaining a high standard of living, a view that has become known as the “Malthusian trap” or the “Malthusian spectre”. Populations had a tendency to grow until the lower class suffered hardship, want and greater susceptibility to famine and disease, a view that is sometimes referred to as a Malthusian catastrophe. Malthus wrote in opposition to the popular view in 18th-century Europe that saw society as improving and in principle as perfectible.
What Malthus could not understand (because at the time we lacked the intellectual tools to see it) was the underlying reason for this zero sum state … was that a world dependent on sunlight would always run hard against economic limits so low that the vast majority of the lower classes would forever be doomed to poverty. In Malthus’ logic, increasing population merely resulted in more misery.
While Malthusian ideas are often painted in a dark light, we should be generous about his motives, the man himself was a cleric distressed by the poverty and misery he saw around him. As a Christian thinker of his era, he would have framed this in terms of ‘people having too many babies’, the result of a lack of morality, chastity and constraint. The only path he could see out of the trap was to retreat from increasing population, back to a more sober world with fewer people living to a higher standard of living. Note carefully the pattern of the thinking here, ‘we have immorally expanded to a technological limit, therefore we must stop and retreat back into virtue’.
What he could not have anticipated was that coal would shatter his zero sum world, beyond all imagining.