Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Poverty and Progress: An Ecological Model of Economic Development

I remembered Mick Common mentioning this book and I saw that it was referred to by Robert Allen. I found that ANU's library had a copy but it was nowhere on the shelves and I put in a missing book search request. It couldn't be found. So I was surprised to get an e-mail while I was in Adelaide telling me to come pick it up from the library! You can see from the cover above that this book was published in 1973. Disappointingly, the copy I'm reading has a boring grey hardback cover.

The central idea of the book is similar to that of Ester Böserup - innovation and economic development are responses to the scarcity caused by increased population. This idea explains a lot, but I think that Wilkinson takes it too far. In his opinion economic development never increases welfare in the long-run. In his view all the innovations of modern industrial society are merely (often inferior) substitutes for goods that were lost in the industrialization process that was necessary to cope with increased population. If this were really true then why don't countries with low population densities relative to resources in today's world (New Zealand?) adopt a medieval way of life?

I think the idea does explain a lot about pre-industrial societies and the beginning of the industrial revolution. As Allen also documents, coal was an inferior fuel to wood, at least until innovations for using coal effectively came into play. Both authors agree that the scarcity of wood in England drove the increased adoption of coal for many uses.

Another important idea in the book is that many pre-industrial societies had various institutions to control population including taboos on sex at certain times or between certain classes of people, contraception methods, abortion, and infanticide. Some pre-industrial societies, therefore, managed to stay well within ecological bounds. Without facing the pressure of meeting subsistence needs there was little reason to innovate. When Christian missionaries arrived in many such places they tried to eliminate these institutions with a resultant take off of population growth.

The main methods in Christian Europe were delayed marriage in periods of reduced prosperity due to high population and (not mentioned by Wilkinson) monastic and priestly orders. These were less effective at maintaining the population within the carrying capacity for a comfortable lifestyle. England already reached carrying capacity in the 14th century. The Black Death then wiped out a large proportion of the population. Only in the 17th century was carrying capacity again approached. The eventual response was the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Would industrialization have started earlier if the Black Death plague hadn't happened?

No comments:

Post a Comment