Poverty and Progress

A blog to mark the 2022 reprinting of Richard Wilkinson’s
Poverty & Progress: an ecological model of economic growth (1973)

The early Seventies saw the take-off of the modern environmental movement, with the first Earth Day celebrated in 1970, and the publication of some classics of environmental thinking: of A Blueprint for Survival, The Limits to Growth and Small is Beautiful.  These books captured widespread attention and helped the movement to flourish, grounding it in serious, but accessible, scholarship.

Also published to critical acclaim in 1973, Poverty & Progress was Richard Wilkinson’s first book. Ahead of its time, the book set forward an argument that environmental constraints of population growth and scarce resources have, throughout history, been the real driving force behind economic development. 

Renowned economist and philosopher, Professor Kenneth Boulding, welcomed the book with these words:

“By a happy coincidence I had been reading Malthus’s First Essay on Population only a week before (this) remarkable little book came into my hands….the similarity struck me with immediate pleasure…Wilkinson has the almost intuitive appreciation of complexity that the classical economists had but that, alas, has been replaced in this day when corn and wheat have been replaced by x and y“. 

Poverty & Progress is re-issued by Routledge in July 2022 and to accompany its re-issue, Richard shares his thoughts on its resonance for our current environmental crisis.

Scarcity & Growth

Written by: Richard Wilkinson

The wheel is often taken as if it were an exemplar of the inventions that gave rise to progress; but if you live in an untamed environment without roads, you soon realise that a wheel is not such a good idea: you are better off with a packhorse than a wheeled cart. We constantly fail to understand how changes in the ecological context in which our economic systems function have shaped innovation throughout the course of development. 

People imagine that the history of economic development is the history of human attempts to improve the quality of life.  We assume that we invented new ways of doing things because they were better than the old ones.  But when you look more closely, that does not stand up. Economic development is instead the history of how we are forced to intervene ever more deeply into natural processes in order to divert a larger part of what nature produces to support humanity.  

I set out this perspective in a book called Poverty and Progress, first published in 1973, which, after almost 50 years, has just been reprinted. It was subtitled “An ecological model of economic development” because it showed how economic development came out of an almost continuous succession of problems forcing us to exploit our environment in new and more intensive ways as our demands on it increased. The only way of avoiding that treadmill was to control population growth, as early foragers did, so avoiding outgrowing the constraints of their environment, and living in what I then called ‘ecological equilibrium’.

As prehistoric hunters and gatherers, humans lived on whatever came most easily to hand – the plants and animals naturally available around them.  They didn’t develop agriculture earlier because clearing forest, planting, weeding and harvesting is a lot more work than foraging in a plentiful environment.  As a modern San forager said, “Why should we plant when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?”  Early hunters and gatherers were eventually pushed into agriculture by climate change and growing population densities that led to scarcities in what they had hunted and gathered.  The first and least arduous form of agriculture was ‘slash and burn’: after burning off the forest cover, you plant in soft, fertile, leaf-mould soil which you simply abandon as soon as soil fertility declines.  But as population densities slowly increased, methods had to be intensified: instead of leaving land to reforest, it had to be kept in cultivation and soil fertility maintained artificially.  The resulting dense grass and weed cover required the heavy additional work of ploughing.  It’s no wonder that people didn’t take to agriculture earlier or that when they did, as the archaeological record shows, agriculturalists were shorter and less healthy than their foraging predecessors. ‘Progress’ was something we had to be forced into. 

The industrial revolution came out of a similar dynamic.  As population numbers increased, so the pressure on the land increased. Almost everything depended on the land.  People fed themselves from the land, they clothed themselves from wool from sheep on pasture, the price of horse transport varied with the price of hay, and the supply of firewood depended on the diminishing forests. Land prices rose under the pressure of competing uses. The British industrial revolution was essentially a solution to this problem.  Cotton was imported to supplement wool for clothing, firewood was replaced with coal, and canals were built which allowed a single horse to pull a barge carrying 50 times the load it could pull in a cart. As waterpower sites for mills became scarce, they, like horse transport, were supplemented by steam engines. And seizing colonies was seen at the time partly as a solution to the same need for additional resources. 

Fundamentally, economic development is simply the escape route for societies caught in the ecological pincers of scarce resources and population growth. The basic dynamic, of having to intervene increasingly deeply in the natural environment in order to divert an ever-greater proportion of its productivity to human consumption, could hardly be clearer than it is now – as we struggle to cope with the environmental crisis. It looks as if it won’t be long before we are replacing meat with growing quantities of protein from insects, from processed fungus and from meat grown in cell cultures.  And we will do this not because the new foods are preferable to what they replaced, but because we have to. As we overfish the oceans, the natural supply of fish is increasingly supplemented by fish farming and by eating species of fish previously ignored.  Similarly, as we are pushed to develop more nuclear power to cover periods when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, we will do this because we have to, like it or not.  The same is true of the rapid growth in our use of replacements for timber. Although they are less attractive, we increasingly use chipboard and other composites made from materials such as fibre and cement.  Genuine wood has become too expensive.  Similarly, where once leather was regarded as the best material for everything from shoes to handbags, it was replaced, first by plastics, and now by other unwanted materials including everything from fungus and fruit peelings to bones and fat from slaughterhouses. And more often than not, the substitutes are made to look like the real leather they replaced.

One of the effects of these processes of substitution was aptly summed up by Jack Fisher, the professor of economic history at LSE from whom I learned most as a student.  He wrote “…it is one of the eternal verities of history that as societies become wealthy they are no longer able to afford pleasures that were well within their reach when they were poor.” 

Another aspect of the dynamics driving economic development explains why production has to be increasingly mechanised and automated. Take the development of clothing materials as an example. The first clothing materials were the skins of animals that were eaten. When, in agricultural societies, that became inadequate to meet everyone’s needs, people were obliged to develop textiles from natural fibres such as flax, cotton, wool, and bark.  The need to collect and prepare the fibres before spinning and weaving dramatically increased the work involved in making clothing. Later we see the development of entirely artificial fibres from mineral sources (largely oil), which replaced the organic fibres from land-based crops or animals, so freeing more land for food production. Much the same is also true of metal working.  With sharp tools you can work wood by hand, but working metals requires the addition of mechanical power and often high temperatures. This pattern is seen in almost every sector, including the chemical industry. At each stage, the manufacturing process becomes more difficult and further removed from anything that can be done by hand. The more deeply we have to intervene in natural systems to divert resources to human needs, the greater the processing task that has to be done, and the more sophisticated the tools and machinery needed to provide a person’s subsistence.  The productive task is taken out of human hands and becomes increasingly mechanised and automated because, by its very nature, it is beyond what we are capable of unaided.

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. To understand innovation, you have to understand how the problem it was designed to solve arose in the particular historical period that it did. During much of the long history of economic development it was population growth and occasionally climate change that meant we outgrew our environmental resource base and had to discover how to exploit new resources, or old ones more intensively.  When, in 1798, Thomas Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population, and argued that population pressure would keep living standards permanently to a minimum, he failed to see the eventual benefits of the industrial revolution. 

Fifty years ago, the Limits to Growth report to the Club of Rome, pointed out that our industrial dependence on non-renewable resources meant that we would, sooner or later, face new scarcity problems. The authors gave less attention to the feedback problems – including the climate crisis, sea level rises and air pollution – that have become major threats. But problems of resource shortages, particularly of some metals and rare earth elements, will indeed hamper the production of enough wind turbines, solar panels, and electric vehicle batteries. In the 50 years since that report, world population has doubled. Time will tell whether science and innovation will come up with adequate solutions to these problems. 

Rather than failing to change, the great achievement of our hunter-gatherer ancestors was that they avoided the need for change, and they did that by keeping the demands they imposed on their environments within sustainable limits. Key to that, as the evidence shows, were the cultural practices which prevented population growth and enabled most hunter-gatherer societies to live remarkably healthily. Indeed, with few wants, they have been called “the original affluent societies”.

World population is now about 7.6 billion – probably more than 1000 times greater than at the eve of the Neolithic Revolution. Politics permitting, reproductive technology now makes it much easier to control the birth rate. But although the rate of population increase is slowing, estimates are that it will reach close to 10 billion by the end of this century. The pressure on the environment depends however on population numbers multiplied by the level of consumption per person. If everyone lived like Americans, we’d need at least another four planets. The CO2 emissions of the world’s richest 1 percent are estimated to be more than double the emissions of the poorest half of humanity. 

It is therefore the numbers of the rich that we most need to control. Average income and consumption levels have roughly doubled in many rich countries during the last half century, dramatically hastening the environmental crisis but bringing little or no improvement in happiness and wellbeing. Growing inequality has intensified status seeking behaviour, so adding to wasteful status consumption and harming wellbeing. As possessions are used increasingly as indicators of prestige and status, they intensify the planet-destroying demand for more ‘stuff’.  

Studies have repeatedly shown that key determinants of happiness, health and wellbeing, are the quality of our social relationships. But as widening income differences have increased the numbers both of the super-rich and of the relatively poor, they have also damaged the quality of social relations, leading to a decline in trust, in community life, and to more in violence. 

In these circumstances, the fact that the governments of affluent societies still fail to recognise that they must concentrate on increasing wellbeing rather than on the size of their economies, shows how myopic we’ve become. Our situation is all the more dire because every aspect of the transition, particularly from fossil fuels, will require massive new investments and so cause yet more economic growth. 

However, steep reductions in inequality will not only lead to increases in health and happiness, they will also make the transition to sustainability very much easier. (The evidence is outlined in my recent blog and a ‘deep dive’ chapter, both written for the Club or Rome.)  When, in Poverty and Progress, I outlined long-term economic development as a series of changes forced by ecological problems, I did not discuss the societies which collapsed because they failed to find adequate solutions. But there are now archaeological studies suggesting that more egalitarian societies may always have proved more resilient to the environmental difficulties that led elsewhere to downfall. 

Richard Wilkinson, Poverty and Progress: an ecological model of economic development.

Hardback ISBN 978-1-032-30703-9

Ebook ISBN 978-1-003-30635-1 available from 1st July

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