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01 / 05
A Christmas Carol and the Politics of “Overpopulation”

Blog Post | Economic Growth

A Christmas Carol and the Politics of “Overpopulation”

Scrooge realized that there is no such thing as "surplus population," but the ghost of Malthus still haunts us today.

A Christmas Carol, the classic 1843 holiday tale written by the English writer Charles Dickens, is surprisingly relevant to today’s concern over overpopulation.

The well-known story deals with the transformation of wealthy London businessman Ebenezer Scrooge from a misanthropic grump into a merry fellow filled with goodwill toward his fellow man. His change of heart results from visits by four mysterious spirits: the ghost of his former colleague, the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Future. Early in the story, Scrooge suggests that poor people ought to die and thereby “decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge clearly believed that there is such a thing as an excess of people. Unfortunately, far too many real people hold that belief today.

In 2019, for example, U.S. Senators, like Ed Markey (D-MA) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), and Representatives, like Jimmy Gomez (D-CA) and Susie Lee (D-NV), tweeted their support for a paper explicitly calling for the reduction of the world’s population. Also this year, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) questioned whether it is morally acceptable to have children and Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) endorsed population control. This past summer, in the country where A Christmas Carol is set, Prince Harry subtly suggested that children are a burden to the planet and that responsible folks should have “two, maximum.”

The idea of a “surplus population” predates Dickens’s novel, harking back to antiquity and, in its early modern iteration, Thomas Malthus’s 1798 work An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus’s idea—that too many people would deplete resources and lead to scarcity—was popular among British intellectuals when Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. Indeed, in 1840s England, the concept of overpopulation seemed more relevant than ever as the population of London swelled.

During the 19th century, London became the world’s most populous city. London’s population grew from 1 million in 1800 to over 2 million by the time A Christmas Carol was published, and to 6.5 million by the end of the 19th century. London’s population grew partly due to urbanization, as people fled the countryside to work in factories. While the factory conditions were often harsh, millions of Britons found them preferable to the backbreaking agricultural labor and monotony of rural life.

London’s population also grew because the United Kingdom as a whole was expanding. A Christmas Carol suggests that Scrooge is in his 60s or 70s, argues Stanford University English professor Claire Jarvis. That means that during his lifetime the character would have seen his country’s population increase by about a third. There were fewer than 20 million people in the country when Scrooge’s character was “born.” By 1843, however, the country’s population stood at over 27.5 million.

That was, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton argues, due to the spread of new knowledge and medical advances, including the spread of variolation and inoculation against smallpox, first among the nobility and, later, among commoners. To get a sense of how deadly Victorian England was, note that a child in sub-Saharan Africa today enjoys better odds of living to the age of five than a Victorian child did. As fewer people died, the population grew.

Writer and economist Jerry Bowyer has argued in Forbes that with A Christmas Carol, Dickens was weighing in on a central economic debate of his time. That is, the debate between Malthusians and the disciples of the Scottish economist Adam Smith, like the French economist Jean Baptiste Say, who argued that peaceful market exchange could create prosperity and meet the needs of a growing populace. Say was right. As the chart above shows, British population growth coincided with massive enrichment.

The debate over “overpopulation,” has continued to rage on, more recently between neo-Malthusians like the Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich and rational optimists like the late University of Maryland economist Julian Simon. The latter’s insight was that human beings themselves are the “ultimate resource” making all other resources more plentiful. (Recent research lends support to Simon’s ideas).

The Ghost of Christmas Present represents the opposite of Malthusian scarcity. He first appears to Scrooge on a “throne” made of overflowing food: “turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch.” The spirit carries a torch shaped like “Plenty’s horn,” meaning a cornucopia, the emblem of abundance, and an empty, swordless scabbard, symbolizing peace.

The Ghost claims he has “more than eighteen hundred” brothers, representing previous Christmases (again, the book came out in the year 1843). Upon hearing that, Scrooge’s mind, in true Malthusian fashion, immediately turns to scarcity. “A tremendous family to provide for!” mutters Scrooge. The Ghost then whisks Scrooge to a marketplace to show him this scene of Smithian abundance:

“There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts … There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions … There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks … there were piles of filberts … there were Norfolk Biffins [a kind of apple] setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons … The[re were] gold and silver fish, set forth among these choice fruits in a bowl.”

In the marketplace, Scrooge observes the literal fruits of international commerce. Trade allowed Victorian Englishmen and Englishwomen to enjoy oranges, lemons and grapes in midwinter. The Ghost of Christmas Present then shows Scrooge the family of one of his employees having Christmas dinner. Even that impoverished family is shown enjoying oranges.

When Scrooge inquires about whether the family’s ill child, Tiny Tim, will survive, the Ghost of Christmas Present taunts Scrooge by repeating Scrooge’s words back at him: “What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Scrooge then begins to feel shame at having questioned the worth of “surplus” human beings.

Today, globalization has taken Smith’s ideal of peaceful exchange to a new level, increasing worldwide prosperity. Even as the world’s population has climbed to an all-time high, hunger has reached an all-time low. Yet Malthusianism continues to haunt public discourse and enjoys surprising popularity. Dickens would agree that it’s time, as the saying goes, to lay that ghost to rest.

Blog Post | Human Development

1,000 Bits of Good News You May Have Missed in 2023

A necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.

Reading the news can leave you depressed and misinformed. It’s partisan, shallow, and, above all, hopelessly negative. As Steven Pinker from Harvard University quipped, “The news is a nonrandom sample of the worst events happening on the planet on a given day.”

So, why does Human Progress feature so many news items? And why did I compile them in this giant list? Here are a few reasons:

  • Negative headlines get more clicks. Promoting positive stories provides a necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.
  • Statistics are vital to a proper understanding of the world, but many find anecdotes more compelling.
  • Many people acknowledge humanity’s progress compared to the past but remain unreasonably pessimistic about the present—not to mention the future. Positive news can help improve their state of mind.
  • We have agency to make the world better. It is appropriate to recognize and be grateful for those who do.

Below is a nonrandom sample (n = ~1000) of positive news we collected this year, separated by topic area. Please scroll, skim, and click. Or—to be even more enlightened—read this blog post and then look through our collection of long-term trends and datasets.

Agriculture

Aquaculture

Farming robots and drones

Food abundance

Genetic modification

Indoor farming

Lab-grown produce

Pollination

Other innovations

Conservation and Biodiversity

Big cats

Birds

Turtles

Whales

Other comebacks

Forests

Reefs

Rivers and lakes

Surveillance and discovery

Rewilding and conservation

De-extinction

Culture and tolerance

Gender equality

General wellbeing

LGBT

Treatment of animals

Energy and natural Resources

Fission

Fusion

Fossil fuels

Other energy

Recycling and resource efficiency

Resource abundance

Environment and pollution

Climate change

Disaster resilience

Air pollution

Water pollution

Growth and development

Education

Economic growth

Housing and urbanization

Labor and employment

Health

Cancer

Disability and assistive technology

Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Diabetes

Heart disease and stroke

Other non-communicable diseases

HIV/AIDS

Malaria

Other communicable diseases

Maternal care

Fertility and birth control

Mental health and addiction

Weight and nutrition

Longevity and mortality 

Surgery and emergency medicine

Measurement and imaging

Health systems

Other innovations

Freedom

    Technology 

    Artificial intelligence

    Communications

    Computing

    Construction and manufacturing

    Drones

    Robotics and automation

    Autonomous vehicles

    Transportation

    Other innovations

    Science

    AI in science

    Biology

    Chemistry and materials

      Physics

      Space

      Violence

      Crime

      War

      Bloomberg | Infrastructure & Transportation

      An Underground Lunch Delivery Train Comes to the Atlanta Suburbs

      “Underground tubes are already the transportation method of choice for essentials like water, sewage, and Wi-Fi. This week, one Georgia city will start sending sandwiches through the pipes, too.

      Peachtree Corners, northeast of Atlanta, is the first test case for an underground last-mile delivery mode, developed by the logistics startup Pipedream Labs. Founded in 2021, the company seeks to solve the problems that plague the terrestrial delivery space: the emissions and congestion from vehicle traffic, the jockeying for curb space, and the costs. About 40% of supply chain logistics expenses are associated with last-mile trips.”

      From Bloomberg.

      Blog Post | Food Prices

      Eight Centuries of Increasing Food Abundance in England: Dairy (Part 2)

      The work required for an average English worker to afford a gallon of milk has fallen from 13 hours to 14 minutes.

      Human progress is often incremental, but many positive trends have become clearly visible over time. One of these trends is the growing abundance of food. This series of articles looks at the affordability of food relative to wages in England between the 13th century and the present.

      For this series, the average nominal hourly wage since 1260 came from the Bank of England’s Millennium of Macroeconomic Data. The UK Office of National Statistics collected nominal prices of milk, cheese, and butter since 1914. The price data for before 1914 is from professor Gregory Clark’s “The Price History of English Agriculture, 1209–1914.”

      Figure 1: A continuous series of dairy product abundance

      An hour’s work buys a lot more than it used to. For much of English history, the purchasing power of the average nominal wage remained relatively constant. There were some fluctuations, such as cheese becoming slightly more abundant in the 1400s. However, the purchasing power of nominal wages increased rapidly during the 20th century.

      Figure 2: A continuous series of dairy product time prices

      As we can see, at its peak, an English worker worked over 13 hours to afford a gallon of milk. That fell to just 14 minutes in 2022 (i.e., less than 2 percent of the previous time price). Next time you hear someone complaining about increasing food prices, think about just how affordable they are compared to the past. Food is much more affordable in terms of the one commodity that is truly scarce: our time.

      Blog Post | Wellbeing

      Is This the Best Time to Be Alive?

      Overwhelming evidence shows that we are richer, healthier, better fed, better educated, and even more humane than ever before.

      Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. It is 1723, and you are invited to dinner in a bucolic New England countryside, unspoiled by the ravages of the Industrial Revolution. There, you encounter a family of English settlers who left the Old World to start a new life in North America. The father, muscles bulging after a vigorous day of work on the farm, sits at the head of the table, reading from the Bible. His beautiful wife, dressed in rustic finery, is putting finishing touches on a pot of hearty stew. The son, a strapping lad of 17, has just returned from an invigorating horse ride, while the daughter, aged 12, is playing with her dolls. Aside from the antiquated gender roles, what’s there not to like?

      As an idealized depiction of pre-industrial life, the setting is easily recognizable to anyone familiar with Romantic writing or films such as Gone with the Wind or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a description of reality, however, it is rubbish; balderdash; nonsense and humbug. More likely than not, the father is in agonizing and chronic pain from decades of hard labor. His wife’s lungs, destroyed by years of indoor pollution, make her cough blood. Soon, she will be dead. The daughter, the family being too poor to afford a dowry, will spend her life as a spinster, shunned by her peers. And the son, having recently visited a prostitute, is suffering from a mysterious ailment that will make him blind in five years and kill him before he is 30.

      For most of human history, life was very difficult for most people. They lacked basic medicines and died relatively young. They had no painkillers, and people with ailments spent much of their lives in agonizing pain. Entire families lived in bug-infested dwellings that offered neither comfort nor privacy. They worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset, yet hunger and famines were common. Transportation was primitive, and most people never traveled beyond their native villages or nearest towns. Ignorance and illiteracy were rife. The “good old days” were, by and large, very bad for the great majority of humankind. Since then, humanity has made enormous progress—especially over the course of the last two centuries.

      How much progress?

      Life expectancy before the modern era, which is to say, the last 200 years or so, was between ages 25 and 30. Today, the global average is 73 years old. It is 78 in the United States and 85 in Hong Kong.

      In the mid-18th century, 40 percent of children died before their 15th birthday in Sweden and 50 percent in Bavaria. That was not unusual. The average child mortality among hunter-gatherers was 49 percent. Today, global child mortality is 4 percent. It is 0.3 percent in the Nordic nations and Japan.

      Most of the people who survived into adulthood lived on the equivalent of $2 per day—a permanent state of penury that lasted from the start of the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago until the 1800s. Today, the global average is $35—adjusted for inflation. Put differently, the average inhabitant of the world is 18 times better off.

      With rising incomes came a massive reduction in absolute poverty, which fell from 90 percent in the early 19th century to 40 percent in 1980 to less than 10 percent today. As scholars from the Brookings Institution put it, “Poverty reduction of this magnitude is unparalleled in history.”

      Along with absolute poverty came hunger. Famines were once common, and the average food consumption in France did not reach 2,000 calories per person per day until the 1820s. Today, the global average is approaching 3,000 calories, and obesity is an increasing problem—even in sub-Saharan Africa.

      Almost 90 percent of people worldwide in 1820 were illiterate. Today, over 90 percent of humanity is literate. As late as 1870, the total length of schooling at all levels of education for people between the ages of 24 and 65 was 0.5 years. Today, it is nine years.

      These are the basics, but don’t forget other conveniences of modern life, such as antibiotics. President Calvin Coolidge’s son died from an infected blister, which he developed while playing tennis at the White House in 1924. Four years later, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Or think of air conditioning, the arrival of which increased productivity and, therefore, standards of living in the American South and ensured that New Yorkers didn’t have to sleep on outside staircases during the summer to keep cool.

      So far, I have chiefly focused only on material improvements. Technological change, which drives material progress forward, is cumulative. But the unprecedented prosperity that most people enjoy today isn’t the most remarkable aspect of modern life. That must be the gradual improvement in our treatment of one another and of the natural world around us—a fact that’s even more remarkable given that human nature is largely unchanging.

      Let’s start with the most obvious. Slavery can be traced back to Sumer, a Middle Eastern civilization that flourished between 4,500 BC and 1,900 BC. Over the succeeding 4,000 years, every civilization at one point or another practiced chattel slavery. Today, it is banned in every country on Earth.

      In ancient Greece and many other cultures, women were the property of men. They were deliberately kept confined and ignorant. And while it is true that the status of women ranged widely throughout history, it was only in 1893 New Zealand that women obtained the right to vote. Today, the only place where women have no vote is the Papal Election at the Vatican.

      A similar story can be told about gays and lesbians. It is a myth that the equality, which gays and lesbians enjoy in the West today, is merely a return to a happy ancient past. The Greeks tolerated (and highly regulated) sexual encounters among men, but lesbianism (women being the property of men) was unacceptable. The same was true about relationships between adult males. In the end, all men were expected to marry and produce children for the military.

      Similarly, it is a mistake to create a dichotomy between males and the rest. Most men in history never had political power. The United States was the first country on Earth where most free men could vote in the early 1800s. Prior to that, men formed the backbone of oppressed peasantry, whose job was to feed the aristocrats and die in their wars.

      Strange though it may sound, given the Russian barbarism in Ukraine and Hamas’s in Israel, data suggests that humans are more peaceful than they used to be. Five hundred years ago, great powers were at war 100 percent of the time. Every springtime, armies moved, invaded the neighbor’s territory, and fought until wintertime. War was the norm. Today, it is peace. In fact, this year marks 70 years since the last war between great powers. No comparable period of peace exists in the historical record.

      Homicides are also down. At the time of Leonardo Da Vinci, some 73 out of every 100,000 Italians could expect to be murdered in their lifetimes. Today, it is less than one. Something similar has happened in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, and many other places on Earth.

      Human sacrifice, cannibalism, eunuchs, harems, dueling, foot-binding, heretic and witch burning, public torture and executions, infanticide, freak shows and laughing at the insane, as Harvard University’s Steven Pinker has documented, are all gone or linger only in the worst of the planet’s backwaters.

      Finally, we are also more mindful of nonhumans. Lowering cats into a fire to make them scream was a popular spectacle in 16th century Paris. Ditto bearbaiting, a blood sport in which a chained bear and one or more dogs were forced to fight. Speaking of dogs, some were used as foot warmers while others were bred to run on a wheel, called a turnspit or dog wheel, to turn the meat in the kitchen. Whaling was also common.

      Overwhelming evidence from across the academic disciplines clearly shows that we are richer, live longer, are better fed, and are better educated. Most of all, evidence shows that we are more humane. My point, therefore, is a simple one: this is the best time to be alive.