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Three Cheers for Refrigeration—and Four, Once Everyone Has It

Blog Post | Health & Medical Care

Three Cheers for Refrigeration—and Four, Once Everyone Has It

Refrigerators have revolutionized health and wellbeing for those with access to them, but their affordability is under fire.

It is difficult to overstate the benefits of refrigeration. Even more than its technological sibling air conditioning, refrigeration has dramatically improved public health and the quality of life wherever it has become widespread. And unlike air conditioning, the utility of which is questioned in some intellectual circles, refrigeration has few if any critics. Nonetheless, in an age when climate change has become the near obsession of most international policymakers—and given that refrigeration does require a considerable amount of (often) fossil-fuel fired electricity—it is worth highlighting the importance of avoiding measures that threaten its continued spread throughout the world.

The Rise of Refrigeration and Fall of Foodborne Illness

In 2013–2014, salmonella-contaminated chicken from Foster Farms in California caused a known 634 illnesses across 29 states. This major outbreak and recall received substantial press coverage at the time, as have similar ones that have happened. But before refrigeration, such incidents would not have been treated as news; they were an everyday reality.

Along with air conditioning, the United States was the first nation to have a refrigerator in most residences, as well as an extensive cold chain among food producers and wholesalers and retailers upstream of the consumer. Therefore, America provides the longest test case of the public health benefits from having a food supply that can be kept cold as needed. Those benefits are impressive.

It is over the last century that American households went from zero to nearly 100 percent in refrigerator use. Indeed, market penetration was already above 80 percent by the 1940s. Thanks to a fridge in every kitchen, and along with other major advances like pasteurization, food-related illness and mortality have seen a precipitous decline.

Even health outcomes not obviously connected to refrigeration have benefited from it. For example, there is considerable evidence that cancers of the stomach became considerably less common in the United States thanks to refrigerators.

Beyond reducing foodborne illness, refrigeration has also improved the quality of the food supply. This is particularly true for protein sources like dairy, meat, and fish that are quickly perishable without it. It has also enabled wider and year-round availability of fresh fruits and vegetables. These fresh (and also fresh frozen, as sizeable freezer sections have become a standard feature in refrigerators) foods have largely replaced heavily salted or smoked or pickled foods, and thus improved diets.

Lower income households have benefited the most from refrigeration. Not only has the cost of a high-quality diet come down, but the once-considerable expense of food spoilage has been reduced. This is particularly important for those who live in hotter regions.

Given all the health benefits of a safer and better food supply attributable to refrigeration, there is little doubt it has contributed to the considerably longer life expectancies in the United States over the past century. Granted, improved health care has been the main driver of these improvements, including vaccines against many once-common diseases. But even with that, refrigeration has played a vital role in the manufacture, transport, and storage of those vaccines as well as in many other medical applications.

Progress and Challenges toward Global Availability of Refrigeration

Refrigerators started as a luxury good a century ago, but prices have substantially declined since (although it should be noted that the recently growing regulatory burden on appliances in the United States and Europe may undercut this trend). Today, very few kitchens in the developed world are without a refrigerator, and market penetration in the developing world has been robust, particularly over the last three decades.

At this point, equipment cost is a barrier for only the world’s very poorest households. However, United Nations efforts favoring “climate-friendly” refrigerators represent a worrisome trend threatening affordability. For example, many existing refrigerators use refrigerants called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) that are considered to have a high per-molecule global warming potential, though their overall contribution to anthropogenic warming is only 3 percent. These refrigerants are now subject to restrictions pursuant to the Kigali Amendment, a United Nations treaty.

Although the Kigali Amendment is more lenient toward developing nations than developed ones, it will nonetheless harm the developing world’s refrigerator buyers in two ways. First, the treaty and implementing provisions will serve to disrupt with the supply of second-hand refrigerators from first-world nations, which are often the lowest cost option in developing nations. In fact, the trade in such refrigerators is now perceived by many in the international community as an environmental threat that needs to be eradicated. Second, the Kigali Amendment will eventually impose restrictions on the types of new systems allowed to be produced in developing nations.

These measures are fairly new and are just beginning to be implemented, so the impact on equipment costs is not yet known. But they will likely raise, at least to some extent, the purchase price of a refrigerator. It does not take much of an increase to have a deleterious impact on market penetration among the world’s poorest households.

Access to Reliable Electricity

While refrigerator affordability is an ongoing concern, the greater obstacle is access to reliable electricity.

The slow march to a completely electrified world is 90 percent complete. We have finally reached the point where most of the developing world has joined the developed world in being electrified, but about 750 million people still don’t have it. Worse, by adding in those lacking access to reliable electricity, the number jumps to 3.5 billion, according to one estimate. In Africa, less than half the population enjoys access to reliable electricity.

An unreliable electricity supply can significantly undercut the advantages of refrigeration, as anyone who has had to clean out the fridge after an extended blackout can attest. More progress on both the availability and reliability of electricity is still needed if the benefits of refrigeration are to become universal.

Once again, the climate change agenda is becoming a growing impediment. Progress on electrification is jeopardized by the United Nations’ Paris Agreement and other measures that target affordable and reliable—but carbon-emitting—coal and natural gas in favor of intermittent and unreliable wind and solar. Doing so threatens to both slow progress in expanding electrification for those who don’t yet have it and to improve reliability for those who do.

Even in the first world where refrigeration has long been nearly universal, there are risks from mandates and subsidies for an increasingly renewables-heavy electricity mix chosen for climate considerations at the expense of reliability. If unchecked, this trend could lead to more frequent blackouts and, thus, backsliding on the refrigeration benefits people take for granted. This is especially so for the summer months when refrigeration is most vital.


Today, a large and growing number of the world’s households, both rich and poor, are able to buy a refrigerator, plug it in, and enjoy the benefits of its uninterrupted operation. This has been an indisputably significant boon to the safety and quality of the food supply and thus to public health. However, ill-advised climate change policy measures are emerging as a real threat to refrigeration’s continued spread. Prioritization of a climate agenda that raises the cost of a refrigerator is likely to do considerably more harm than good and deter the spread of affordable and reliable electricity throughout the world. Refrigeration has been a growing success story for humanity over the past century, but continued progress is now at risk.

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.

Blog Post | Food & Hunger

Eight Centuries of Increasing Food Abundance in England: Baking

Baking products have become much more abundant for skilled and unskilled workers alike.

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 for HumanProgress.org will look at the affordability of food relative to wages in England between the 13th century and the present.  

Professor Gregory Clark of the University of California, Davis, has conducted extensive research into the economic history of England. As part of his research into the condition of the working class in England, Clark has developed an extensive data set containing nominal prices of goods, and nominal wages of skilled and unskilled workers in England between the 13th and 19th centuries. Note: Clark assumes a 10-hour workday before 1720.

Using the concept of time prices developed by Marian L. Tupy and Gale L. Pooley, we can calculate the number of hours of work that someone must work to earn enough money to buy a particular food item.  

In this analysis, Clark’s nominal prices of food items serve as the nominator, and nominal hourly wages, which come from Clark and from the UK’s Office of National Statistics’ Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, serve as the denominator.

Figure 1: Food abundance from the perspective of unskilled workers in England, hours of labor

As we can see in Figure 1, a dozen eggs fell from 1.72 hours of labor in the 1400s to 0.25 hours of labor in 2022. A pound of flour fell from 0.75 hours of labor to 0.02 hours, and a pound of sugar fell from 19.78 hours of labor to 0.03 hours.

Figure 2: Food abundance from the perspective of unskilled workers in England, per hour of labor

As we can see in Figure 2, an hour of work bought 7 eggs for an unskilled worker in 1410. That rose to 47.7 eggs in 2022. Instead of 0.79 pounds of flour, an unskilled worker got 50.46 pounds. Instead of 0.03 pounds of sugar, he or she got 29.94 pounds.

That means that unskilled workers earned 6.8 times as many eggs per hour in 2022 compared to the 1400s. For every pound of flour in the 1400s, an unskilled worker earned 64 pounds in 2022. Instead of 1 pound of sugar, he or she got 1001 pounds.

Figure 3: Food abundance from the perspective of skilled workers in England, hours of labor

As we can see in Figure 3, for a skilled worker, a dozen eggs fell from 1.02 hours of labor in the 1400s to 0.2 hours of labor in 2022. A pound of flour fell from 0.75 hours of labor to 0.02 hours, and a pound of sugar fell from 19.78 hours of labor to 0.03 hours.

Figure 4: Food abundance from the perspective of skilled workers in England, per hour of labor

As we can see in Figure 4, an hour of work bought 11.8 eggs for a skilled worker in the 1400s. That rose to 60.9 eggs in 2022. Instead of 1.34 pounds of flour, a skilled worker got 64.5 pounds. Instead of 0.05 pounds of sugar, he or she got 38.27 pounds.

Put differently, skilled workers earned 5.2 times as many eggs per hour in 2022 compared to the 1400s. For every pound of flour in the 1400s, a skilled worker got 48.2 pounds in 2022. Instead of 1 pound of sugar, he or she got 757 pounds. 

Clearly, baking products became much more abundant for both skilled and unskilled workers. Moreover, note that the time price differential between unskilled laborers and skilled tradesmen has shrunk. For example, to afford a dozen eggs in the 1400s, an unskilled worker would have to work 1.72 hours compared to 1.02 hours for a skilled worker, a difference of over 40 minutes. However, in 2022, an unskilled worker would work 15 minutes to afford a dozen, and a skilled worker would work 12 minutes, a difference of only 3 minutes. Put differently, unskilled workers have become better-off relative to their more-skilled compatriots.

Finally, the rate of growth in abundance has clearly accelerated over the last 200 years. Whereas the rate of growth in the abundance of eggs, flour, and sugar grew at a compounded annual rate of about 0.28% between 1410 and 1865 for an unskilled worker, it grew 1.97% between 1865 and 2022. Similarly, for a skilled worker, the compound annual growth rate increased from 0.26% before 1865 to 1.86% afterwards. In fact, between 1410 and 1865, eggs became relatively more expensive for both unskilled and skilled workers. Since the mid-1800s, the rate of growth of wages relative to prices has increased dramatically.