Ferguson on Malthus again

Niall Ferguson has a slight Malthusian thread running through his book, Civilization: The West and the Rest (My review is here and some other Malthusian thoughts by Ferguson here). At one point, Ferguson touches on the mass emigration from England to the Americas. Ferguson writes:

[A]s England’s population accelerated in the late seventeenth century, overseas expansion played a vital role in propelling the country out of the Malthusian trap. Transatlantic trade brought an influx of new nutrients like potatoes and sugar – an acre of sugar cane yielded the same amount of energy as 12 acres of wheat – as well as plentiful cod and herring. Colonization allowed the emigration of surplus population. Over time, the effect was to raise productivity, incomes, nutrition and even height.

The Chinese and Japanese route – turning away from foreign trade and intensifying rice cultivation – meant that with population growth, incomes fell, and so did nutrition, height and productivity. When crops failed or their cultivation was disrupted, the results were catastrophic.

If people are the ultimate resource, emigration of surplus population would have negative consequences. A lower population will generate fewer ideas. However, the surplus population that emigrated to the Americas was not completely lost to Europe. Those people continued to innovate, and ideas could flow between Europe and its colonies.

Ferguson suggests that emigration is positive as it loosens the Malthusian bindings on the population. It may have been the case for a time. Yet, the English population more than tripled between 1740 and 1860 as the flow of English emigrating declined and fertility boomed. It was during this population boom that per person income finally reached the levels seen in the low population period after the black death. England exited the Malthusian state at a time that the Malthusian model would suggest it was least likely to occur.



  1. “Transatlantic trade brought an influx of new nutrients like potatoes and sugar – an acre of sugar cane yielded the same amount of energy as 12 acres of wheat – as well as plentiful cod and herring. ”

    Sounds like Ferguson is tipping his hat to Pomerantz’s Great Divergence book — though speaking euphemistically of “transatlantic trade” rather than exploitation of New World resources and slave plantations. But lots of things are wrong with this.

    First and foremost China also was expanding in the 17 C and 18C to the Southwest and West, gaining lots of new sources of food and materials — but not escaping a Malthusian trap.

    Herring came from the North Sea — increased supply esp helped the Dutch in the 17C golden age — but the increase came from the “little ice age” global cooling of the time not exploitation of the New World’s resources.

    Sugar is not much of a “nutrient” compared to wheat, or especially meat.

  2. Ferguson has ventured well beyond his expertise in government finance here. Even if the net volume of organic materials imported minus exported (most British exports were made primarily out of wool, cotton, flax, leather, wood, etc.) was a significant fraction of domestic agricultural output — and this is highly doubtful — potatoes and even more sugar are very low in the scarce nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium). Also true for the other main imports, cotton and timber. Only the sea fish would have been rich in NPK, but would have had to have been at least an order of magnitude more voluminous to have made a significant difference. NPK for British agriculture came from its pastures and meadows, which due to its quasi-pastoral lifestyle were proportionately far larger than in eastern and southern Europe and Asia.

    Also, the volume of British and Dutch trade with the rest of western Europe was about five times the volume of their trade with overseas colonies. Ferguson is just reading the headlines and not looking at the real story. The extensive trade of bulk goods (grain, timber, salt, herring, etc.) around the Baltic, North Sea, and Atlantic coast by the late Middle Ages and after is the real trade story, as no where else on the planet was there so much trade per capita in bulk goods, with the possible exception of rice along the coasts of Japan in and after the Tokugawa period. Such trade allows agricultural specialization, i.e. optimizing agriculture to the soil and climate conditions of a region instead of requiring that agriculture provide subsistence everywhere. The result was an agricultural revolution in northwestern Europe, especially in the Low Countries and Britain.

    As for emigration during the peak period, in Malthusian terms it was worth about 1/7th of a Black Death in terms of raising per capita income due to lowered population pressure, and given the unprecedented population growth was clearly outweighed by the improvements in public hygiene. Nevertheless British agriculture more than kept up, producing output for a greatly expanded population without increasing either the human labor involved or decreasing per capita output. By contrast improvements in agriculture outside northwestern Europe during that period resulted largely just in increased population rather than escape from the Malthusian trap, again with the possible partial exception of coastal Japan.

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