A friend had forwarded to me an assertion from an online email discussion a few days ago, asking for comment, and since the direction that the answer got me thinking seemed interesting, I'm going to shamelessly turn the exchange into a post.
The assertion I was asked to comment on was essentially: "Although we think of the modern, capitalistic, global economy as having created unprecedented wealth, it has actually resulted in more poverty on a global scale than we have ever seen before. While some people today have more than ever before, there are more people in poverty in the third world than at any point in history -- while ancient and medieval societies (especially in India and China) you could live pretty well, have a nice house, eat decent food and have a fair amount of leisure time."
My immediate gut-level thought was: This is clearly wrong. The standard of living is much higher now in just about every part of the world than 1000 years ago.
However, I think one of the things that causes people to fall into this "golden age" fallacy is that when things go wrong in the modern world it's possible to see poverty and famine on a massive scale.
There are two levels at which to look at this. First, there were some truly massive plague and famine events in the ancient world. However, a) we don't see them live on CNN and b) in those cases where society sufficiently broke down, there simply aren't many records left of the events.
More importantly, however, I think that in many ways our very efficiency and technology allow poverty to be more widespread and extreme when things break down. Modern agricultural methods have allowed the population to climb much higher than was ever the case in the past, and so when there are sudden breakdowns in the system, there are more people around to starve.
Simply consider the number of man hours required to raise the food necessary to feed one person now versus 1000 years ago. This differential is probably several thousand to one. This effectively means that food is now several thousand times cheaper than it was in the past. (As mentioned above, it also means that when the amount of food normally raised by one person is destroyed by war or famine, several thousand people go hungry instead of just two or three.)
Thus, the fact that modern agriculture and economic systems have allowed most people to move out of direct food production has made the effects of famine and social breakdown much worse.
Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that life wasn't simple and satisfying in a pastoral sort of way in ancient rural Asia (or Europe, come to that), but people do need to keep in mind the differences that made that life possible.
1) Early mortality: There was no effective artificial contraception in the ancient world, but the population was basically flat. A major factor in this was the rate of mortality before at one, and the rate of mortality before reproductive age. Infanticide was used as a method of population control at times, but simply because of medical and hygienic problems, as many as 50% of children died before reaching their toddler years. Another 10-20% died before reaching reproductive age.
2) Death in childbirth: Another factor keeping the population in check was female mortality in childbirth. Woman stood a 10-30% chance of dying in any given pregnancy. Thus, most men who lived to a natural death (usual in his 50s or 60s) would be widowers and/or or second or third wives. This constant loss of reproductive females helped keep the population in check -- and mad sex a much more ambiguous activity for women.
3) People too poor to have marry: Another thing to keep in mind is that up until 100 years ago, a good 20-30 percent of men were considered too poor to support a wife. They worked for male relatives or on their own land, but did not have sufficient resources to have a wife, much less children. They had relief (if they sought it and could afford it) through prostitutes, but in general they were left out of what was considered "the good life" in society. Women were less likely to be left out of the loop like this because deaths through childbirth created a constant need for more women. However, widows without working age sons tended to be totally destitute.
Add in the increased incidence of debilitating illness, the frequency of wars in most parts of the world, brigandage, etc. (Plus the very low level of education that most people could expect to ever attain -- if you consider that a source of personal satisfaction) and you have a pretty unappealing existence in my book. Secure, yes. But unappealing.
I guess the big question is, how do you balance the value of security verses quality?
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