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CHAPTER VI.: OF THE IMPROVEMENTS OF WHICH THE PRODUCTIVENESS OF THE GLOBE FOR THE PURPOSES OF HUMAN SUBSISTENCE IS CAPABLE - William Godwin, Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind 
Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind, being an Answer to Mr. Malthus’s Essay on that Subject (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1820).
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OF THE IMPROVEMENTS OF WHICH THE PRODUCTIVENESS OF THE GLOBE FOR THE PURPOSES OF HUMAN SUBSISTENCE IS CAPABLE
IT is with some diffidence that I would enter upon the theoretical part of the question, and enquire how far the earth may be rendered more productive to the purposes of human subsistence than it is at present. This branch of the subject however would be left imperfect, if that consideration were wholly omitted.
To the improvements of man, more particularly in art, and the application of human industry, there is no end. No sooner therefore shall we have got rid of the geometrical ratio, and the still more absurd doctrine (if indeed there be any degrees between these) of “population necessarily and constantly pressing hard against the limits of subsistence, from the present moment to the time when the whole earth shall be cultivated like a garden,” than our prospects will grow very cheering indeed.
Mr. Malthus, in the commencement of his theory, is willing to grant, that in twenty-five years the means of subsistence, i.e. the amount of provisions, through the whole earth, or in any given country, might be doubled, in fifty years tripled, in seventy-five years quadrupled, in one hundred years quintupled, and so on in an infinite series. Perhaps in some steps of this series he supposes too much, and we can scarcely bring our minds to believe in an absolutely infinite progression. It is this apparently candid spirit of concession, as much at least as any other cause, or all other causes put together, that has given to Mr. Malthus's theory so astonishing a success with his contemporaries. They said, the writer must be very sure of his ground, who grants to his antagonists more than any antagonist would venture to ask. But I do not relish any of Mr. Malthus's ratios.
Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.
Let us come down then to the regions of common sense. And, to attain a greater degree of perspicuity in our views, let us take for the object of our consideration the countries of England and Wales.
In what is to come it must by no means be forgotten, that, as far as the laws of nature are concerned, there is no difficulty arising from the increasing numbers of mankind, if there be any increase, till a very remote period. The idea of “pressing hard against the limits of subsistence,” where the cultivation of the earth is understood, and as long as there shall be any portions of a country cultivable, and not yet cultivated, is, I trust, banished for ever.
In the first place then I would observe, that, after what has been stated, it will hardly be denied, first, that the food produced in England and Wales, if equally distributed, is more than enough for the present number of the inhabitants; or, secondly, that many tracts of land in these countries might be rendered more efficient for the subsistence of man, than they actually are.
The problem now under consideration, is, how shall a given tract of country be made to subsist more men? The problem that seems for more than a century past in England practically to have occupied the attention of those in whose direction the affair was placed, has been, How shall a given tract of country be made effective only for the subsistence of a smaller number of men?
Dr. Price mentions two causes, operating in this country, which are eminently calculated to produce this effect; the engrossing of farms, and the progress of luxury.
“A large tract of land,” he observes, “in the hands of one man, neither yields so great a return, nor does it employ so many people [as it would do if divided to a number of proprietors]d . “And, in illustration of this, he mentions two parishes in the Pays de Vaud; one of which, once a little village, having been bought by some rich men, was sunk into a single demesne; and the other, once a single demesne, having fallen into the hands of some peasants, was become a little village. “How many facts,” he adds, “of the former kind can Great Britain now furnisha !”
With respect to the progress of luxury, he produces the following striking particulars. “In' the year 1697 wheat was at three pounds per quarter, and other grain proportionably dear. But there was no clamour, and the exportation went on. At present , though the quantity of money, or what passes for money, is doubled, yet when wheat is below this price, there is an alarm, the poor are starving, and exportation is prohibited.
“The true reason of this seems to be, that the high price of bread was not,'at the time I have mentioned, of essential consequence to the lower people. They lived more upon other food, which was then cheap; and, being more generally occupiers of land, they were less under the necessity of purchasing bread. Whereas now, being forced, by greater difficulties, and the high price of all other food, to live principally or solely upon bread, if that is not cheap, they are rendered incapable of maintaining themselves.
“In confirmation of this account I will mention, that though, during the whole seventeenth century, corn was generally dearer than it has been at an average for the last forty years, yet flesh-meat was at about half its present price. In an act of parliament, 25 Henry VIII, beef, veal, pork, and mutton are named as the food of the poor, and their price is limited to about one halfpenny per pound. Beef and pork, in particular, were sold in London at two pounds and a half, and three pounds, for a penny; at the very time that wheat was seven and eight shillings per quarter, bearing the same proportion to the price of flesh, that it would bear now, if it were about four pounds per quarterb .”
“Upon the whole, the circumstances of the lower ranks, and of the day-labourer, are altered in almost every respect for the worse, while tea, fine wheaten bread, and other delicacies, are become necessaries, which were formerly unknown among themc .”
To this it may be added, that the labours of agriculture were then generally performed by means of cows and oxen, which were afterwards used as food, whereas the almost universal employment of horses at present, which consume, according to Mr. Middleton, upon an average the produce of four acres of land each, must materially diminish the quantity of food which is left for the use of man.
Mr. Malthus repeatedly calls our attention, and with great propriety, to the period when the whole earth, or any considerable division of it, shall be “cultivated like a garden. “Till that shall be the case, it is perfectly clear that there can be no permanent deficiency in the means of subsistence, except what is produced by the restrictions imposed on us by human institutions.
I feel inclined in this place shortly to mention the agricultural improvements of Mr. Coke of Norfolk. This gentleman may be considered as a sort of rural father of his country; and it is a pleasing task to any one who writes on the means of subsistence and'the welfare of mankind, to commemorate his merits.
Mr. Coke's Norfolk estate, when he came to the succession more than forty years ago, was regarded as some of the worst land in the country. A great part of it was leased out at three shillings an acre. The entire rental amounted to £2200 per annum. By his example and encouragement its produce is now so far raised, that it may serve as a sort of model to the whole island. The rental has increased ten-fold: the cultivators are happy: the population is tripled. They have no longer need for a poor-house, which has accordingly been pulled down. The very land, which was lately an object of so much contempt, now produces five or six quarters of wheat, and ten of barley, per acrea
Mr. Coke is however at this moment a sort of phenomenon in the island. The majority of our cultivators, even in the naturally fertile counties of Shropshire and Cheshire, go on in the method of their fathers, without improvement; and, at the very time that Mr. Coke was gathering the crops abovementioned, the average produce of wheat among them was not more than two quarters per acree Thus we see that by a very simple process, the example of which we have under our eye, the produce of our island might be much more than doubled. The consciousness of this, one would have thought, would have prevented any sober man, in this ill-omened hour for so unhallowed a purpose, from preaching up Mr. Malthus's doctrine of depopulation.
I mention this example for two reasons. First, because it is a pleasing task, to do justice to the merits of a public benefactor. Secondly, because there is a numerous class of persons, well disposed to do justice to an actual experiment, at the same time that they turn a deaf ear to what comes before them in the shape of speculation. For these reasons I have recorded the proceedings of Mr. Coke, though these are doubtless extremely trivial, compared with what I conceive, and with what Mr. Malthus assumes, of the capacity of the earth for affording subsistence to mankind.
It is a sentiment commonly in the mouths of those who wish well to human prosperity, “Success to the plough.” But, if I dared indulge in the hope of a rapid, but not (like Mr. Malthus's geometrical ratio) wholly impossible, multiplication of mankind, I should substitute for this sentiment, “Success to the spade.” The productiveness of garden-cultivation over field-cultivation, for the purposes of human subsistence, is astonishingly great. Mr. Coke leases out his land at forty shillings an acre; but, judging from some examples within my own knowledge, I should conclude forty pounds an acre for some kinds of garden-ground, a very moderate estimate. Let us add to this the various expences of labour, manure, and several other sorts, necessary to render this acre of garden available, and we shall then form some conjecture, how many men's subsistence an acre of ground may represent.
I see only one objection to this cultivation of the spade: [that is, upon the supposition, hitherto wild and without rational support, that the earth, or any portion of it, shall become stocked with human beings, so as in that sense to realise what the benevolent mind is impelled to fancy of Utopia.]
The objection I allude to is built on the consideration that, in any very improved state of human society, I should desire to see the quantity of manual labour diminished, instead of increased. But I am afraid we must pass through a probation of extensive labour, before we can come at any thing better. The human species is not yet so far improved, as for the larger portion of mankind to know how to make an innocent and intelligent use of that which is, abstractedly considered, the most valuable of human treasures, leisure. When we are arrived at this improvement, there is no danger but that we shall be able to possess ourselves of the means by which to exercise it. It is one of the most certain features of human progress, the invention of machinery; and there is no reason to suppose that there is any species of industry, which may not ultimately be abridged by the application of this faculty.
To the speculations already mentioned upon the means of human subsistence, is to be added the sea. The sea occupies two-thirds of the surface of the globe: it is every where full of animal life, and nearly all that life may be rendered subservient to human subsistence. This is a species of crop that we are not called upon to sow; it needs no manure; and the farmer who takes care of it, will seldom have occasion to observe the face of the heavens, and send to the parish-minister to solicit a prayer for fine weather, or a prayer for rain. There is no long watching the progress of growth, but one fine day will be sufficient for him to bring in his stores. It has been ascertained, particularly as to the salmon-fishery, that no drafts upon this stock, however immense, occasions the smallest sensible diminution of the crop for the next season. It is upon the confidence of this fact, that some of the most serious transactions are founded, in the countries to which the question relates. Thus, in some parts of Scotland, where the drain has for years been the most considerable, the rents for a right of fishing for a certain distance, have lately been raised tenfold above what they had been. Add to which, that salmon and other fish, when cured, may be kept for almost any time, and be carried any distance up the country.
Before we quit this branch of the subject, it will be worth while to look back to Mr. Middleton's estimate of the present mode of human subsistence. He states each man to consume upon an average, per annum, “in bread the produce of half an acre, in roots, greens and fruit the produce of one eighth of an acre, in liquids one eighth of an acre, and in animal food two acres.” Here we are presented in a striking view with the knowledge, of how much would be economised as to human subsistence, by the general substitution of the vegetable for the animal productions of the earth.
Thus we are led to observe two grand steps of practical improvement as to the subsistence of man: the first, by substituting the plough in the room of pasture: the next, as we have said, by causing the spade to supersede the plough.
When it has been demonstrated, that there is an actual increase in the numbers of mankind, it will then perhaps be time enough to calculate what may be gained by these two improvements.
Meanwhile enough has been said, to deliver any rational followers of Mr. Malthus, from the fear of any speedy deficiency in the means of subsistence. Nature has presented to us the earth, the alma magna parens, whose bosom, to all but the wild and incongruous ratios of Mr. Malthus, may be said to be inexhaustible. Human science and ingenuity have presented to us the means of turning this resource to the utmost account. “Rest, rest, perturbed spirits!“
Your anxieties are vain, and infinitely more senseless than those of the proprietor of a province, who should fear that, by some unexpected turn of fortune's wheel, he should be compelled to die in a workhouse.
A very natural objection to what has been stated in the few preceding pages, is that such a statement was wholly unnecessary, as Mr. Malthus grants an arithmetical ratio to the multiplication of the means of subsistence, which is as much as can be desired. He grants that the present produce of the earth may be doubled in twenty-five years, tripled in fifty, quadrupled in seventy-five, and quintupled in a century.
But these concessions are hollow and treacherous; and the author might have known them to be so. He instantly buries his arithmetical, under the ponderous weight of his geometrical ratio. He might safely make these concessions; for they have had no weight with any body. He merely gives us a “commodity of good words.” The only effect they have had, is to gain him a specious character of candour, the better to destroy us. The author is admired for his generosity; while his fortune exceeds that which our ancestors ascribed to charity; for in fact the more he gives away, literally the more he gains.
Mr. Malthus's concessions are indeed valueless. They are composed of air, and can be blown away, whenever the author or his adherents find it convenient to get rid of them. The great defect of every part of his system, is that, though it professes to be every where conversant with human affairs, it conveys no image to the mind. I have therefore found it necessary to go over the above particulars, that my readers may have something to think of, something to go back to whenever they have occasion, in a word, something that the author of the Essay on Population has not the power to give, nor the power to take away.
There is however one other circumstance that requires to be mentioned, before the subject can properly be considered as exhausted. Of all the sciences, natural or mechanical, which within the last half century have proceeded with such gigantic strides, chemistry is that which has advanced the most rapidly. All the substances that nature presents, all that proceeds from earth or air, is analysed by us into its original elements. Thus we have discovered, or may discover, precisely what it is that nourishes the human body. And it is surely no great stretch of the faculty of anticipation, to say, that whatever man can decompose, man will be able to compound. The food that nourishes us, is composed of certain elements; and wherever these elements can be found, human art will hereafter discover the power of reducing them into a state capable of affording corporeal sustenance. No good reason can be assigned, why that which produces animal nourishment, must have previously passed through a process of animal or vegetable life. And, if a certain infusion of attractive exterior qualities is held necessary to allure us to our food, there is no reason to suppose that the most agreeable colours and scents and flavours may not be imparted to it, at a very small expence of vegetable substance. Thus it appears that, wherever earth, and water, and the other original chemical substances may be found, there human art may hereafter produce nourishment: and thus we are presented with a real infinite series of increase of the means of subsistence, to match Mr. Malthus's geometrical ratio for the multiplication of mankind.—This may be thought too speculative; but surely it is not more so, than Mr. Malthus's period, when the globe of earth, or, as he has since told us, the solar system, and all the “other planets circling other suns,” shall be overcrowded with the multitude of their human inhabitants.
[d]Observations on Reversionary Payments, Vol. II, p. 138
[a]Righy, Holkham and its Agriculture.
[e]Rigby, Holkam and its Agriculture.