THE ESCAPE FROM HUNGER AND PREMATURE DEATH, 1700-2100: Europe, America, and the Third World.

THE ESCAPE FROM HUNGER AND PREMATURE DEATH, 1700-2100: Europe, America, and the Third World.

Robert J. Samuelson
Read Time:
2m 53sec

Europe, America, and
the Third World. 
By Robert William Fogel. Cambridge Univ. Press. 191 pp. $70 (hardcover), $23.99 (paper)

From our present perch of affluence, we forget the abject misery, malnutrition, and starvation that most people endured for most of recorded history. In a fact-filled book geared toward scholars, Nobel Prize–winning economist Robert Fogel of the University of Chicago reminds us of the huge strides in conquering widespread hunger and of the immense economic and social consequences of that achievement.

It may shock modern readers to learn how poorly fed and sickly most people were until 100 or 150 years ago, even in advanced countries. In 1750, life expectancy at birth was 37 years in Britain and 26 in France. Even by 1900, life expectancy was only 48 in Britain and 46 in France. With more fertile land, the United States fared slightly better, with a life expectancy that was greater than Britain’s in 1750 (51) but identical to it in 1900 (48). Urbanization and industrialization in the 19th century actually led to setbacks. As Americans moved from place to place, they spread “cholera, typhoid, typhus . . . and other major killer diseases,” Fogel writes. Urban slums abetted sickness and poor nutrition. Fogel questions whether rising real wages in much of the 19th century signaled genuine advances in well-being. “Is it plausible,” he asks, “that the overall standard of living of workers was improving if their nutritional status and life expectancy were declining?”

By contrast, life expectancy in advanced countries is now in the high 70s (77 in the United States). Compared with those of the early 1700s, diets are 50 percent higher in calories in Britain and more than 100 percent higher in France. Summarizing his and others’ research, Fogel calls this transformation “technophysio evolution.” It has had enormous side effects.

First, we’ve gotten taller. A typical American man in his 30s now stands 5 feet 10 inches, almost five inches taller than his English counterpart in 1750. (Societies offset food scarcities in part by producing shorter people, who need less food.)

Second, we’ve gotten healthier. Although Fogel concedes that advances in public health (better water and sewage systems, for instance) and medicine (vaccines, antibiotics) have paid huge dividends, he argues that much of the gain in life expectancy stems from better nutrition. With better diets, people become more resistant to disease—their immune systems work better and their body tissue is stronger—and they have healthier babies.

Finally, better diets have made economic growth possible. An overlooked cause of the meager growth before 1800, Fogel argues, is that many people were too weak to work. In the late 1700s, a fifth of the populations of England and France were “effectively excluded from the labor force.” As people ate better and lived longer, they worked harder. Fogel attributes 30 percent of Britain’s economic growth since 1790 to better diets.

This conclusion seems glib. After all, better diets came from technology that enabled  more productive agriculture—better cultivation techniques, better seeds, more specialization. What, specifically, were these advances? Fogel doesn’t say. His overwhelming focus on scholarly research on diets also makes his comments on the Third World an elaboration of the obvious (in effect: lots of people are still hungry), with little in the way of recommendations for what could be done. Fogel is always illuminating and, in his omissions, often frustrating.

—Robert J. Samuelson


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