According to Matt Ridley, Europe's dramatic increase in wealth after 1750 depended upon three things, the first of which “was an increasing division of labour that meant that each person could produce more each year and therefore could consume more each year, which created the demand for still more production” (201). Citing the historian Kenneth Pomeranz, he points two additional factors
vital to Europe's achievement: coal and America. The ultimate reason that the British economic take- off kept on going where the Chinese — or for that matter, the Dutch, Italian, Arab, Roman, Mauryan, Phoenician or Meso- potamian — did not was because the British escaped the Malthusian fate. The acres they needed to provide themselves with corn, cotton, sugar, tea and fuel just kept on materialising elsewhere. Here are Pomeranz's numbers: in around 1830, Britain had seventeen million acres of arable land, twenty-five million acres of pastureland and less than two million acres of forest. But she consumed sugar from the West Indies equivalent (in calories) to the produce of at least another two million acres of wheat; timber from Canada equivalent to another one million acres of woodland, cotton from the Americas equivalent to the wool produced on an astonishing twenty-three million acres of pastureland, and coal from underground equivalent to fifteen million acres of forest. Without these vast 'ghost acres' Britain's industrial revolution, which was only just starting to raise living standards in 1830, would have already shuddered to a halt for lack of calories, cotton or coal.
Not only did the Americas ship back their produce; they also allowed a safety valve for emigration to relieve the Malthusian pressure of the population boom induced by industrialisation. [201-202; emphasis added]
These “ghost acres . . . [which] just kept on materialising elsewhere” permitted specilization, international trade, higher quality consumer goods, and the economic basis of the Industrial Revolution. They also disproved Malthus's dire predictions.
Pomeranz, Kenneth. The Great Divergence. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.
Ridley, Matt. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. New York: Harper, 2010.
Last modified 20 July 2011