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The Big Ratchet

How Humanity Thrives In The Face of Natural Crisis

Ruth de Fries

The Big Ratchet - the major change in the second half of C20 as we became a predominantly urban society. Achieved by huge increase in food production (corn and rice tripled, wheat doubled) and became much cheaper, which meant much less part of income needed to be spent on food. And sanitation, vaccination and antibiotics meant a big improvement in mortality rates.

Ever since Malthus doom-and-gloom merchants have predicted that resources would run out. But societies adapt and learn and alter course.

We link the potato to the Irish famine of mid C19, but before that it made a big difference to Europe. Vitamin and energy-rich, it needed less land to produce the same number of calories than wheat or barley, and stored better. Historians estimate that the potato was responsible for about a quarter of the population growth 1700 to 1900 (with the rest being due to improved health and sanitation).

Irish potato famine looks like a classic case of Overshoot - tech improvement allows higher population density until something happens and the overburdened society collapses. Easter Island, Angkor Wat. But this is looking through the short lens of the viewer. A longer time frame shows that overshoots don't cause a collapse, they just lead to the next pivot.

1845 Franklin expedition to seek NW Passage. Before he left, Franklin confidently told the papers "Where Esquimaux do live out a fair period of life, it is reasonable to suppose that Europeans may subsist and survive for many years." But the Terror and the Erebus got stuck in the ice and every man perished. Point is that although both Inuits and Europeans belong to the same species, they had different cultural skills. Franklin's men didn't have the survival skills because their culture had no way to learn the things the Inuit had figured out over generations.

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