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Impact of Economic Forces on Population & Culture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Economies have some pretty substantial impacts on the lives of people, including their cultural values and population sizes. In this lesson, we'll examine this connection across history, and see how economic shifts led to social change.

Economy and Population

Kids are expensive. That's probably not a great revelation to you. Just think about all of the costs that go into raising a child--from diapers to summer camps to car insurance, and if you don't do it right then you're paying for therapy. It's a lot to take on. Considering the costs of raising a child, it's unsurprising that one of the biggest impacts on people's decisions to reproduce is the economy. As it turns out, economy and population size are fundamentally connected. As the economy worsens or improves, new social pressures are added to increase or decrease family size. So, population growth relies on a number of outside forces including economic opportunities, cost of living, and of course, the cost of raising those adorable little rugrats.

Population growth and economic forces are deeply connected.
Family painting

Trade and Economic Exchange

Let's tackle this issue from a historical perspective. After all, many times we can get a better view of the long-term effects of economic changes across a few centuries. So, how can economic forces impact the population? Well, take a look at Europe in the 14th century. The continent was ravaged by the Black Death, the plague which decimated the population and destroyed many economies. However, both the population and the economy began to recover thanks to the opening of wider trade networks. International trade brought new wealth into European societies, which provided the stability people needed to live healthier lives, and as a result the population boomed.

Where did this trade come from? Well, it started with a series of trade routes that stretched from Europe to China known as the Silk Roads. Merchants travelling across the continents brought in new wealth to Europe. This led to some major changes, including a rise in health, a rise in education and literacy, and the development of institutions like banks and inventions like the printing press. Basically, this wealth created the Renaissance. After the Silk Roads closed, Europeans started looking for new ways to get to China, which in 1492 resulted in the accidental encounter with the Americas.

Wealth originating from the Silk Roads sparked the Renaissance and massive social changes.
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From the 1500s on, exchange with the Americas had dramatic impact on the culture and populations of Europe. Access to new resources like tobacco created new economic opportunities, which in many places again led to increased wealth and even more population growth. However, this exchange also impacted populations in another way, because economic opportunities were directly connected to colonialism. Europeans moved into the Americas, brought millions of slaves from Africa, and in many places, replaced the populations previously living there. The rise of these international networks of economic and cultural exchange introduced new levels of competition within many European societies, as empires competed for global dominance, and citizens competed for a place on the social ladder.

Taxation and Spending

So, as economies changed, societies and populations changed as well. By the 18th century, these changes were becoming pretty pronounced and it caught the attention of many academics. One in particular was Adam Smith, founder of modern economic studies, who started analyzing the ways that the government and other institution could impact populations through their economic policies. According to Smith, if nations supported institutions that encouraged savings and productive manufacturing, their populations would flourish, be peaceful, and grow. On the other hand, if they discouraged private business and taxed improperly, they would reap poverty.

Adam Smith was a founding figure in modern economics.
Adam Smith

Smith's theories helped redefine the economic goals of modern nations. Business was to be a priority, and cultural values shifted to reflect this. Thus, population growth became seen by many as the hallmark of a productive society. This did have an air of ethnic competition as well, under the belief that certain races would flourish and take over the globe, replacing less economically productive peoples.

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