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The Wisdom of Walter Prescott Webb

In the 1950s, Walter Prescott Webb foresaw that western civilization was coming to the end of a 450 year economic boom.

| September/October 1980

  • 065 walter prescott webb - Fotolia - STOCKHOUSE
    Walter Prescott Webb foresaw this in the 1950s.

  • 065 walter prescott webb - Fotolia - STOCKHOUSE

We find it valuable—every so often, in these pages—to restate, almost word for word, some thoughts that first appeared in this magazine five and a half years ago.

Now we do this for two very good reasons: [1] the particular ideas and concepts in question can, we feel, do more to give you a handle on the trying times ahead—as if the ones already here weren't bad enough!—than anything else we know, and [2] MOTHER EARTH NEWS' circulation and readership keep mushrooming so rapidly that—as "old hat" as the following ideas may now be to some of this periodical's "family"—we know the thoughts in this column will still be brand new and useful to hundreds of thousands of others.

We're talking about the penetrating overview of history first published by Walter Prescott Webb back in 1952 (The Great Frontier). Webb was an amazing man. He had the answers then—as early as 1950—that most of us are just beginning to grope for now. If the world's politicians, economists, and captains of industry had only listened to him then, we most certainly wouldn't be facing the mess we're all in today.

Webb's thesis, vastly compressed, is that Western Europe was—from about 1300 to 1500—virtually static. It had an area of approximately 3,750,000 square miles and an estimated population of 100,000,000 people. And that was it. Period. Decade after decade. The carrying capacity of the day-to-day world known by the average inhabitant of Western Europe had been reached.

"Progress" and "growth"—the concepts that modern society values so highly—would have baffled medieval Europe's typical citizen. There were very few entrepreneurs back then because there was almost no wealth to manipulate. Opportunities for the accumulation of excess capital, the investment of such funds, or the drawing of interest on them were so sparse that public banking was completely unknown and private banks were few, far between, and used only by a handful of popes, monarchs, and emperors.

For that matter, just staying alive was a major accomplishment in Europe during the Middle Ages. The continent's population was static because it had reached a semi-starvation, subsistence balance on the land it inhabited. There wasn't really enough food to go around. Europe had reached its "limits of growth" and its citizens lived in a mean, brutish, closed little world. Death—with its possibility of Heaven—offered most inhabitants of the continent their only hope of escape.

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