Agrarian vs. Industrial Societies

Tyler Williams lists important differences between the industrial and agrarian worlds in The Strange New World of the Bible. The citation is from Malina and Rohrbaugh’s landmark Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (pp 6-8), powerfully illustrating the great divide between us and the people of the bible.

• In agrarian societies more than 90 percent of the population was rural. In industrial societies more than 90 percent is urban.

• In agrarian societies 90-95 percent of the population was engaged in what sociologists call the “primary” industries (farming and extracting raw materials). In the United States today it is 4.9 percent.

• In agrarian societies 2-4 percent of the population was literate. In industrial societies 2-4 percent are not.

• The birthrate in most agrarian societies was about forty per thousand per year. In the Unites States, as in most industrial societies, it is less than half that. Yet death rates have dropped even more dramatically than birthrates. We thus have the curious phenomenon of far fewer births and rapidly rising population.

• Life expectancy in the city of Rome in the first century BCE was about twenty years at birth. If the perilous years of infancy were survived, it rose to about forty, one-half our present expectations.

• In contrast to the huge cities we know today, the largest city in Europe in the fourteenth century, Venice, had a population of 78,000. London had 35,000. Vienna had 3,800. Though population figures for antiquity are notoriously difficult to come by, recent estimates for Jerusalem are about 35,000. For Capernaum, 1,500. For Nazareth about 200.

• The Department of Labor currently lists in excess of 20,000 occupations in the United States and hundreds more are added to the list annually. By contrast, the tax rolls for Paris (pop. 59,000) in the year 1313 list only 157.

• Unlike the modern world, in agrarian societies 1-3 percent of the population usually owns one- to two-thirds of the arable land. Since 90 percent or more were peasants, the vast majority owned subsistence plots at best.

• The size of the federal bureaucracy in the Unites States in 1816 was 5,000 employees. In 1971 it was 2,852,000 and growing rapidly. While there was a political, administrative, and military apparatus in antiquity, nothing remotely comparable to the modern governmental bureaucracy ever existed. Instead, goods and services were mediated by patrons who operated largely outside governmental control.

• More than one-half of all families in agrarian societies were broken during the childbearing and child-rearing years by the death of one or both parents. In India at the turn of the twentieth century the figure was 71 percent. Thus widows and orphans were everywhere.

• In agrarian societies the family was the unit of both production and consumption. Since the industrial revolution, family production or enterprise has nearly disappeared and the unit of production has become the individual worker. Nowadays the family is only a unit of consumption.

• The largest “factories” in Roman antiquity did not exceed fifty workers. In the records of the medieval craft guilds from London, the largest employed eighteen. The industrial corporation, a modern invention, did not exist.

• In 1850, the “prime movers” in the United States (i.e., steam engines in factories, sailing vessels, work animals, etc.) had a combined capacity of 8.5 million horsepower. By 1970 this had risen to 20 billion.

• The cost of moving one ton of goods one mile (measured in U.S.:dollars in China at the beginning of the industrial revolution) was: Steamboat 2.4; Wheelbarrow 20.0; Rail 2.7; Pack donkey 24.0; Junk 12.0; Packhorse 30.0; Animal-drawn cart 13.0; Carrying by pole 48.0; Pack mule 17.0. It is little wonder that overland trade at any distance was insubstantial in antiquity.

• Productive capacity in industrial societies exceeds that in the most advanced agrarian societies known by more than one hundredfold.

• Given the shock and consternation caused by the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the forced resignation of Richard M. Nixon, we sometimes forget that this sort of internal political upheaval is nothing like it was in the agrarian world. Of the 79 Roman emperors, 31 were murdered, 6 driven to suicide, and 4 were deposed by force. Moreover, such upheavals in antiquity were frequently accompanied by civil war and the enslavement of thousands.


One thought on “Agrarian vs. Industrial Societies

  1. <>Though population figures for antiquity are notoriously difficult to come by, recent estimates for Jerusalem are about 35,000. For Capernaum, 1,500. For Nazareth about 200.<>I’vre read, though, that the population of ancient Rome may have reach anywhere from half a million to a million. Part of the reason for this is the aqueduct system which was able to supply enough clean water to support the population densities. After the aqueducts were destroyed, however, the population of Rome dropped to low five digits.

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