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A Farewell to Alms Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark.
Part of the Princeton Economic History of the Western World series, Gregory Clark’s socioeconomic book A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (2007) explores why industrialization made some parts of the world rich and others even poorer than before. It is a popular book with economists, historians, and general readers. A non-fiction writer and economist, Clark once served as the Professor of Economics at the University of California, and as an assistant professor at Stanford. He specializes in English and Indian economic history and the principles behind sustainable, long-term economic growth.
In A Farewell to Alms, Clark argues in favor of the “Malthusian” theory on economic sustainability. The Malthusian theory is simple: The world’s resources cannot sustain burgeoning populations. If the global population isn’t controlled through war, natural disaster, or disease, our quality of life suffers because the planet cannot support us.
Everything can be traced back to the cornerstone of the Malthusian theory, the “Malthusian Trap,” which is based on three assumptions. First, birth rates increase as living standards improve. At the same time, death rates decrease. Finally, living standards decline for everyone because there are soon too few resources to go around.
What this means, Clark claims, is that we live in an anti-progressive world. Technological, sanitary, and medical advances may be designed to improve our quality of life, but at the same time, they help us live longer. Although everyone wants to live longer, the population eventually becomes unsustainable. The very advances designed to improve our living standards ironically make life harder for everyone.
Clark argues that our ancient ancestors lived happier, richer lives than us. Back in the Stone Age, people relied upon their instincts to survive. Resources were far more equally distributed because no one took more than they needed. They only ate what they needed to survive, wearing clothes only to shield themselves from the elements. There was no such thing as mass production or industrialization. In effect, they respected the limits of the natural world.
Over the years, everything shifted in favor of the wealthy and the powerful. Rich families hoarded what they didn’t need, leaving nothing for the poor. They created an illusion that comfortable living standards and wealth improved everyone’s happiness and longevity. The reality is that improving upper-class living standards directly harmed everyone else. There weren’t any more resources; they weren’t any wealthier back in the Stone Age. They merely distributed the existing resources differently.
Everything turned for the worse after the Industrial Revolution, Clark argues. Again, the Industrial Revolution directly benefited the upper classes while it killed off the poor. In other words, the Industrial Revolution became a mechanism for natural selection. Without war or natural disasters, something had to control the population. The problem now is that, while some industrialized countries distribute their wealth more sensibly to the different class groups, others do the opposite.
Readers will notice, Clark claims, that there are always opposite ends of the scale—we’re either rich, or we’re poor. This is because the amount of supplied resources per capita hasn’t changed for thousands of years. When there is a high birth rate and a low death rate, we cannot suddenly generate enough resources to sustain everyone.
This is how we end up living in a society with poor living standards where the divide between the rich and the poor grows exponentially. The rich take and the poor are left with nothing. Again, this is an example of natural selection in action. We need an entirely new economic model if we are to support the existing global birth and death rates while improving everyone’s quality of life.
Clark’s final argument is that we live in an unhappy society. Since societies throughout the ages are so different, it is hard to know for sure, but it is likely that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were much happier than we are now. Clark claims the reason for this is that they took care of their basic needs without overextending the world’s resources. They didn’t aspire to own or hoard anything that they didn’t need.
Nowadays, on the other hand, we are obsessed with ownership and commercialism. We always want more than we had yesterday. Our appetite for consumption directly contributes to our own unhappiness. Until we shift how we address our needs and desires, we will continue to live in an unhappy world that struggles to support itself.
Clark considers what we can do to support third world countries that are struggling to help themselves. He believes that industrializing these countries is possibly the worst thing we can do for them. By industrializing third world countries, we facilitate the exploitation of the poor without providing them with the tools they need to generate more resources.