I would like to preface this blog by stating that it may not be an easy reading. It talks about death, squalor, and disease, with everything those things entail. Ultimately, this blog is a positive one, however it may not look like it halfway through.
The Doomsday Clock is two minutes to midnight. Insects are dying at an alarming rate, threatening global ecological collapse. An increasing number of people believe that the Earth is flat. The ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, measles is back in force, and, worst of all, the Star Wars franchise is in absolute shambles.
It seems as if the world has seen better times.
But has it really?
Listen, I will not lie to you. The world, at least as far as human civilisation is concerned, isn’t in tip-top shape. However, at the same time, the world has never been a better place to call home. Because it is possible for things to be simultaneously both bad and the best they’ve ever been.
People tend to romanticise the past, including the distant past. All too often, people take the luxuries of our modern life for granted and can’t – or won’t – conceive of a world without some of them. I’m not talking about things like the lightbulb or the microwave oven or the refrigerator – although these are some of the most defining inventions of the past century or so – but the less obvious things.
By the mid-1600s, London was already home to hundreds of thousands of people. Have you ever considered how often, in the span of a day, three hundred thousand people go potty? You ever think about what they used to clean themselves when they were done? Because I can tell you, it was nothing like the convenient toilet paper roll that ought to be sitting in your bathroom right now. I’ll also do you one better: whatever method the 1600s Londoners used, how different do you reckon it was from what the Romans did in 300 BC? Do you reckon it was any more sanitary?
The way I see it, there are two human histories: the one before the Mule That Changed the World, and the one afterwards.
Over the past ten-thousand-or-so years of human history, countless generations have come and gone, empires have risen and fallen, and yet, until around three hundred years ago, as far as the average person was concerned, not all that much changed at all. Life expectancy stagnated; diseases ravaged populations just as before; childhood mortality failed to drop; starvation and squalor were the lot of the overwhelming majority of the population, a population whose size climbed ever so slowly, often set back by combinations of war, famine, and pestilence.
It’s tempting to think of human history as a story of constant improvement, but the simple fact is, for incredible stretches of time, things really remained just about the same.
Here’s a thought experiment: list all the major inventions that improved the human condition between 10000 BC and 1700 AD. Off the top of my head, that list would look something like this:
The invention of agriculture and the domestication of a handful of important animal groups (bovines, pigs, sheep, goats, horses, and of course dogs) over the span of thousands of years between, let’s say, 10000 BC and 4000 BC.
The invention of writing around 3000 BC.
The move from bone tools to bronze to iron to steel over the millennia.
The invention and subsequent agonisingly slow spread of “three-field rotation” in farming around the turn of the first millennium AD.
The spread of the windmill and watermill around the same period.
The printing press, famously in 1440.
The development of naval technologies that allowed us to cross seas and, eventually, oceans.
End of list. On your own two hands, you can count all the major inventions that propelled humanity forwards in the first ten thousand years, give or take, of our history.
I challenge anyone to do the same for the period following 1700 AD.
Did you know that on a timeline of history, the famous Cleopatra of Egypt lived closer to the opening of the first McDonald’s restaurant than to the building of the pyramids?
Between the building of said pyramids and the fall of Rome, global human population barely managed to reach a few hundred million, at a roughly constant – and very slow – pace. People kept dying of dysentery and smallpox and pneumonia at just about the same rate as ever before. The majority of the population still needed to work in agriculture to (barely) stave off starvation.
Here’s another way of looking at it: modern historians and anthropologists have developed ways to estimate, with relatively good accuracy, what percentage of the population of times long past lived at or near subsistence level. As stated above, historically, nearly 100% of human beings had to work in farming to feed civilisation. Such a society, where nearly everyone is engaged in farming, living in nations who export very little of what they thus produce, almost by definition lives right on subsistence level.
Another good gauge of prosperity is the ratio of the population that lives in large cities, versus the people that don’t. It follows reasonably from the nature of densely packed cities that most of their citizens can’t be engaged in agriculture. The measure of urbanisation in a society thus also provides a way to estimate prosperity.
I’m bringing this up because before we can talk about interesting things, such as the Mule That Changed the World, or how the Londoners of the 1600s answered nature’s call, we have to briefly touch on things that are a lot more boring, such as “GDP” and “global economy.” I know, I know. Follow me through here.
British economist Angus Maddison estimated that, in 1990, in an “underdeveloped” nation, a person needed around $400 USD per year to sustain their existence. We can use that $400 figure as a (very) rough benchmark to estimate historical economic growth, based on the portion of the population that lived on subsistence level at any given point in history. Naturally this method is somewhat arbitrary, but, within reason, it provides an interesting view of human progress, or rather the lack thereof.
With such a method, if we chart the estimated Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita (adjusted for inflation) of the world’s human population through time, we find that for thousands and thousands of years, the average person living on planet Earth did not produce more value than his or her predecessors for the entirety of human history.
Between the alleged birth of Christ and the discovery of the Americas by European imperialists, global per-capita GDP increased, by some estimates, by about 50%. Even the most optimistic estimates would say that per-capita GDP barely doubled in that 1500-year timespan. I want to reiterate this: in fifteen hundred years, productivity barely increased by a factor of two.
To put it in perspective, today, any reasonably developed country expects their economy to grow by 2% every year; in the USA, that expectation is usually 3% or 4%. That may not sound like much, but consider this: at a 2% annual growth rate, GDP will double in 35 years. Calculating with 4%, GDP would double in 17 years.
And yet, between the time of the Roman Empire and that backwater British colony in America declaring its independence from Great Britain, the combined might of all of humanity failed to produce the same growth.
If you picked an average human being at any point in history between the rise of Mesopotamia and the adventures of Don Quixote, you would have found a life filled with hardship, toil, sickness, hunger, and many, many dead children.
Pharaoh Ramses V had roughly coin toss odds of surviving to adulthood. The great philosopher Plato had the same. So did Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour himself. So did Thomas Jefferson.
Would you wager your life on a coin toss? Would you have children with those odds?
There is a simple fact which a lot of people opt to comfortably ignore: suffering is the natural state of the human animal. It wasn’t until terrifyingly recently that we broke away from it. See, despite what your mother’s favourite Facebook page might tell you, humans have never “lived in balance with nature.” We lived in balance with death. Breaking that balance – divorcing ourselves from nature, overcoming death and misery – is something to be celebrated, not mourned.
For atop that pile of human corpses that we call our history, something started happening. Like a gradual 2% GDP growth, small changes began to add up. Tiny little butterfly wings created minute currents in time that would soon overturn what it meant to be a human being.
History is often taught with a focus on “a few great men.” Everyone always wants to hear about the great Alexander, about Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, and the wars they waged.
Me, I always liked the idea of “little histories:” small changes that seem inconsequential at the time, yet change everything over time. It’s the lives of everyday people, the forgotten names who perished as we crawled out of the primordial muck and climbed up Darwin’s ladder. Because after all, it is everyday people that history affects the most; it is everyday people that truly do make history.
I’m talking about the way the people of 1600s London went potty.
Surprisingly, it’s actually not that easy to find information on what people used to clean themselves after they were done with their bathroom business in particular times of history. What I can tell you with fair certainty is that toilet paper, in its modern form, was invented by a brilliant American named Joseph Gayetty in 1857. Before that? People used anything from newspapers, political manifestos they didn’t particularly care for, to leaves, corncobs, sponges, and of course, in times of great necessity, their left hand.
It was all rather unhygienic. And in a London of hundreds of thousands in the midst of a massive population boom and on the cusp of the industrial revolution, a lack of hygiene was a problem.
See, dirtying your hand and wiping it on the grass is one thing if you’re living in a small tribe of a couple dozen people. It’s a whole different thing if you live in a city where you’re almost never more than an arm’s length away from another human being.
You ever stand near someone and know immediately, just by the smell, that they’re a smoker? Even if they don’t have a cigarette in their hand, even if you’ve just met them, you can tell – because they smell. The gunk and smoke gets into their hair. It gets into their clothes. It’s virtually impossible to get rid of.
Filth gets around. More importantly, filth stays around. No matter how much you wipe, even with all the beautiful modernities of bathroom hygiene, chances are, you’ll stay at least a little bit dirty down there. But that’s okay; the outside world is shielded from your dirty bits by, ideally, at least two layers of clothing. See, we collectively as humans, sometime in the last few hundred years, got it into our heads that under our normal pants, we will also wear smaller, secret pants.
Imagine you don’t own underwear. Imagine you own a single, cheap, low-quality pair of trousers that you’ve head for ten years because you literally can’t afford a new one. Oh, sure, you might have a set of “nice” clothes that you break out when you go to church or attend a wedding or something, but remember, you don’t have a washing machine, nor can you conjure hot water on demand by simply turning a crank in a comfortable heated room of your house. You literally cannot afford to let that set of “nice” clothes get dirty.
So, for everyday life? It’s that one pair of work trousers, all day, every day, since you stopped growing at age fifteen or so.
Oh, and you’ve never seen a roll of toilet paper either.
It’s likely no coincidence that Europeans began reporting cases of cholera – a disease caused primarily by fecal-oral contamination – in the 1600s. Cholera, by the way, has been known to have a fatality rate as high as 70% in the 1950s.
When Samuel Crompton invented the spinning mule in the late 1770s, he had no way of considering the wide-reaching implications of his creation.
This “spinning mule” was a complex mechanical device used primarily to spin cotton into threads of various diameters and could be operated by relatively unskilled workers. Not even the best artisans of the time could spin cotton as well or as efficiently as Crompton’s mule.
It was Crompton’s mule that led to a never-before-seen demand for cotton. On the one hand, this spurred the American-African slave trade so that the budding overseas economy could properly make a profit on that rising demand. On the other hand, as cotton flooded the market and its price plummeted, for the first time in human history, the common urban labourer owned cheap, disposable, reusable, washable clothing.
Among that clothing was this newfangled thing called the “underwear.” Whereas before single-layered, low-quality clothing caused irritation in sensitive areas and spread disease, now multi-layered clothing became the new norm. And with it, by the mid-1800s in England, the spread of gastrointestinal diseases such as cholera, among others, began to slow; the quality of life and public health in the densely packed urban centres began to rise.
By contrast, when in 1849 conflict brought the revolutionary government of Hungary to my home city, the unpaved main street was so thoroughly caked in the feces of various species that they had to drop wooden planks to cross from one building into another. It’s not like that now, of course. Last I checked, anyway. Progress can take a while – but even then, the fact that progress even happens at all is a staggeringly new phenomenon in human history.
Something as simple as putting on a pair of cheap underpants did more to eradicate disease and improve human lives than all the bird-masked wisemen that came before.
I probably don’t need to state the importance of the American cotton trade to world history. It’s the reason you are reading this text in English right now; in fact, it’s likely the reason you’re reading this at all.
Most people would likely point to that famous revolutionary war and its resolution in 1776 as the point of history that determined the future of the United States and, with it, the future of the world for centuries to come.
Personally, I like to point at that little boy called Samuel who got so frustrated with having to spin yarn on an inefficient machine in a Lancashire workshop that he inadvertently changed the world.
Between the birth of Christ and the creation of the Mule That Changed the World, global per-capita GDP barely doubled. Between the invention of the Mule and the turn of the millennium, global per-capita GDP rose eightfold; in the USA, per-capita GDP grew twentyfold.
Since the dawn of human history some ten thousand years ago, child mortality had stagnated around the 50% mark. Within two hundred years, it plummeted to the 4% mark.
In the last 50 years of the 20th century, global life expectancy rocketed from 44 years in the poorest parts of the globe to 64 years. In the year 2000, little old Mexico had greater (inflation-adjusted) GDP per capita than Great Britain did exactly 100 years prior.
Also between 1950 and today, we’ve wiped out smallpox, all but eliminated legal slavery, and reduced world hunger by two-thirds and extreme poverty by one half. We are today living in the single most peaceful era of human history, with fewer ongoing wars than ever before. Adult literacy rose from less than 50% to almost 90%, and this includes women: 60% of girls around the world today receive primary education, and where the average 30-year-old man has spent 10 years in school, the average woman of the same age has spent 9.
These are facts.
And when faced with these facts, it can feel almost quaint to talk about the Great Men of the Past. From a purely objective, quantifiable, statistical standpoint, all the glories and wars of the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Mongols, the Chinese, the Mayans, and whoever else – it has all amounted to nothing. Nothing the great empires of ages long gone have ever accomplished has amounted to as much as the invention of the spinning mule.
I’m not, of course, trying to imply that one single invention really did turn the world on its head and propelled us into this bright future. I’m being facetious. The spinning mule, the Mule That Changed the World, is a symbol. It’s the symbol of the little things that no-one considers when contemplating the past. It’s the things people tend to miss when trying to predict the future. The Mule is all the little connections that make up the web of history.
These are the things that matter: the eradication of sickness, the growth of life expectancy, the plummeting of child mortality. If a homeless man in the United States of America visits a homeless shelter, he will be treated better than medieval kings. It may be difficult to believe, and it’s not because homeless shelters are bastions of luxury; it’s just that human existence simply used to be really that bad.
Whereas the majority of the population had to work in agriculture before the Mule, today less than 2% of the USA’s population works in agriculture. And yet, the USA still has food that goes to waste. You can thank the internal combustion engine for that, which allows a single person in a tractor to tend to more land than hundreds of manual labourers. It’s one of those Mules. That’s the real impact of the internal combustion engine; this is why it matters, and not because Samantha from Bumblefuck, Wisconsin got a car from her parents for her sweet sixteen.
Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is, we are living in an unprecedented time of progress, of prosperity, of freedom. And I hate that the magnitude and significance of this prosperity is so often overlooked.
Listen, I won’t lie to you: things are not perfect. Among the greatest issues facing human civilisation today are the rise of terrorism, climate change, dictatorial surveillance states, and certain world leaders winking again towards nuclear proliferation, to name a few. I’m not trying to imply these issues don’t exist; I’m not trying to pretend we have no issues and it’s all smooth sailing from here. It’s not. We have a lot of work ahead of us, and there is always a possibility of things going horribly wrong.
I also realise that to someone who just lost his or her job while living in an otherwise prosperous country, the fact that today there are 200 million fewer people starving than there were in 1970, despite the doubling of the global population in the same timeframe, is little consolation.
Problems exist; they are significant; and the existence of greater problems does not make anyone’s own problems any less significant.
What I am trying to say is simply this: by our nature, we’re always focused on the little picture. We are always looking out for ourselves. If we weren’t all at least a little bit selfish, our species would never have climbed Darwin’s ladder and emerged as masters of our own world. Yet at the same time, our ability to contemplate the past and the future, and do so (more-or-less) objectively, is also part of the reason that we have finally broken away from the tyranny of Mother Nature and tipped the scales of life and death in our favour.
If we all take a collective step back to look at the bigger picture, we might discover something staggering: for the first time in human existence, we are winning battles. Not all of them, not everywhere, and not every time, but we are winning them.
Based on any rational analysis of the available facts, on logical extrapolation of real, current trends, it is in fact very easy to predict a bright future for humanity. Or far easier, at any rate, than most would likely guess.
So if you’re willing to put aside your cynicism for just a moment, justified as it might be, and you’re willing to level with me, then maybe, just maybe, you might be tempted to nod when I posit to you:
There has never been a better time to be alive than tomorrow.
The thoughts presented in this blog were both a strong inspiration and motivation for writing my latest book, What a Time to Be Alice!
The primary goal of Alice was to create a science-fiction vision of the future that is both realistic and optimistic, staying entirely within the realm of known science while designing a prosperous world of the late 2100s.
The book follows the personal coming-of-age of a 15-year-old girl named Alice who, while running afoul of terrorists as she studies on the Moon, discovers some things not just about herself and her family, but also understands a little more of what it means to be human in a world of cyborgs and transhumanism.
This blog was inspired chiefly by two books: Factfulness by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Anna Rosling Rönnlund; and The Birth of Plenty by William Bernstein.
Factfulness is a lovely, brisk read about the statistical facts that define our world today, and an eye-opening presentation of just how wrong most people are about the world we live in. Hans Rosling warns in the book not to take it as an endorsement of “optimism” per se – it is a book, after all, about facts and nothing else – but I confess I found it difficult not to see the world in a little brighter light after having read this book.
Factfulness argues that, despite the tendency of global media to focus on the bad things that are happening, and despite the paradoxically worsening public opinion of our societies, many things are in fact getting not just better, but significantly better than they’ve ever been. More importantly, it bases this argument on, as the title implies, simple facts and statistics supplied by the United Nations and punctuated by anecdotes from Rosling’s life that are as charming as they are enlightening.
The Birth of Plenty is, meanwhile, a comparatively dry and difficult read, although it is no less astonishing for it; this is a book about the world economy and interest rates in a way it’s not often presented, written specifically to show just how, and why, human prosperity took off so sharply in the mid-1800s. You’ve learned about the Industrial Revolution at secondary school; this book explains, more broadly, why the Revolution happened, when and how it did, and why some countries became prosperous two hundred years ago as a result while others continue to stagnate even today.
Personally, I think some of Bernstein’s conclusions and assertions may be somewhat flawed, and he does make some of his arguments in such a way that they border on being unfalsifiable – but disregarding his predictions for the future, his summary of the past is both novel and compelling. And I certainly won’t be the one telling Bernstein why he might be wrong about the future.
If you’re looking for a deeper understanding of civilisation, the nature of prosperity, how it all comes together, all without having to get a degree in economics or history, I highly recommend this pair of books.
And if the story of the last two centuries’ marvellous explosion of wealth and prosperity made you wonder about what the next two centuries might bring, consider checking out my new novel, What a Time to Be Alice!