Why has worldwide prosperity increased so dramatically?
Today we take it for granted if we want some milk, we can walk into a convenience store and it will be waiting for us on refrigerated shelf. We know the milk won’t be diluted or tainted. The price will be something we can afford. And, the store’s owner will let us walk out with it after swiping a card, even though we’ve never met, may never see each other again, and have no friends in common to vouch for us, Steven Pinker observes in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.
“A few doors down I could do the same with a pair of jeans, a power drill, a computer, or a car,” writes Steven.
This reality is a recent phenomenon.
For thousands of years, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, life for human beings was “nasty, brutish, and short.”
How did this happen?
“The most obvious cause was the application of science to the improvement of material life,” Steven tells us. “The machines and factories of the Industrial Revolution, the productive farms of the Agricultural Revolution, and the water pipes of the Public Health Revolution could deliver more clothes, tools, vehicles, books, furniture, calories, clean water, and other things that people want than the craftsmen and farmers of a century before.”
As historian William Rosen writes: The greatest innovation of the Industrial Revolution was innovation itself. “Not simply a huge increase in the number of new inventions, large and small, but also the process of invention itself.”
One innovation created another innovation which created another innovation, and on and on and on…
“The invention of the barometer in 1643, which proved the existence of atmospheric pressure, eventually led to the invention of steam engines,” Steven writes. “Other two-way streets between science and technology included the application of chemistry, facilitated by the invention of the battery, to synthesize fertilizer, and the application of the germ theory of disease, made possible by the microscope, to keep pathogens out of drinking water and off doctors’ hands and instruments.”
It begins with science but two other innovations also played a key role.
“One was the development of institutions that lubricated the exchange of goods, services, and ideas – the dynamic singled out by Adam Smith as the generator or wealth,” Steven writes. “In 18th century England, cronyism gave way to open economies in which anyone could sell anything to anyone, and their transactions were protected by the rule of law, property rights, enforceable contracts, and institutions like banks, corporations, and government agencies that run by fiduciary duties rather than personal connections.”
Also important was a third factor: a change in societal values.
“Aristocratic, religious, and martial cultures have always looked down on commerce as tawdry and venal,” Steven observes. “But in 18th-century England and the Netherlands, commerce came to be seen as moral and uplifting.” Focus shifted to propriety, thrift, self-restraint, and an orientation toward the future rather than the past. In time, dignity and prestige were given to merchants and inventors rather than just soldiers, priests, and courtiers, Steven notes.
What Steven calls “the Great Escape” in Britain and the Netherlands was quickly followed by escapes in the Germanic states, the Nordic countries, and Britain’s colonial offshoots in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.
In the last fifty years, he notes the Great Escape has become the Great Convergence: “Countries that until recently were miserably poor have become comfortably rich, such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. (My Singaporean former mother-in-law recalls a childhood dinner at which her family split an egg four ways,” Steven recalls).
“Since 1995, 30 of the world’s 109 developing countries, including countries as diverse as Bangladesh, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Mongolia, Mozambique, Panama, Rwanda, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam, have enjoyed economic growth rates that amount to a doubling of income every eighteen years.
“Another 40 countries have had rates that would double income every thirty-five years, which is comparable to the historical growth rate of the United States,” Steven comments.
“By 2008 the world’s population, all 6.7 billion of them, had an average income equivalent to Western Europe in 1964.
“And no, it’s not just because the rich are getting even richer,” Steven observes. “Extreme poverty is being eradicated, and the world is becoming middle class.”
More to come in future Rise With Drew posts.
Reflection: Take a moment to be grateful to be alive at this moment in history.
Action: Journal about it.