The Past is a Foreign Economy
Brad DeLong reflects on how radically the world economy has changed in the last century or so:
What did the world look like in the last generation of the nineteenth century? It was a much emptier world: 1.2 to 1.5B people instead of our 6.4B. It was a much poorer world–of the 1.2B people in 1870 perhaps 1.0B lived like our preindustrial ancestors because they were our pre-industrial ancestors. It was a much less technologically-advanced world: the technological-industrial frontiers of that age were the oil well, the internal combustion engine and the electric light. Nevertheless, six processes were ongoing–not, from out perspective, in full swing but definitely ongoing–that were changing the world: industrialization, urbanization, globalization, marketization, colonization, and democratization.
Daniel Ben-Ami sounds a similar note:
Imagine an egalitarian world in which all food is organic and local, the air is free of industrial pollution, and vigorous physical exertion is guaranteed. Sound idyllic?
But hold on… Life expectancy is 30 at most; many children die at or soon after birth; life is constantly lived on the edge of starvation; there are no doctors or dentists or modern toilets. If it is egalitarian it is because everyone is dirt poor, and there is no industrial pollution because there are no factories. Food is organic because there are no pesticides or high technology farming methods. As a result, producing food means long hours of back-breaking physical work which may end up yielding little.
There is — or at least was — such a place. It is called the past. And few of us, it seems, recognise the enormous benefits to humanity of escaping from it. On the contrary, there is a pervasive culture of complaint about the perils of affluence and a common tendency to romanticise the simple life.
Both via Peter Suderman