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Enlightenment Now? – Wealth

Updated: Jan 8, 2021

The story of global wealth shows how the past 250 years of human history have been unlike anything that has come before.

We continue our deep dive into Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now and the progress humanity has made over the past 250 years. So far, we’ve looked at Life, Health and Sustenance. In this blog post, we’ll be exploring Wealth.

As you’ve probably realised by now, Pinker’s view of almost everything is that we’ve made tremendous amounts of progress over the past 250 years — so much so that there’s almost no point talking about any of the bad stuff. Wealth is no exception. Let’s jump straight to the graph:

This graph shows how global wealth has grow over the past 2000 years. (By the way, the measure of wealth is “international dollars”. These are units adjusted for inflation and purchasing power. So, $100 would buy you the same amount of food or clothing in the year 2000 as it would in 1800.) As you can see, the world produced very little wealth up until 1870, when global productivity exploded. If there is one lesson you take from this series and Pinker’s book, it’s this one: from the Industrial Revolution onwards, everything changed. This change may be good in some respects and bad in others (more on that later). But it’s worth noting just how extraordinary our modern world is from a historical perspective. The amount of wealth and economic productivity in the world today has grown almost a hundredfold since the Industrial Revolution.

This explosive change is mirrored by changes in the global population over the same 2000 year time period:

Notice the similarities? Again, not much happened from the year 1–1800, and then things exploded over the past 250 years. Billions more people. Trillions of dollars more wealth.

Now, depending on your politics, you’ll probably have a different point of view on what caused this explosion in global wealth and population. Pinker likes to emphasise the “application of science to the improvement of material life”. He notes that, “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.”

No doubt this is true. But people weren’t innovating out of nothing. A more cynical take on this explosion in global productivity would include the fact that humans have progressively learnt how to exploit each other and natural world for their own ends. Just take one look at the tar sands in Canada to see how proficient we have got at turning forests into fuel.

Again, Pinker doesn’t say much about this (though, he does have entire chapters on Inequality and the Environment, which we’ll be discussing in the next couple of blog posts). Instead, he talks about how economic institutions provided the conditions for free trade and how ‘bourgeois values’ focused people’s efforts on productivity and progress. I suspect that people were always motivated to improve their lot, but simply didn’t have the resources and opportunities to do so. Likewise, I suspect that nations would’ve opened up their economies if there were the incentives to do so. What happened from the Industrial Revolution onwards is that those resources and opportunities were suddenly available, and many more were there for the taking. It’s not surprising that people and nations galvanised to make the most of this sea change in what was possible.

In the remainder of this post, I want to look at another hugely important graph for understanding what’s happened over the past 250 years in terms of global wealth. This graph shows the distribution of income around the world at different periods of history: 1820, 1970 and 2000:

The graph shows, in 1820, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, most people everywhere were poor — the average income was equivalent to that in the poorest countries in Africa today (about $500/year in international dollars), and almost 95% of the word lived in what counts today as ‘extreme poverty’ (less than $1.90/day). By 1970, Europe and its offshoots had completed what Angus Deaton calls the “Great Escape”, leaving the rest of the world behind. By 2000, there was no longer a discrete divide between the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ world — the world had become richer and more equal.

This story highlights two important lessons: First, the explosion in economic activity and wealth production from the Industrial Revolution onwards didn’t benefit everyone, especially for the first 200 years. The Western world worked out how to create a tremendous amount of wealth from the natural resources sitting in the ground and the human resources living on top of them. Second, advances in science and technology over this 200 years eventually started to benefit those left behind. In the Global South, health, longevity and education are much more affordable than they used to be, enabling people to finally enter into the global economy. It is slow progress — perhaps far too slow — but progress nonetheless.

Just to be clear, simply saying progress has been made doesn’t mean it’s either morally justified or sustainable. Consider the following story from Altamira, Brazil, of how indigenous people living on the Xingu River in the Amazon rainforest were forced off their land to make way for a hydroelectric complex. One of them, Raimundo Brago Gomes, says:

“I didn’t need money to live happy. My whole house was nature… I had my patch of land where I planted a bit of everything, all sorts of fruit trees. I’d catch my fish, make manioc flour… I raised my three daughters, proud of what I was. I was rich.”

Raimundo and his family now live among drug dealers behind barred windows in Brazil’s most violent city. He receives a state pension which, after covering rent and electricity, leaves him about 50 cents a day to feed himself, his wife, daughter, and grandson. The progress humanity has made over the past 250 years hasn’t just left behind people like Raimundo behind — it’s destroyed their lives and, along with them, the rich cultural histories that had persisted for millennia.

We can obviously say the same thing about the entire natural ecosystem that also had to make way for the hydroelectric complex. Although conservation areas around the world are steadily increasing, there is no getting back the forests, grasslands, wetlands and coral reefs that have been destroyed in the onward march of human progress of the past 250 years.

Pinker himself points out that “progress consists not in accepting every change as part of an indivisible package — as if we had to make a yes-or-no decision on whether the Industrial Revolution, or globalisation is a good thing or a bad thing, exactly as each has unfolded in every detail.” But, what he fails to note is that people are making these yes-or-no decisions in the name of progress every day. The Brazilian government no doubt heralded their hydroelectic complex in Altamira as morally justified in the name of progress. We should resist this way of thinking. There are some forms of progress not worth having. We have seen that this one example — one amongst countless other instances of human and environmental exploitation — is part of a 250 year-long global process towards greater wealth and productivity. But that doesn’t make it okay.

Just and sustainable progress is hard. Again, as Pinker himself notes, “progress consists of unbinding the features of a social process as much as we can to maximizing the human benefits while minimising the harms.” I disagree with him that we should only care about maximizing the human benefits — I don’t know why he omits the non-human world from his moral calculus. But I also disagree that progress is as calculative as he suggests. When the harms involved are unacceptable, we should not perpetrate them, even if there are potential benefits to be had. Pinker might view this attitude as unscientific or idealistic thinking, detached from the realities of extreme poverty and the urgent need to lift people out of it. I couldn’t disagree more. When we sacrifice our moral judgements in favour of an overly simplified view of progress, people’s lives, cultures and entire ecosystems are unjustly destroyed. That doesn’t sound like progress to me.

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