Progress has lately gotten a bad rap, because there seems to be so little of it. Violence wracks the Middle East; economies are sputtering; Ebola strikes fear. But if you step back a bit, there is plenty of progress. We ought to remind ourselves periodically that, in history’s broad sweep, the long-term advances often overshadow the short-term defeats.
How far should we step back? How about to 1820.
This seems an eternity, but as history, it’s just a blink. The year roughly coincides with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, arguably the most important dividing line in the human experience. Before, societies were largely rural and traditional; after, they were increasingly urbanized and modern. A useful confirmation of these truths comes in a new study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that reports changed living conditions since 1820. (The study — “How Was Life? Global well-being since 1820” — is available at http://ow.ly/Clpwp.)
The biggest upheaval is the most obvious: population. Since 1820, the number of people on Earth has exploded, from 1 billion to about 7 billion now. (The United Nations forecasts it will reach nearly 11 billion by 2100.) This could not have occurred without immense improvements in farming and the rise of industries that favored living in densely populated cities.
Viewed over two centuries, economic growth has produced huge gains in incomes and living standards. New technologies delivered massive benefits. On a global basis, average per-capita incomes rose 13 times from 1820 to 2010. Until recently, gains were concentrated in Western Europe and the United States, which recorded even larger increases. Europe’s leap was 17 times to $20,841; America’s was 22 times to $30,491. (All amounts are expressed in dollars at 1990 levels; in today’s dollars, they would be higher.)
There were continuous, though erratic, improvements in health. In the 1830s, someone born in Western Europe typically lived 33 years; today, that is roughly 80 years. The study’s earliest U.S. figures put life expectancy at birth at 39 in the 1880s; in the 1900s, it was 51. Today, it is also near 80. Better fed, people almost everywhere have gotten taller (one exception: Africa).
These powerful forces have redefined societies. Rising life expectancies and falling birth rates constitute a “demographic transition” that characterizes most advanced nations. In turn, this slowly transformed women’s economic and social roles, because with fewer children they were not forced “to spend large parts of their lifetime in pregnancy and child care,” the OECD study says.
With more children surviving, there was a “perception that larger families were becoming too costly.” This was reinforced by “compulsory schooling introduced in most of Western Europe in the 1870s and 1880s” and by child labor laws. The nature of the family shifted, as children were viewed less as economic producers. Instead, there was a “growing cultural appreciation of the child, who was to be kept away from the labor market for as long as possible.”
Something similar happened to political systems. As long as most people lived in rural squalor, feudal hierarchies and monarchies had an easier time surviving. Landlords and royal families wielded great power over peasants. But as people migrated to cities, these controls loosened. Pressures grew for democracy and individual rights, though authoritarian governments often resulted.
Our pessimistic biases distort the present. Consider one of today’s hot topics: economic inequality. Yes, there’s more of it within nations, including the United States. But there’s less of it between nations, as gains in China, India and elsewhere have closed the gap with wealthy societies.
Progress is not a straight line. It’s a permanent zigzag, and there is no utopia at the end of the rainbow. Advances come mixed with new problems and tragedies. Since 1820, there have been plenty of these, chief among them World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression and World War II. But was there ever some golden era of peace and prosperity that most people would gladly exchange for what we have today? It seems doubtful.
Read more from Robert Samuelson’s archive.