That Point In History Where Our Standard Of Living Improved

The third period, in which we all live, is characterized by an unprecedented phenomenon: sustained economic growth. Quality of life went from improving very gradually if at all for the vast majority of human history to improving very, very quickly.

Dylan Matthews – About 200 years ago, the world started getting rich. Why?

That quote comes from a recent article that summarizes the thinking from a book titled How the World Became Rich. As readers of my Blog know, I believe this look at history helps us understand possible futures. In this case, what history tells us about our potential to further advance human development. Another recent book titled The Journey Of Humanity took a similar look at history and attempted to explain this path to standard of living improvement. The earlier book makes it clear – the world has changed considerably in the last 200 years:

What today we’d characterize as extreme poverty was until a few centuries ago the condition of almost every human on Earth. In 1820, some 94 percent of humans lived on less than $2 a day. Over the next two centuries, extreme poverty fell dramatically; in 2018, the World Bank estimated that 8.6 percent of people lived on less than $1.90 a day. And the gains were not solely economic. Before 1800, average lifespans didn’t exceed 40 years anywhere in the world. Today, the average human life expectancy is more like 73. Deaths in childhood have plunged, and adult heights have surged as malnutrition decreased.

Dylan Matthews – About 200 years ago, the world started getting rich. Why?

The authors of the book link this amazing societal transformation to a sustained economic growth that began in Britain in the 19th century. The book explores the reasons for this transformation by probing questions like, why didn’t growth happen before the 19th century? What were the preconditions that Britain had that allowed it to take off first? Why did some countries follow Britain’s lead and others did not? These questions focused on history create a linkage to the future. The book probes this linkage via this question: what can this history tell us about how wealth can spread to the rest of the world in the 21st century? This gets to the human development question: can we broadly replicate this historical transformation both globally and across a wider set of domains.

As described in my post on innovation and well-being, we have a wide possibility space across domains including food, health, energy, mobility, work, education, clothing, communications, information, transport, and homes. Our standard of living can therefore advance across the globe while we solve some of our biggest historical challenges. Exploring humanities historical journey helps us understand the drivers of economic growth. Did geography play a role along with climate? Was culture important to growth? Did the orientation of a continent (horizontal versus vertical) play a role? These questions and more are explored in this book that is now in my book library. As mentioned above, an interview of the books authors can be found in this article.

4 thoughts on “That Point In History Where Our Standard Of Living Improved

  1. Just bought the book. I have developed my own theory that rapid growth in quality of life was achieved through exploiting stored solar energy in the form of coal and later oil, to perform more work/per capita; work being the generic term for conversion of energy into useful action, whether it be from muscle or machine. If you chart oil production with productivity which can be a useful measure of quality of life throughout the 20th century, they track exactly the same. When the oil crisis hit in the 70’s, productivity growth slowed, and our QOL stopped increasing as rapidly.

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