The Modern World

 

global-gdp-since-steam-engine

The invention of the steam engine (which used coal and wood at first, with oil and natural gas coming later) seems to be the catalyst for change in the human race. Now that’s a hockey stick we can all get behind!

Wikipedia has a similar graph:

World_GDP_per_capita_1500_to_2003

Data extracted from Angus Maddison’s “World Population, GDP and Per Capita GDP, 1-2003 AD

And then there’s this one, going all the way back to 500 B.C.

Ballor-Global-GDP-since500BC

Source: Victor V. Claar, “The Urgency of Poverty and the Hope of Genuinely Fair Trade,”Journal of Markets & Morality 16, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 274. GDP figures from J. Bradford DeLong, “Estimates of World GDP, One Million B.C.—Present.”

From the article:

This chart demonstrates just how real this “mountainous rise of well-being” has been over the last two centuries. What makes these economic gains even more astounding is that there has been a simultaneous population explosion. There are many more “capita” included in the “per capita” as the chart moves to the right, yet we still see enormous gains in per-capita GDP. As the economistDeidre McCloskey puts it,

Never had such a thing happened. Count it in your head: eight and half times more actual food and clothing and housing and education and travel and books for the average human being—even though there were six times more of them.

Yet a Barna Group survey released this past April found that most Americans remain unaware of these economic gains: “more than eight in 10 Americans (84%) are unaware global poverty has reduced so drastically. More than two-thirds (67%) say they thought global poverty was on the rise over the past three decades.” Both the reality of global poverty (1.2 billion people remain in extreme poverty) and the public perception of poverty’s pervasiveness and intractability deserve increased attention.

That downward blip around 1300 was likely due to the Great Famine of 1315:

The Great Famine of 1315–1317 (occasionally dated 1315–1322) was the first of a series of large scale crises that struck Northern Europe early in the fourteenth century. Places affected include continental Europe (extending east to Russia and south to Italy) as well as Great Britain. It caused millions of deaths over an extended number of years and marks a clear end to anearlier period of growth and prosperity between the eleventh to thirteenth centuries.

The Great Famine started with bad weather in spring 1315. Universal crop failures lasted through 1316 until the summer harvest in 1317, and Europe did not fully recover until 1322. The period was marked by extreme levels of crime, disease, mass death, and even cannibalism and infanticide. The crisis had consequences for the Church, state, European society, and for future calamities to follow in the fourteenth century.

Note that is was cold and rain, not excess warmth that caused this:

Between the early 14th and late 19th centuries, a period of cooling known as the Little Ice Age chilled the planet. Europe bore the brunt of its ill effects, experiencing harsh and fickle weather for several centuries and especially from 1560 to 1660. Scientists continue to debate the cause and timeline of the cold spell, which has been blamed for catastrophes ranging from droughts and famines to wars and epidemics. According to the latest study, described by an international team in this week’s Geophysical Research Letters, volcanic eruptions just before the year 1300 triggered the expansion of Arctic sea ice, setting off a chain reaction that lowered temperatures worldwide.

The Medieval Warm Period, lasting from about 950 to 1250, can also be seen on the graph. At around 1000 A.D., GDP peaked, then fell when weather turned cold and wet..

Then, the steam engine was invented, access to powerful yet inexpensive energy began, the industrial revolution took off, and the world never looked back.

The next time somebody tells you how terrible things are today, primarily due to fossil fuels, show them this graph and ask them if they’d like to go back to the sort of conditions then.

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