In How big a deal was the Industrial Revolution?, I looked for measures (or proxy measures) of human well-being / empowerment for which we have “decent” scholarly estimates of the global average going back thousands of years. For reasons elaborated at some length in the full report, I ended up going with:
(I also especially wanted measures of subjective well-being and social well-being, and also of political freedom as measured by global rates of slavery, but these data aren’t available; see the report.)
- Physical health, as measured by life expectancy at birth.
- Economic well-being, as measured by GDP per capita (PPP) and percent of people living in extreme poverty.
- Energy capture, in kilocalories per person per day.
- Technological empowerment, as measured by war-making capacity.
- Political freedom to live the kind of life one wants to live, as measured by percent of people living in a democracy.
Anyway, the punchline of the report is that when you chart these six measures over the past few millennia (data; zoomable), you get a chart like this (axes removed for space reasons):
|Click to enlarge|
(And yes, there’s still a sharp jump around 1800-1870 if you chart this on a log scale.1 )
Interestingly, this is not the impression of history I got from the world history books I read in school. Those books tended to go on at length about the transformative impact of the wheel or writing or money or cavalry, or the conquering of this society by that other society, or the rise of this or that religion, or the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire, or the Black Death, or the Protestant Reformation, or the Scientific Revolution.Historians missing the forest among the trees.
But they could have ended each of those chapters by saying “Despite these developments, global human well-being remained roughly the same as it had been for millennia, by every measure we have access to.”3 And then when you got to the chapter on the industrial revolution, these books could’ve said: “Finally, for the first time in recorded history, the trajectory of human well-being changed completely, and this change dwarfed the magnitude of all previous fluctuations in human well-being.”
Keep this one around for the next time a liberal tries to drag you back to the pre-industrial era.