Thursday, September 22, 2011

2000 years in one chart

The Economist recently published a chart that claims to show "When history was made", their blurb goes on to explain that since people make history then the more people you have then the more history you make, so now that our population is 7 billion we're making more history now than we ever have before, I'm not sure its this simple but I'll run with it. On the chart they're showing economic output and years lived (which are %'s of the total), the scales are a little hazy and for example, they don't explain how they could possibly arrive at a figure for economic output for the 5th century, so it's not data that I would necessarily bank on, but I get the overall point.

So here's an interesting thought, since modern humans have been around for at least a couple of hundred thousand years how come it took us so long to master agriculture on the left hand side of this chart and yet once we invented flying it took us less than 100 years to reach the Moon on the right hand side. The rate of acquisition of knowledge is increasing dramatically; over 20% of the products and services made in the last 2 millennia were made in the last 10 years. Clearly the systems of government and cumulative nature of science have all contributed to this change in pace, for most of this period people were dogged by superstition, ruled by theocratic kings (some still are) and died young, but as we know, over time the old ways have evolved into more enlightened systems allowing some fortunate populations to truly thrive.

It's also clear that those populations left behind at the beginning of the industrial revolution are catching up fast, India, China, South America are all powering up the greasy pole to attain 1st world status, but with another few billion people living at this accelerated pace how long can it last? It's certainly a question that is beyond our ability to compute at the moment. I would like to be an optimist and believe that we'll just figure it out as we have in the past, but with side effects like over population, climate change and shortages of basic resources it would seem like something somewhere has to give.

No comments: