Human prosperity has increased dramatically in the past 100 years. But we tend to focus on the glitzy technology, and overlook the big reasons for it.
When we think about human prosperity, we tend to look at the high tech aspects, and miss the mundane.
Many people are unaware that we live in a remarkable time in history, and that human prosperity is at level never achieved before. And when the pundits talk about progress, they tend to point to gee-whizzery: supersonic airplanes, interstellar telescopes, supercolliders, robotics, nuclear submarines, space ships, computers.
And modern medicine.
Medicine provides an important insight. We speak of miracle antibiotics, delicate surgeries, synthetic arms and eyes, gene therapy. But if we step back from the geekiness of innovation to look at what has the largest impact on human prosperity and happiness, we should probably ignore the amazing, headline-grabbing technologies.
Much of human prosperity stems from more mundane human advances. Those advances are also essential to the technical aspects. There is an enormous infrastructure without which modern medicine could not exist, nor any of our technology: highways, railroads, shipping, canning and freezing, rapid communications, accounting & banking; and other boring things such as bridges, warehouses, docking and unloading structures, and machinery to build and service them all.
And then there is fresh water and sewerage.1)A friend of mine, a Jesuit priest, is also a computer programmer. He came by that skill when he went to work for a city public works department and they gave him a choice between fresh water, or sewerage. “Fresh water is cleaner,” they told him. “But sewerage is more interesting.” So he chose the sewers, and started learning programming on the job. How wastewater informs his theological and philosophical views about humanity is a question I need to ask him some day. One of the strongest correlates with human prosperity is potable water.2)Pronounced pō’ tə bəl; this is not water for the ‘pot’, but comes from the Latin pōtāre, to drink. For all of the marvels of modern medicine, throughout history and even today fresh water and sewerage have saved many more lives than medicine.
And most of all, increased food production supports human prosperity. This was the point of the essay on the Deathscape. Populations of humans or other living things can only grow with increased resources. Most of the time, food is the biggest limiter. When populations reach the limits of their resources, animals above that limit require an equivalent number of deaths somewhere. For most species, that means that most of the offspring are doomed.
The Limits of Prosperity
Humans are not exempt. We have managed to escape this situation only temporarily, largely beginning with advances in human prosperity post-WWII. Parents and grandparents who can remember what life was like in the first part of the 20th century are rapidly disappearing. But I remember a man who grew up in the hill country of Arkansas during the Great Depression, when there were few machines. His family had no tractor, so plowing was done with a mule. He once described the daily lunch for the family, and it was the largest Thanksgiving meal most of us have ever eaten. And they ate the same amount for breakfast and supper. I have seen estimates that, at the turn of the 20th century, the caloric requirements for the average adult – women included – were about what an NFL athlete consumes today.
So food productivity has risen, and caloric requirements have declined. And the birth rate in the developed countries has slowed, so populations in those countries are expanding more slowly. For now, in the affluent countries, we are OK.
The limits are still there. If we extract every bit of sunlight that strikes the planet and turn it into food, if we grow food on other planets, if we populate the entire galaxy, sooner or later we reach a limit. As long as populations are expanding, at some point they will max out their resources. When that happens, human prosperity will cease.
And if we do nothing about it, then people must die.
Thomas Hart Benton’s Cradling Wheat courtesy of SheyenneSky.com.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||A friend of mine, a Jesuit priest, is also a computer programmer. He came by that skill when he went to work for a city public works department and they gave him a choice between fresh water, or sewerage. “Fresh water is cleaner,” they told him. “But sewerage is more interesting.” So he chose the sewers, and started learning programming on the job. How wastewater informs his theological and philosophical views about humanity is a question I need to ask him some day.|
|2.||↑||Pronounced pō’ tə bəl; this is not water for the ‘pot’, but comes from the Latin pōtāre, to drink.|