Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Remarkable Century and the Future

I recently came to a rather obvious, yet remarkable insight. The 20th century was a truly unique and remarkable moment in human history. There is not a single aspect of human civilization that changed less during the 20th than in any of the centuries that came before. Population, economic output, life expectancies, oil consumption, meat consumption and international travel are just a few of the countless factors that changed more between 1900 and 2000 than in any other prior hundred years.

Expectations for the future are with few exceptions rooted in this period of explosive change. Some scholars have traced a variety of trends back into the more distant past, but these works are largely viewed as curiosities on the fringe of economic and social thought. For better or worse most of us are happy to assume the order of things that emerged after the Second World War will hold steady throughout ours and our children’s lives.

Economic growth has been both the great cause and great consequence of the recent pasts explosive change. By rapidly expanding the total available wealth, this expansion has allowed the general population to enjoy unheard of prosperity, without threatening the comfort of the elites.

Growth can be broken into two pieces; basically more people consuming more stuff. Population growth has obviously been the major driver of the first component of growth. From 1900 to 2000 the number of people on the planet rose nearly 4- fold to approximately 6 billion. Just as dramatic was the increase in the number people actively engaged in the globalized economy.

For all the wonders of the Pax-Britannica, world trade really only impacted a small percentage of humanity, in Europe North America and a handful of aristocrats scattered around the rest of the world. Today, only a small number of subsistence farmers are cut off from globalization.

If population growth were the primary driver of economic expansion, we would be living in Malthus’s world. The miracle of the 20th century was the dramatic rise in living standards that accompanied population growth. I don’t have time to recount all the ways in which living standards have improved since 1900. Look around you, the growth is obvious.

Is the 20th century repeatable? In 2100 will our heirs see 2000 through the same eyes that we see 1900? Our entire understanding of the future depends on the answer to this question. It is clear, that attempts to preserve the rate of growth for the next hundred years will smash into the physical limitations of the planet.

Technology is frequently cited as the magical solution to square this circle. Yet, there has never been a major innovation that has shrunk humanities lust for resources.

Adapting to a world of limited growth will be the profound challenge of the next hundred years. The impacts will be both positive and negative, but will shake the very core beliefs of society. This post is the first in a series that I will publish laying out the implications of a limited growth world on our expectations.

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