The "Great Enrichment"

We live in the luckiest era in history, and here's why - Enrichment rooted in capitalism has made life better in so many ways, including ones that touch very close to home. It's worth considering if you favor systemic change. 


The facts are that for most of human history the “natural” way of things was for parents to bury children. Nowadays, as my friend suggests, such sorrows are rare tragedies. The numbers tell the story. In 1860, the share of the global population that died in the first five years of life was 41%. In 2017, it was 4%.

In the U.S., in 1900, 1 child in every 4 died before his or her fifth birthday. Today it is 1 out of 167.

This 98% decline is an incredible success story. What changed? Call it the Industrial Revolution. Call it capitalism. The result was what economic historian Deidre McCloskey calls the Great Enrichment.

For most of history, humans survived on roughly the equivalent of $3 a day — enough for subsistence living. In good times living standards might rise, but one bad harvest or natural disaster could plunge a community back into abject poverty.

Around 200 years ago things began to change rapidly. Today the average American lives on about $130 a day. Europe, Canada, Australia and parts of South America and Asia have enjoyed similar increases.

This vast increase in wealth — widely shared — enabled us to afford medicines and medical treatments, diets, clothing and shelter, among other things, which banished such stories as the Pettijohns’ to the realm of freak horror.

This Great Enrichment — rooted in capitalism — continues to benefit humanity. Worldwide, there are 200 million fewer people undernourished than there were as recently as 1990. Since 1993, the share of humans living in extreme poverty has fallen from 34% to 10%, while the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by 1.1 billion.

Since 2000, worldwide deaths from malaria have fallen by half. The income of the median person on the globe has doubled since 2003. Life expectancy is now higher than ever before on all the world’s continents.

Hasn’t all this come at a great environmental cost? Perhaps, but it ought to be remembered that this cost liberated us from the horrific world of Thomas and Charity Pettijohn and generations of ancestors. When people say that we need “system change” or that “another world is possible,” we should remember what the world of the Pettijohns was really like.

And, beyond a certain level of wealth, countries become greener. Worldwide, between 1990 and 2014, CO2 emissions per $1 of GDP fell from 0.76 kg to 0.32 kg — a 58% decline. In the U.S., they fell from 0.81 kg to 0.30 kg — 63%. There needn’t be a trade-off between the environment and continued economic growth.

This is not just my first Christmas without my dad, but also my first Christmas as a dad. My son was born in May. When I think of what Thomas and Charity Pettijohn went through, I feel sick. My heart breaks for them, and I cannot imagine how I would cope. I am thankful that the likelihood of my having to try is so vastly diminished.

For all the doom-mongering around us, we are the luckiest generation in history. Considering the falling environmental cost of economic growth, there is no reason the Great Enrichment cannot continue. If we keep sight of what it was that has made us so fortunate, the economic possibilities for our children are bright.
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