Monday, September 16, 2013

Will technological progress continue?

Last week we featured a number of articles on the history of technology and innovation. We saw that from the Neolithic revolution to about 1870, progress was slow and unsteady for the vast majority of people outside of a tiny elite in settled agricultural societies. The life of the common man (and woman), anonymous in the historical record, changed little.

Their lives were dominated by the plowing, irrigation and stoop labor of agriculture, their work schedule by the rhythms of the seasons. Their diet consisted primarily of staple grains, a few vegetables, milk and cheese (in Europe), and a small amount of meat. Women were primarily involved with cooking and child-rearing. Infant mortality was high, and the majority of children did not live to see their first birthday. People lived in relative squalor in small, damp, filthy conditions with poor ventilation alongside their animals, and with only fire for light, heat and cooking, supplemented with the occasional oil lamp. Their clothing was rough felt, linen, flax, hemp, cotton and wool (silk being reserved for the upper classes). Disease, whether originating as viruses in animals or bacteria in water, was rampant. Warfare was common, and most casualties were caused by infection rather than opponents. There was no indoor plumbing, and water for drinking, bathing, washing and cooking had to be laboriously hauled from its source. The fastest people and information could travel was by horseback. Most people were illiterate and innumerate, and lived and died in the place they were born. Most people lived in reciprocal, self-sufficient local village economies although periods of political centralization occasionally saw vast trading networks form (and often dissolve in times of decentralization). Of course, this picture obscures a lot of good things in this type of life, from family connections, to the delight in craftsmanship and labor, to adventure, to a connection with nature, to political freedom. And of course, conditions varied greatly in both place and time throughout this history.

Energy could only be provided by the sun directly or indirectly. Human and animal muscle power did most of the work, and much of recorded human history is the story of elites appropriating the land and labor of other people by force through slavery, sharecropping, rent seeking, debt peonage, corvee labor, military service, and so on. Fuel consisted of firewood and dung, and later charcoal and peat. Later on, falling water was harvested by undershot and overshot wheels, and wind was harnessed first to drive ships with sails, and then with windmills. Oil was burned for use in lanterns.

Changes did occur, but because of the logic of the economy as detailed by Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo, it did not matter much for living standards. In their view, the size of the pyramid changed, but not its composition: the king in his castle and the peasant in his hovel, and all levels in between, were destined to stay much the same no matter what. In a review of the economic history book A Farewell to Alms, economist Robert Solow succinctly describes this type of economy:
Here is how Malthus-Ricardo works. In any society at any time there is a reasonably well defined notion of “subsistence,” a level of income, essentially wages, just adequate to support a standard of living that will lead the average family to reproduce itself. Subsistence has a hard physiological basis in calories, necessary nutrients, protection from weather, and the like, but it can be modified by cultural factors, social norms, and customs. If wages happen to exceed subsistence for a while, because of good harvests or a reduction in the supply of labor through war or disease, normal mortality will decrease, fertility may rise, and the population will increase. But not for long: the pressure of a larger working population on a fixed supply of land and resources will force labor productivity and wages to fall. (That is the famous law of diminishing returns: the idea is that as more and more workers are squeezed onto the same area of land, at some point each additional worker will be able to add less output than his predecessor did, simply because he has a smaller share of the land to work with.)
This process cannot stop until wages are back to the subsistence level. The population will be bigger, but its members no better off than they were. If harvests then go back to normal, productivity and wages will fall below subsistence and the process just described will go into reverse: higher mortality will cause population to fall until productivity and wages return to the subsistence level and then stabilize. 
This is a simple and powerful story, and it has just the implications needed to explain the grim preindustrial history. The key implication is that the material standard of living of any population is determined only by the level of subsistence. Incremental technological progress, which certainly took place in England—and elsewhere—between 1200 and 1780, does not seriously improve living standards; it just allows a larger population to be supported.

Then, beginning in the post-Enlightenment era, things started to change in Northern Europe, particularly in Great Britain. Yields and agricultural productivity were boosted using mechanization, crop rotation, and selective breeding. The potato caused a peasant population explosion. There was a massive influx of resources from the New World, including timber and cotton along with precious metals such as gold and silver. A global trade market opened up in the North Atlantic between Europe and North America. Exotic goods began flooding in from China and the Middle East like coffee, tea, sugar, pepper, cloves, porcelain and silk. Colonial lands provided raw materials and a release valve for overpopulation. There began to be a division of labor. Centralized factories replaced cottage industries and guilds.

But most significantly, machines began to be invented that utilized millions of years stored energy in the form of fossil fuels, and scientific discovery began to be institutionalized and broadly disseminated. Such machines had a long incubation period – from mechanical clocks to the complicated gearing of windmills to precision machine-tooling. Coal and metals began to be mined on a massive scale. Ship and rail transport became much faster. "Natural philosophers" made momentous discoveries in science and mathematics overturning medieval superstition and Classical thought. The Enclosure movement and the Highland Clearances drove peasants into the cities to provide cheap labor, and the plundering of colonies provided start-up capital for the early mass production methods of factories powered by water and steam. During the first Industrial Revolution, living standards and health declined precipitously due to urbanization and pollution, especially in Britain.

But then things began to change. The working classes began to demand a better deal through Movements like Chartism, socialism, and the Fabian Society. Public health measures were initiated, spurred by the dismal state of health of army recruits. John Snow’s discoveries at the Broad Street pump and Pasteur’s germ theory of disease revolutionized medicine. Courts put criminals in jails (gaols) and resolved legal disputes peacefully, including those in contracts, patents and trade. It was the era of the Second Industrial Revolution.

“Clean” electricity began to be reliably harnessed, leading to a flurry of inventions such as artificial light and the electric motor. Photography and motion pictures were invented. Collaborative, institutional, experimental science, initiated by the Royal Society, was now practiced in universities throughout Europe and North America. Discoveries in chemistry, biology, anatomy, engineering and physics came quickly and furiously. The internal combustion engine, powered by gasoline (originally a by-product of kerosene production) revolutionized transportation, later extended by heavier than air flight. The telegraph, then the telephone and "wireless" radio and television provided communication at the speed of light. Infant mortality declined and life expectancy increased. The assembly line and interchangeable parts made mass production of commodities possible on a scale never before seen. New synthetic materials like alloys, vulcanized rubber, nylon, and eventually plastics from fossil fuels were developed. The Haber-Bosch process and antibiotics drove a population explosion. Oil wells were drilled across the globe to provide the energy this new industry needed.

The Second Industrial Revolution took place mainly in the United States from the Civil War to the Great Depression, and formed the character of the nation. The question is, will it continue? This week we’ll consider some of the main arguments for and against.

The Birth of Plenty: Chapter One (Efficient Frontier)

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