Thursday, August 22, 2013

Your WTF chart of the day

Take a good long look at the chart below. That’s annual world GDP from the year 0 to 1998. Pretty remarkable, isn’t it?

Yesterday I blogged about the overall level of misery in the world of the early 1700s. The chart shows what I was talking about. The world of 1700 was only modestly richer than the world of the Roman Empire. It still ran on human and animal muscle power, supplemented modestly by wind, water, wood and coal. Humanity still lived within the confines of the “Malthusian trap” – sure, we had invented agriculture, metallurgy, and some other pre-industrial technology, but the modest productivity gains they made possible were quickly swamped by our species’ fecundity.  

I thought I would easily be able to find a chart like this on the Internet, but Google as I might, everything I found had the wrong time scale, or was disaggregated, or was per capita.* So I worked up what I wanted on my own. The data comes from a paper by Angus Maddison, an economist (now deceased) who headed up what apparently is the sole initiative to gather economic data on a world-historical scale. (That seems to me to be a really important project, and one that would attract the interest of more than a tiny handful of scholars, but what do I know?) 

Maddison included his own graph of his data in his paper (it's Fig. 5 in the PDF), but he plotted GDP on a logarithmic scale, not a linear one. Collapsing the Y-axis that way shows more detail, but it doesn’t convey the sheer mind-blowing magnitude of our post-1820 expansion. (Similarly, plotting GDP per capita reduces the dramatic effect. We haven’t just increased people’s incomes – we have a hell of a lot more people, too.)

The bottom line is that the world we take for granted – a world in which many people remain terribly poor, and many others feel they’re poorer than they ought to be – is, nevertheless, not just richer than the pre-industrial world, but insanely richer. That’s something we should feel in our bones. But we don’t, as I discussed yesterday.

A reasonable followup question might be: How did we get here? The chart at right (source) shows a large part of the answer. We did it – we do it – with energy, especially fossil fuels. The slope in this chart isn’t quite as “holy crap!” as the previous one, but it’s close. My guess is that technology gets us most of the rest of the GDP slope – not only do we use vastly more energy than we used to, but we also use it much more efficiently.  

And that, in a nutshell, gets us to the dilemma we face going forward. Historically, the one way we’ve discovered to raise people’s standard of living substantially is to uncork huge quantities of fossil fuels – but if we do that on the scale needed going forward, we will cook the planet. (And no, that is not in dispute.) If we don’t, on the other hand, we’ll be headed back into the Malthusian trap – only this time, with a population of more than 7 billion, many of them heavily armed.

Small wonder that many people, faced with that dilemma, either deny the reality of climate change, or massively underestimate the difficulty of shifting to renewables at the speed we'll need. But the dilemma is as real as can be.  

*This chart from Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms came close, but it's per capita and splits into a Y after 1820.

1 comment:

  1. Generally I'd protest the use of raw GDP as indicative of anything except a very dramatic curve (*grin*), but thinking on it, I see where you're thinking goes, to look at the sum total of all production. It is impressive indeed. I would tend to quibble more with the direction your conclusions seem to lead.

    But leaving that aside, I'd like instead to point out that something else happened during the 1700s - the enormous sociological change which resulted from the adoption of the idea that an individual owns the result of one's own labor, and is born into the world beholden to no one.

    The destruction of class in major societies (which includes the slow, society-wrenching, reduction in the practice of slavery which continues today), the idea of freely elected governments, the principles of personal freedom under which we operated for several generations, coupled with, nay, resulting in the enormous technological gains represented in your post, gave us all the opportunity to better our lot in life, and produced the GDP curve which we enjoy today.

    Is this sustainable? Will we continue to solve problems of energy, and food, and standard of living? We don't know, just as no generation before us knew, and no generation which comes after us will know. Every solution produces a new problem. We do know that past problems have all been solved, however imperfectly, or eventually have been found to be non-problems.

    Eventually we, collectively, acting individually, solve them all. Who among our young people today will be the ones to make a major leap toward solving what we consider to be our most intractable problems? And who among the grandchildren of tomorrow will be the ones to implement those solutions? We cannot know. We cannot steer it. But we can take it on faith, I believe, that these solutions will come.

    *dismount soapbox*