Three wild speculations from amateur quantitative macrohistory

Note: As usual, these are my personal guesses and opinions, not those of my employer.

In How big a deal was the Industrial Revolution?, I looked for measures (or proxy measures) of human well-being / empowerment for which we have “decent” scholarly estimates of the global average going back thousands of years. For reasons elaborated at some length in the full report, I ended up going with:

  1. Physical health, as measured by life expectancy at birth.
  2. Economic well-being, as measured by GDP per capita (PPP) and percent of people living in extreme poverty.
  3. Energy capture, in kilocalories per person per day.
  4. Technological empowerment, as measured by war-making capacity.
  5. Political freedom to live the kind of life one wants to live, as measured by percent of people living in a democracy.

(I also especially wanted measures of subjective well-being and social well-being, and also of political freedom as measured by global rates of slavery, but these data aren’t available; see the report.)

Anyway, the punchline of the report is that when you chart these six measures over the past few millennia (data; zoomable), you get a chart like this (axes removed for space reasons):

all curves, with events

(And yes, there’s still a sharp jump around 1800-1870 if you chart this on a log scale.1 )

Basically, if I help myself to the common (but certainly debatable) assumption that “the industrial revolution” is the primary cause of the dramatic trajectory change in human welfare around 1800-1870,2 then my one-sentence summary of recorded human history is this:

Everything was awful for a very long time, and then the industrial revolution happened.

Interestingly, this is not the impression of history I got from the world history books I read in school. Those books tended to go on at length about the transformative impact of the wheel or writing or money or cavalry, or the conquering of this society by that other society, or the rise of this or that religion, or the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire, or the Black Death, or the Protestant Reformation, or the Scientific Revolution.

But they could have ended each of those chapters by saying “Despite these developments, global human well-being remained roughly the same as it had been for millennia, by every measure we have access to.”3 And then when you got to the chapter on the industrial revolution, these books could’ve said: “Finally, for the first time in recorded history, the trajectory of human well-being changed completely, and this change dwarfed the magnitude of all previous fluctuations in human well-being.”

This is especially clear if we look at at GDP per capita, for which we have especially detailed (but still quite uncertain!) estimates. Here’s GDP per capita (PPP) from 1-1800 CE:

GDP per capita, 1-1800

If this is roughly accurate, then the drop in GDP per capita from 1000 to 1300 probably felt pretty awful to those living at the time, and the subsequent recovery probably felt pretty great. But these sorts of fluctuations are so small compared to what happened after the industrial revolution that they show up as a flat line when we include the post-industrial era:

GDP per capita

That said, the long-run estimates I rely on are pretty uncertain, and my particular choice of measures to capture “well-being” is obviously questionable (and to some, no doubt objectionable), so I will still refer to the basic picture presented above as “speculative.”4

Thus I’ll say my first speculation from my brief expedition in “quantiative macrohistory” is this:

Human well-being was pretty awful by modern standards until the industrial revolution, after which most things we care about got vastly better in the span of a century or two.

But that is probably not a surprising claim to most readers of this blog, especially those who have studied economic history.

Fortunately, my second speculation is probably even more speculative and controversial:

If we had all the data, and we did a factor analysis of “what mattered for human well-being in recorded history,” I suspect most of the variance in human well-being would be explained by a primary factor for productivity, and a secondary factor for political freedom.

The first factor probably isn’t surprising. Technological progress, energy capture, other aspects of productivity, and wealth all feed on each other and are in some cases hard to even distinguish, and they all generally improve physical health and many other things we care about.

But why do I suggest political freedom as a plausible second factor, given that “percent of people living in a democracy” tracks so closely with all the other measures of well-being covered above? Largely, it’s because I think “percent of people enslaved” is a more important measure of political freedom than democracy is, and while I wasn’t able to collect/guess enough data points to chart global slavery over time, I read enough of the history of slavery to get the impression that if I could chart it, it might not track that well with the other measures discussed above — at least, not until about 1900.

Instead of being well-represented by a simple hockey-stick, my rough guess is that “percent of people enslaved”…

  • …was quite low near the dawn of recorded history, and gradually rose until about 500 CE,
  • held steady or diminished somewhat from 500-1500, and then
  • exploded upward during the international slave trade, and finally
  • dropped precipitously as the anti-slavery movement made its way around the world.

Anyway, if we run with this wild speculation, then we might conclude that to improve human well-being going forward, there are basically two great battles to be fought: one for greater productivity, and the other for greater political freedom. Except, that hasn’t actually been the case since the invention of nuclear weapons, due to existential risk.

Perhaps the biggest reason to be skeptical of this 2nd speculation is that it’s based on measures for which I was able to find long-run data, and that means it can’t make use of data on various aspects of subjective well-being (e.g. moment-to-moment happiness, or sense of meaning) or aspects of social well-being (e.g. sense of community). Perhaps those would be clear major factors if we had long-run data for them. But perhaps not!5

My third speculation is a happier thought:

Fortunately, it seems it would take a lot of deaths — maybe 15% of world population or even more — to knock civilization off its current positive trajectory (via deaths, anyway).

This speculation results from cataloguing the deadliest events in history, and finding that the worst of them (the Black Death and Genghis Khan) each killed about 10% of world population, and the deadliest event since our current positive trajectory began (with the industrial revolution) was the World War I + Spanish flu double whammy, which killed 4.1% of world population. At a glance, none of these events seem to have “come close” to prompting a downward spiral akin to a “negative industrial revolution” or (in the case of WWI+flu) knocking us off our current positive trajectory. Perhaps this is slightly reassuring about whether (say) a biosecurity disaster that killed 100 million people (<1% of world population) could be an existential threat to humanity (as opposed to being merely completely horrifying, worse than the Holocaust).

(Please remember that there are numerous caveats, clarifications, etc. in the full report; please consider reading them before lambasting my wild speculations or their underlying assumptions. Also, I think these speculations, especially the latter two, are pretty unstable: I don’t think it would take that much study and debate to make me heavily revise them, or abandon them altogether.)

  1. This sentence added Sep. 16, 2017. Log scale chart courtesy of reader Johannes Dahlström. {}
  2. Changed from “1820-1870” to “1800-1870” on Sep. 16. {}
  3. This is not to say there wasn’t important progress before the industrial revolution, of course. (This footnote added Sep. 16, 2017.) {}
  4. In particular, I’m not sure that subjective well-being improved as dramatically as other aspects of well-being seem to have improved following the industrial revolution, and subjective well-being is arguably the most important aspect of human well-being. See the report for more on this. {}
  5. This paragraph added Sep. 16, 2017. {}


  1. says

    Have you tried graphing the data on a log scale?

    Just from eye-balling it, I don’t think I can distinguish between “The Industrial Revolution was uniquely important.” and “We’ve had steady exponential progress for millennia.”

  2. Bryan Pick says

    Losing 15% of world population would put a dent in the long-term economic trend, particularly if the casualties were concentrated among the most productive people, but would it be an existential threat? It only sets the population back 14 or 15 years.

    What would make it existential is the threat of recurrence. For example, losing 15 or 20 percent of the world’s population in a one-off plague would be terrible, but it would be so much worse if it turns out to be easy to engineer smaller plagues and much harder to defend against them, in which case the threat of recurring and adaptive plagues might force humans to stop living and working in cities, dramatically cut down on travel and trade, make people suspicious of centralized food and water supplies, lead to global totalitarian efforts to suppress important technologies, or cause a lasting breakdown in institutions that support a sophisticated civilization.

  3. Funkyone says

    Wow! It sure has been cranking since the revolution eh?
    Oddly enough so may people in the Holiday Farm (that’s down under) spend so much time bitching and moaning about what they don’t have. Historically, give or take I just missed out on the dark ages and every revolution excluding the tech. How many wars, too many for sure but I still didn’t see the Boer, American Civil, WWI or WWII plus plus plus. No, the wars we fight where I live are on things like tooth decay, poker machines and smoking.
    How lucky am I? Happy 60th Funky.

  4. Daniel Armak says

    > If this is roughly accurate, then the drop in GDP per capita from 1000 to 1300 probably felt pretty awful to those living at the time, and the subsequent recovery probably felt pretty great.

    At least in Europe, that recovery was directly caused by the Black Death. Wealth was primarily produced by agriculture, and almost all usable land was already being worked. Reducing population raised the productivity per capita because total productivity wasn’t proportionally affected. GDP per capita isn’t the right measure here.

    The graph shows a rise from 90 to 140 points (dollars) in the 200 years 1300-1500, most of it during 1300-1400. That’s a 50% rise, which is inside the range of estimations of the proportion of European (and Chinese?) population killed.

  5. says

    I love your post. Thank you for this. I made a short animation about this topic a few years ago so I could explain to the company founders I back (I am a venture capitalist), how the plumbing of industrial capitalism fuels every good thing in our lives and pays the bills to eliminate the terrible inventions of humanity (slavery, political oppression, etc.). Here’s a link to the short animation:

    • says

      Watched your well-crafted, well articulated video in praise of industrial capitalism (defn: an economic and social system in which trade, industry and capital are privately controlled and operated for a profit). While I am a true believer in capitalism, as I’m sure you know, there is a growing percentage of Americans, especially among our young, who believe that capitalism is good for the rich but bad for everyone else.

      I’m making the case that enlightened self-interest on the part of you and your fellow pro-capitalism-ists will be greatly advanced if your side invests some of your intellectual capital investigating the merits of supporting both the creation of a new sub-field in political science: the study of competent self-governance, and a national education effort to introduce a new lexicon of “self-governance-based” terminology into our nation’s marketplace of new ideas. This new field of study, and new language, is absolutely necessary to bridge the passionate, heated, take-no-enemies divide between our society’s pro-capitalism (i.e., conservatism) supporters and anti-capitalism (i.e., Bernie Sanders-style liberalism/socialism) supporters.

      Case in point: to “solve” our extreme income inequality problem, the Left wants to raise the federal minimum wage and raise taxes on the “rich,” while the Right wants to cut taxes and regulations. Yet, neither approach will meaningfully deal with the problem. More importantly, and to my point: Why is no one seriously considering a radically different (but much more logically coherent) legislative policy approach: namely, Congress aggressively pursuing a “100% cronyism-free free market system” policy, which would involve our legislators systematically removing every self-serving provision inserted into every piece of legislation (by every self-serving politician) passed in every Congress going back essentially to our nation’s founding.

      No one is considering this and other unorthodox legislative approaches (for our myriad of major economic, financial, fiscal and societal (EFFS) problems) because it would be utterly impossible for a Congress controlled by self-serving, politically ambitious politicians (which is who has been in control of Congress essentially since our nation’s founding – but especially for the last 100+ years) to craft such legislation.

      You can probably guess where I’m going. In order to actually “solve” our major EFFS problems, our voters must first know how to identify, successfully arm-twist into running, and elect liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans — in the Democratic and Republican congressional primaries – who are “PKQ-caliber” candidates (i.e., they possess the governing qualities, abilities AND selfless motives of a democracy’s version of philosopher kings and queens).

      This is an impossibility in the absence of new, self-governance-based terminology (and knowledge) becoming a part of our society’s working vocabulary (and thought process).

  6. Bryan Pick says

    I’d speculate political freedom has been more closely related to productivity than the second “wild speculation” in this post suggests. After all, it makes sense that the abolition of slavery (a.) closely followed the discovery/invention of powerful substitutes for muscle work and (b.) was promoted abroad by the civilizations—and within the United States by the faction—that had a competitive advantage in using those substitutes.

    Another way productivity and technological progress encouraged political freedom is by leveling the playing field of violence.
    When commoners can’t contribute much to a fight (e.g. when the table stakes for warfare are unaffordable to any one family, like heavy fortifications with long-lasting provisions, heavy armor and weapons, and warhorses), it may be foolish to give their voices much weight in the political process. After all, if the warrior elite are confident they could get their way by force, they have an alternative to taking orders from the weak.
    But when the majority of landholding men own small arms that give them a decent chance of wounding and killing professional soldiers, including heavy cavalry, then raw numbers of such men become a much better predictor of who will win in a fight, so it suddenly makes sense to give all landholding men a similarly weighted voice; that way, political decision-makers don’t unwittingly find themselves in an outgunned camp. Instead of coming to blows over political disagreements, one can just count heads and estimate how a fight would turn out, which signals to the minority that they should back down for now. (If you’re heavily outnumbered, seizing power by force is unlikely to work, but if you’re barely outnumbered, it’s easier to persuade a small number of people than to pick a fair fight.) The flip side of that is that the majority can’t just run roughshod over the minority, because then the minority has no reason to accept the political order; they might as well fight for what they can get.
    As small arms get even cheaper and easier to use, even more men can potentially contribute to a fight, so they get a seat at the table too. “God made men, but Sam Colt made them equal.”
    And as more people become useful in a fight in other ways, they too get representation; it doesn’t seem like a mere coincidence that women’s suffrage in Britain, Germany, the US, and other countries followed closely after women became visibly important to the new kind of war effort demanded by WWI.

    In short, as wealth and technological advancement broadened the capacity for effective violence, more people naturally got seats at the table.

    But if democracy reflects technologically enabled equality, then further technological advances could change the underlying logic.
    If tiny minorities and individuals can disrupt the broader society without much chance of being deterred, then they have less reason to try to peacefully persuade a majority to agree with them. Such a disruption could be a high-impact attack (or set of attacks) that is hard to preclude, preempt, trace, or retaliate against. Possible examples include cyberattacks, cheaply engineered bioweapons, nanotechnology, or even some kinds of drones.
    At the other extreme, if technology starts to make people wildly unequal in fighting capacity—say, technology requiring major concentrations of resources makes it much easier to put down dissenters—then there will be less reason to value the input of those commoners. Possible examples: an extremely effective surveillance state, or highly effective tools of coercion (robots?) that most families can’t buy or learn to use.

    So the economic advances since the industrial revolution may have produced political freedom, but may not continue to do so.

  7. Fred Boness says

    Fossil fuels happened. The increase in available energy over human (slavery) and animal muscle made this improvement possible.

  8. Les Brunswick says

    Very interesting.

    However, in the case of Genghis Khan, my (rather poorly informed) understanding is that his hordes did do permanent or at least long-term damage to Middle Eastern civilizations.

  9. says

    Cool post. Couple comments:

    (1) I wonder what you think Scheidel’s The Great Leveler argument, which I gather makes the point that violent shocks and mass death is good for societal inequality of the survivors. I know you haven’t listen inequality in your measures of well-being, but it seems like some of your well-being measures could be boosted, not dampened, by population loss as long as it was on the lower end of the distribution and only survivors were counted afterwards. What does your data say?

    (2) Where did you get your data from?

    (3) What is the explanation of the drop in PPP from 1000-1300 CE?

    (4) How are you defining slavery? Any consideration of serfdom in your calculations? What about wage slavery?

    • Luke says

      Hi Seb!

      (1) I haven’t read the book. I discuss inequality measures someone in the longer post (just Cmd+F for ‘inequality’). I think most historians agree that European wages rose after the Black Death (because labor demand), and plausibly this is true in the case of other major shocks I haven’t studied as much.

      (2) Data and sources are in this spreadsheet.

      (3) Don’t know, didn’t check.

      (4) My guesses about the shifting proportion of world population enslaved were based on a definition that would include chattel slavery and the worst forms of serfdom and other forms of bondage, but not include most forms of wage slavery. But, it’s very hard to draw these lines, especially when considering all cultures across all of human history, and it’s also not clear where we should draw the lines for purposes of estimating “average global human well-being” over time. I say more about this in the longer post.

  10. says

    Luke, this reply is tangential, but you put a lot of emphasis on political freedom so I thought you might find this new thinking re pol. freedom thought provoking.

    I think our society (and species) has an incomplete, even primitive, understanding of the concept of political freedom. The main reason for this is that our current lexicon only allows us to make crude, macro-level distinctions – e.g., dictatorial totalitarianism (e.g., North Korea, China) vs. democracy.

    What’s lacking from our “self-governance” vocabulary is terminology which enables us to distinguish between a democracy whose national legislature in particular is controlled by legislators who are truly accountable, responsible and selfless (think of them as a democracy’s version of philosopher kings and queens (PKQs)) vs. a democracy whose national legislature is controlled by legislators who are, with exceedingly rare exception, unaccountable, fiscally irresponsible, self-serving legislators whose first and greatest concern is their political careers (what most of us would call a politically ambitious politician (PAP)).

    In my view, our society will not achieve true political freedom – and enjoy all the economic, financial, fiscal and societal (EFFS) benefits that will accompany that freedom – until we recognize that our nation’s voters can use their two votes (in the national legislative election process (NLEP)) to achieve more than just one objective: decide which political party controls the U.S. House and Senate. They can also use their two votes to achieve a second objective: decide if they want a PAP-controlled or PKQ-controlled Congress.

    The challenge will not be so much convincing our voters that they can and should abandon their “one objective” voting strategy in the NLEP in favor of a “two objective” strategy. It will be convincing our political scientists and civics teachers that they have a moral/academic obligation to start teaching our nation’s students (and voters) how to “practice” democracy/self-governance competently — which is to say, how to: 1) identify, 2) successfully arm-twist into running, then 3) elect PKQ-caliber candidates in the Democratic and Republican congressional primaries.

    Bottom line, just as the myriad of revolutions (industrial, computer, information, etc.) were possible only because of new knowledge (i.e., new scientific, technical, etc. discoveries), true political freedom will require new self-governance-based knowledge and thinking — enough to require a new sub-field in political science.

    Of course, this new knowledge will be rejected by our establishment’s well-entrenched political orthodoxy. That’s to be expected. The good news is that the history of new, knowledge-based ideas — e.g., Heliocentric Model, Germ Theory, etc. — is very clear in this regard: dragging the fields of political science and civics instruction out of the 18th century and into the 21st will not be an easy task. But it is inevitable.

    Much of this new knowledge is introduced via a sci-fi narrative here:

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