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The Curve



January 2010




ometime near the end of 1800 CE something unprecedented began to happen in the world; the well-being of the people on our planet began to grow exponentially.  The Curve is the term I use to describe this happening.  So potent and so unique is this phenomenon that I use the term, The Curve, in the same way that one might speak of, say, The Planet, or The Bomb, their meanings so clear that the need to explain which planet, what bomb, or which curve, becomes superfluous; they are that singular.  The Curve is pictured above, just below the title of this article.  Its horizontal axis is time.  It proceeds from the year zero of the Common Era to the year 2000, while the vertical axis is undefined.  The reason for this vagueness is that it could depict any of several phenomenon which go to make up what might be called the gross well-being of our entire species.  It is in some sense a composite of the several advances that we have achieved.  The major factors that I want to emphasize is: its uniqueness in the history of our species—it has never before happened; and its suddenness—it has been rising exponentially since the late 1800s and continues to do so.  This is remarkable, and I find it to be surprisingly under appreciated.

I first came upon information concerning The Curve in the Economist Magazine quite a few years back.  It indicated that the annual income of the world as a whole began to increase rapidly about the time the industrial revolution got rolling and then, rather than reverting to the norm, as it had always done before, it just kept going up, and it continues to rise dramatically.  This surprised me because I had previously assumed, without thinking much about it, that the human race, obviously very poor way-back-when, had been gradually improving, and doing so little by little, gradually, over the years.  I was wrong; it was much more sudden, like a shot in fact.  I cannot resurrect the particular graph that so astounded me from The Economist’s archives, which don’t seem to reach back to articles before 1997, but there is plenty of information available with which to confirm the dramatic thrust and timing of the graph.  Just to put some numbers to it:  the annual income of the world in the year 2000 was, in terms of gross annual world product, expressed in Purchasing Power Parity, was a little more than US$60 trillion

Text Box:  
A 12,000 Year Look at the Curve
In Terms of Population
Unsurprisingly, the human population increased as well and, roughly speaking, this occurred most dramatically during the same time period.  (The only reason the curve to the right seems sharper, higher and more dramatic than the curve depicted in the title above is because it dates all the way back to the year 10,000 BCE, rather than from only the year zero.)  Here the long time span of 12,000 years goes to show even more clearly how unique is this explosion of people, which topped-out at about six billion in the year 2000. 

According to the book: The Escape From Hunger and Premature Death, 1700—2100: Europe, America, and the Third World, by Robert William Fogel:

·         People generally became bigger and stronger during this recent period;

·         we began to live significantly longer;

·         our food supply became more stable and portions larger (here is a fanciful take on that aspect of our well-being);

·         finally, pandemics, such as the so-called Black Death, and numerous other infectious diseases, which had previously curbed the population regularly were eventually mitigated through the development of pharmaceuticals and other remedies. 

From these two elements of information, annual income and the number of people in the world, we can see by simple division that the average income in the year 2000 for the peoples of the world was just about US$10,000ppp per person.  This of course says nothing whatsoever about distribution.  It also says nothing about wealth, only income.  While wealth is probably what we care more about, we have no firm information about it, nor even what such numbers would mean over such a long time span.

So far, all that I’ve discussed are factual matters.  I doubt they would engender any serious disagreement from any direction of the political spectrum.  It is what it is, and it’s verifiable.  I have used the terms income and wealth here, and I do this knowing full well that these words are for many fraught with negative meanings, words too close to “corporation”, “monopolist”, “globalization” and “inequality” and of course they do contribute to these terms.  Yet I ask that for now this data be understood here in a benign way, as a stand-in for the term well-being.  I have addressed the inequality issue at length in a sister-article that I have titled Whose Is It?  So this is a very soft and casual use of these terms here, but one that has its uses.

Generally, there are several reasons why The Curve—general well-being—is today still increasing rapidly:

More good news:  As we now begin to understand genetics and physics more deeply, and because we now increasingly have the scientific, engineering, financial, transportation and communication infrastructure in place to capitalize on these major, new insights and capabilities, it seems quite likely that this acceleration in our wealth and, as a consequence, our well-being, will continue.  Several of these funda­mental scientific advances are quite new, and their benefits are just barely beginning to trickle into the world economy in the form of new materials and the intimate understanding of ourselves and of our biosphere.  These new technologies will increase the stability of the trend of The Curve in addition to simply making us better off than we ever have been before. 

It is also important that the rapid, general rise in well-being reflected in The Curve has the potential to let us survive setbacks that are sure to come.  Our new knowledge is, in effect, like money in the bank set aside for emergencies.  Knowledge, once proliferated, is robust, nearly indestructible; it exists in people’s cerebrums and, increasingly, in electronic knowledge-bases which, for safety—unlike that of the old library at Alexandria—are mirrored in electronic memories all over the world.  Of course this is an optimistic view.  But why not?  The Curve is built on the “can do” outlook that our species has maintained through times much more difficult than now. 

Yes, many things can happen:

Yet other hopeful signs:

 For those of us who see wealth and well-being as a good thing, there is more unprecedented good news: the vast and so-far consistent increase in wealth of several very large—and previously very poor—countries: Brazil, Russia India and China, the so-called BRIC countries; and there are others as well.  Here are the most significant figures from the CIA Fact Book:

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These figures, an estimate for 2008, are not additive as the European Union is
of course a summary that includes some of the individual countries in the list,
but note the unprecedentedly large numbers for the BRIC countries.

(All in terms of US dollars, PPP)

What this table does not show, an effect at least as important as what it does show, is the distribution of knowledge that happens concurrently with the generation of wealth.  Nearly all significant, extra-national contracts now involve some sort of technology transfer from rich to poor, educated to less educated, as well as simply the sale of a good.



et there remain many people—at first this was quite surprising to me—who view this optimistic scenario I have outlined here as though it were a cancer on humanity.  It will be worthwhile to address these thoughts to some minimal extent here because it will help us to understand more clearly the significance of what is happening.  These criticisms fall roughly into these categories, (though there is some twisting and overlapping, and yet other objections which I have not addressed):

Neo-globalization, mal-distribution and American hegemony:

This objection has a nearly unlimited number of facets, though some have already been mitigated by circumstances; America is now in a sense the world’s debtor nation; its hegemony a great deal less obvious than it once seemed to be.  Perhaps the most enduring argument concerns the basics of capitalism and socialism: which is the better way to run things?  This ideological split concerns itself with numerous phenomenon: globalization will cost jobs; corporations will rule the world, in effect leading to re-colonization; it will break the labor unions through unfair competition…  The list is quite a long one.

Deracination and cultural hegemony:

This group of objections concerns itself with culture.  The fundamental argument is that many people think that it is not in our best interest to develop a global mono-culture.  This is the argument one might put more simply as an argument against supermarkets vs. mom and pop shopping markets.  These objections also concern the elimination of species; they worry that unrelenting human co-option of the planet will increasingly degrade the very things that make our planet both interesting for ourselves and a home for all beings.  At its extreme this argument says that we humans ought not to rule the planet for our own well-being to the detriment of other sentient beings, and even, more generally, non-sentient biological species which co-evolved with us.

Global warming:

This objection supposes that the planet itself is warming and that this will have severe negative consequences for us.  So much has been written on this recently that I will not recapitulate its arguments here.

God and religion

This objection, which could be called the Taliban Objection, since it is the Taliban of the Middle East who have carried this argument furthest in practice, says that the nature of our existence on earth is temporary, and thus the aim of life is to properly prepare ourselves for the afterlife, which is to say the study of, and submission to, God.

To address each of these objections in the detail which they may merit is certainly beyond my capabilities, and far beyond what could be written in any single essay of this scope.  But I would like to comment on a number of these points very briefly because I think that they will help the reader understand the significance of The Curve to each of these objections, and that is my main aim here.

The objections concerning Americanization and, more broadly, Globalization, are fundamentally arguments concerning inequality.  How shall the fruits of the benefits which have been accruing to us be distributed?  And, more specifically, why are they so mal-distributed now?  Since this topic is the primary subject of the sister-article, Whose Is It?, I will defer my main arguments concerning these objections to that section.  Yet I would like to say here, concerning distribution, only that if a job is lost in New York and outsourced to someplace in India, where the term “poor” has a much more poignant meaning than it does in New York, it would be a strange moral—whether religiously-based or otherwise—which would not applaud this significant adjustment in the equality of the world.  Having been in a similar position once myself, I understand personally the angst of the person in New York who must now, in some fashion, reinvent a livelihood.  This is an appropriate point at which to say that in these essays I consistently take what I will term a planetary view of the inequality issue.

Concerning cultural hegemony, all I can say is that it is a tradeoff; to what extent is it possible to continue to grow The Curve while maintaining separate, smaller, cultures?  The maintenance of The Curve seems to me the more important of the two options.  Furthermore, it is not clear to me that maintaining these separate cultures that many people see as so valuable ought to go completely on the plus side of the ledger; it has, after all, been these separate cultures that have been responsible for a great deal of misery in the world.  And, it should be added, that for those who wish to maintain, say, Amazonian Indians in their pristine environment and tribalism—and there are such people—it seems to me rather self indulgent, as though we were building a zoo of some sort for our own amusement. 

Concerning global warming, I think it is clear that the world has been warming, except perhaps for the last decade or so, but in the main a significant warming trend has certainly occurred.  Yet I have these questions:

·         Has it been caused by something that we can do something about, that is to say, is it anthropogenic?  There are other reasonable, possible scenarios.

·         How likely is it that the trend could “Get away from us” if we don’t radically change our economics, and quickly?

·         If it occurred, would it be a bad thing?  It is not terribly difficult to imagine some significant benefits from such an occurrence.

My primary concern is that we don’t now have very good answers to these questions at present.  And further, it seems to me that unless it can be shown with a significant confidence factor that it can “get away from us”, I think we will have much more powerful tools to deal with it in a short time as The Curve continues its exponential growth.

Concerning God and religion, I am convinced that we are quite alone here.  For a more detailed argument on this issue you can read an extensive analysis of how I came to think this and of what it means in the foundation essay: The Big Ones.  It may be useful to say here that I have come to take such a planetary view of things because in a peculiar way I appreciate the rise in our well-being all the more because we seem to have done it ourselves, little monkeys that we are.  I think we should be proud of it.  And I am loath to give it up.

Whose Is It?