The twentieth century saw the material wealth of humankind explode beyond all previous imagining: we—at least those of us who belong to the upper middle class and live in the industrial core of the world economy—are now far richer than the writers of previous centuries’ utopias could imagine. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw, for the first time, productive capability outran population growth and natural resource scarcity. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the average inhabitant of a leading economies—a Briton, a Belgian, a Dutchman, an American, a Canadian, or an Australian—had perhaps twice the material wealth and standard of living of the typical inhabitant of a pre-industrial economy. The standards of living of the bulk of the population underwent a substantial, sustained, and unreversed rise in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for perhaps the first time in a thousand, if not in seven thousand years.
There was substantial growth and technological progress before the industrial revolution, before the eighteenth and nineteenth century age of the spinning jenny, power loom, steam engine, coal mine, and iron works. The windmills, dikes, fields, crops, and animals of Holland in 1700 made the economy of its countryside very different indeed from the marshes of 700. The ships that docked at the Chinese port of Canton had much greater range and the commodities loaded on and off them had much greater value in 1700 than in 700. But pre-industrial technological progress led to little improvement in the standard of living of the average human: improvements in technology and productive power by and large did little but raise the numbers of the human race, not its material standard of living.
But standards of living, having been little more than stagnant before, rose in the nineteenth, and exploded in the twentieth century.
Here it is the twentieth century has been uniquely and profoundly different. On average, what took a worker in the North Atlantic in 1890 an hour to produce takes an a worker in a leading economy today only about seven minutes to produce. By this measure, which is very close to that reported by standard national account-based estimates of economic growth, we today who live in the advanced industrial economies have some eight times the material prosperity of our counterparts of a little more than a century ago. Such an amplification of material wealth has carried with it not just quantitative changes in what we consume but quantitative changes in how we live. Who today could find their way around a kitchen of a century ago? Before the coming of the electric current and the automatic washing machine, doing the laundry was not an annoying but minor chore but was instead a major part of the household’s—or rather the household’s women’s—week. A household a century ago that had the ability to purchase the same amount of that day’s consumption goods as the average household today was seen as extraordinarily affluent.
However, our standard calculations substantially understate the boost to productivity and material prosperity that the past century has seen. We today are not just better at making the goods of a century ago. We today also have the new and powerful technological capability to make an enormously expanded range of goods and services: from videocassettes—which are now obsolete—and antibiotics to airplane flights and plastic bottles. We today would feel—we would be—enormously impoverished if by some mischance our money incomes and the prices of commodities remained the same, but if we were at the same time forbidden to use any commodity not produced in 1890. This expansion in the range of what we can produce is an enormous additional multiplier of material well-being. Are we sixteen? thirty-two? sixty-four times as rich in a material sense as our predecessors in today’s developed industrialized democracies were toward the end of the nineteenth century? The magnitude of the growth in material wealth has been so great as to make it nearly impossible to think about measuring.
As far as its ability to produce material goods is concerned, in the twentieth century the human race has passed from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. It is no longer the case that providing basic food, clothing, and shelter took up the lion’s share of economic productive potential. Today only a small part of our collective production is made up of the necessities of survival. The lion’s share is taken up by conveniences and luxuries.
Enabling and powering the enormous increase in material wealth—its essential prerequisite, in fact—has been the explosion in human technological knowledge, the creation of this explosion requiring not just scientists and engineers and means of communication, but also a market economy that made it worth people’s while to funnel resources to scientists and engineers so that they could do their jobs. We, however, have had not just technological breakthroughs, but a breakthrough in the creation of the research laboratory—a breakthrough in that we have now routinized the process of creating constant and successive technological breakthroughs. The consequences have been overwhelming.