Saturday, December 24, 2011

Progress, now vs. 2010 and the year 1800

It is fun to read past generations moaning about general decline.  In college it was interesting to read about all the technological advances that occurred in the "Dark Ages."

For perspective, an except from an essay (read it in full at

  1. Worldwide living conditions. There is widespread concern that our global economy, while lifting up some, has condemned hundreds of millions of others to extreme poverty, particularly in light of the current worldwide economic recession. But according to the latest U.N. report (2010), its Human Development Index rose in all but three nations (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe) from 1970 to 2010. For example, worldwide average income per capita in 2010 was $10,760, which is twice the inflation-adjusted level in 1970. Over this 40-year period, income per capita rose in all but six nations worldwide, with increases averaging 184% in developing countries and 126% in developed countries [UN2010].
Imagine a better-off-than-average family somewhere in Western Europe or Eastern North America in 1800 [Ridley2010, pg. 13]:
The family is gathering around the hearth in the simple timber-framed house. Father reads aloud from the Bible while mother prepares to dish out a stew of beef and onions. The baby boy is being comforted by one of his sisters and the eldest lad is pouring water from a pitcher into the earthenware mugs on the table. His elder sister is feeding the horse in the stable. Outside there is no noise of traffic, there are no drug dealers and neither dioxins nor radioactive fall-out have been found in the cow’s milk. All is tranquil; a bird sings outside the window.
Oh please! Though this is one of the better-off families in the village, father’s Scripture reading is interrupted by a bronchitic cough that presages the pneumonia that will kill him at 53 — not helped by the wood smoke of the fire. (He is lucky: life expectancy even in England was less than 40 in 1800.) The baby will die of the smallpox that is now causing him to cry; his sister will soon be the chattel of a drunken husband. The water the son is pouring tastes of the cows that drink from the brook. Toothache tortures the mother. The neighbour’s lodger is getting the other girl pregnant in the hayshed even now and her child will be sent to an orphanage. The stew is grey and gristly yet meat is a rare change from gruel; there is no fruit or salad at this season. It is eaten with a wooden spoon from a wooden bowl. Candles cost too much, so firelight is all there is to see by. Nobody in the family has ever seen a play, painted a picture or heard a piano. School is a few years of dull Latin taught by a bigoted martinet at the vicarage. Father visited the city once, but the travel cost him a week’s wages and the others have never travelled more than fifteen miles from home. Each daughter owns two wool dresses, two linen shirts and one pair of shoes. Father’s jacket cost him a month’s wages but is now infested with lice. The children sleep two to a bed on straw mattresses on the floor. As for the bird outside the window, tomorrow it will be trapped and eaten by the boy.

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