A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Good Old Days Before the Industrial Revolution

A frequent meme I encounter when talking about economic issues is how destructive industrialization and capitalism has been to human flourishing. We once lived in an Edenic serenity, in tune with nature and with each other. But humanity rebelled, embracing market ideologies and industrialization. Now we have wrecked human life and the planet. We must repent and restore what we had before.

I've just begun reading Matthew Ridley's The Rational Optimist. He offers this wonderful tale to highlight the absurdity of this type of thinking:
This should not need saying, but it does. There are people today who think life was better in the past. They argue that there was not only a simplicity, tranquility, sociability and spirituality about life in the distant past that has been lost, but a virtue too. This rose-tinted nostalgia, please note, is generally confined to the wealthy. It is easier to wax elegiac for the life of a peasant when you do not have to use a long-drop toilet. Imagine that it is 1800, somewhere in Western Europe or eastern North America. 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 smallpox that is now causing him to cry; his sister will soon be 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 the 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 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. Fathers’ jacket cost him a month’s wages but it 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.
If my fictional family is not to your taste, perhaps you prefer statistics. Since 1800, the population of the world has multiplied six times, yet average life expectancy has more than doubled and real income has risen more than nine times. Taking a shorter perspective, in 2005, compared with 1955, the average human being on Planet Earth earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children and could expect to live one-third longer. She was less likely to die as a result of war, murder, childbirth, accidents, tornadoes, flooding, famine, whooping cough, tuberculosis, malaria, diphtheria, typhus, typhoid, measles, smallpox, scurvy or polio. She was less likely, at any given age, to get cancer, heart disease or stroke. She was more likely to be literate and to have finished school. She was more likely to own a telephone, a flush toilet, a refrigerator and a bicycle. All this during a half-century when the world population has more than doubled, so that far from being rationed by population pressure, the goods and services available to the people of the world have expanded. It is, by any standard, an astonishing human achievement.
Averages conceal a lot. But even if you break down the world into bits, it is hard to find any region that was worse off in 2005 than it was in 1955. …(12-14)
Idealistic nostolgia also plays into warped perspectives on current development issues. Middle class Westerners learn of factories in Malaysia where workers are working 14 hours a day in hot and dirty environments. The reaction frequently is one of outrage that people would be "made" to work in those conditions. While it is true that some people are rounded up by governments and compelled to work in such factories in some places, in the great majority of cases, people are choosing to work in the factory. They are in fact communicating with their feet that their lives in "rustic Eden" is more of a hell then the factories.

Are there challenges in our world economy? Unquestionably. Has the rise of industrialization and market economies created problems? Certainly. Should we not have a little ambivalence about the lives of people making the transtion into an industrialized world? No ... we should have a lot of ambivalence. But we have to reflect on these questions in light of the good that has emerged and the good that is emerging, and without nostolgic visions of the past.

1 comment:

Danny G said...

I teach the history of pharmacy and medicine @ ETSU and it is a wonder that anyone survived the 19th century, never mind the previous ones. At the turn of the 19th century the last gasp of the Galenic school of medicine was acting itself out lead by Benjamin Rush. Bleeding and heavy metals, especially mercurous chloride (aka calomel) were the treatments of choice and were liberally applied. Of course, the family you describe would likely never have seen a proper doctor. A midwife and, perhaps, the town druggist/apothecary would have been as good as it got. The industrialization which came after the civil war vastly improved the quality and consistency of medicines which were available and, in the period between the World Wars the rewards came with a host of effective drugs, from sulfa to penicillins, brought to market by the pharmaceutical-industrial complex. There is plenty to criticize "Big Pharma" for, but they have been able to do things that the cottage pharmacy shoppe could never have hoped to produce.