Human Progress over 200 Years

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A recent Wall Street Journal essay by Professor of Psychology, Steven Pinker, describes the dramatic progress in human prosperity, wealth and wellbeing over the last 200 years.  He ascribed the progress to the Enlightenment ideal that human ingenuity and benevolence could be channeled by human institutions and result in progress.  Professor Pinker is right about the dramatic human progress made.  He is wrong about what created it.

It wasn’t Enlightenment, but rather the Industrial Revolution that produced the human progress.  The Industrial Revolution began in the late 1700’s with the invention of the steam boiler and steam engine fired with fossil fuel or wood.  However, it didn’t reach full speed until about 1818, two hundred years ago.  By 1818, the steam rail locomotive was operational.  It revolutionized land travel.

Throughout recorded history, human land travel was limited by how far a human or horse could walk in a day, about 30 miles.  The steam railway engine traveled at 40 miles per hour day and night for 960 miles per day.  After completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, humans could travel 2,000 miles coast to coast in several days for about $100.  Previously, that trip took many months by sailing vessels around the tip of South America or to Panama by sail, across Panama by horse and up the West Coast by sail.  Cost was more than $1,000.

About the same time, the steam engine was adapted to drive oceangoing steamships.  Sailing ships could do about 8 miles an hour at best.  Steamships did 20 miles an hour.  It not only revolutionized human sea travel, but also the shipment and trade of goods.

Initially, boilers and steam engines were fired with wood and later with coal and oil, fossil fuels.  In the late 1800s, Thomas Edison invented the electric power generator and electric motor and the light bulb.  Electric power grids quickly followed which distributed low cost electric power over large areas.  Soon electric motors were used to drive all sorts of labor saving devices, eventually including all the home appliances including, clothes washers and dryers, dish washers, refrigerators and later air conditioning which made living in the Southern states comfortable for the first time.

Professor Pinker rightfully says the greatest advance in human life expectancy resulted from the development of clean, sanitary drinking water systems and sewage collection and treatment to sanitize sewage before discharging it into rivers. However, that was not created by the Enlightenment, but by the electric grid and electric motors to drive the pumps required to operate clean water systems and sewage systems.

Until the Industrial Revolution starting about 1818, the world per capita GDP had never exceeded about $500 US.  In many third world countries, it still has not exceeded $500 US.  After 1818, world per capita GDP went up rapidly to more than $6,000 US in the late 1900s because of the Industrial Revolution.

In one of his summation paragraphs, Professor Pinker can’t resist bashing President Trump for a long list of sins he claims threaten progress.  He also bashes the continued use of the very fossil fuels that made the human progress possible.  It’s gross overstatement to say President Trump’s agenda threatens the human progress created by the Industrial.  However, if environmentalist convince world leaders to ban fossil fuels,  that will kill it dead.

Author:  Ralph Coker

Bio: Ralph Coker is a retired petroleum refinery plant manager.  He writes on business, economic, military and political topics.