The Story of Man Part 12




CARROLL & GRAF                       2007


Chapter 26: The Age of Revolution

Chapter 27: Napoleon and After

Chapter 28: A New Way of Working

Chapter 29: The Coming of the Machine

Chapter 30: Iron Horses and Iron Ships

Chapter 31: The Changing Balance of Power

Chapter 32: A Message of Hope

Chapter 33: The Pursuit of Empire

Chapter 34: A World Transformed

Chapter 35: The World in 1913

When Henry Ford started up his first assembly line in 1913 the world was a busy place. One of the most striking facts about it was just how many people there were, compared with any time in the past. In the 150 years since 1763, the world’s population had more than doubled, from 800 million to more than 1600 million. This was partly due to advances in medicine. Thanks to a better understanding of infection and the importance of hygiene, improvements in sanitation, the introduction of vaccination and the provision of clean water, life expectancies in many countries had increased. This was particularly true of cities in industrialized countries. Before the 19th century, cities had been population sinks, where people met an early death. Only constant replenishment from the countryside had enabled numbers to be maintained. Now their populations were advancing rapidly, and in many countries there had been a marked increase in the proportion of the total population living in an urban environment.

In these countries, the fall in death-rates had occurred against a background of maintained birth-rates, with the result that population growth had been particularly rapid. One of the most striking examples of this trend was Britain, where a population of around 7 million in 1763 had by 1913 grown to 40 million, in spite of the emigration of around 20 million people.

Improved hygiene and medical advances would not have led to increases in population had there not been a corresponding increase in the amount of food available. Between 1763 and 1913, the acreage of cultivated land in the world had increased something like threefold, and in many countries improved techniques had resulted in higher yields per acre of both crops and livestock. As a result, standards of living had improved appreciably, in spite of the worldwide doubling of population.

  • Not everyone benefited from the increase in the amount of food available. Britain’s downtrodden colony of Ireland had had a population of 6.5 million as recently as 1840, but thanks to famines and grinding poverty, had lost 5 million to emigration, and now had less than 4 million.
  • Such areas of deprivation against a background of comparative plenty show that there had been a great increase in the inequality of living standards between the better-off nations and those less fortunate.
  • The increase in global population during the previous century had been accompanied by a huge movement between countries. The reasons for this include: the removal of legal obstacles to migration; a sharp fall in the cost of ocean travel; and an agricultural depression caused by imports of cheap grain from countries such as Argentina and America, which created destitution among European farm workers.
  • Between 1840 and 1913, something like 60 million Europeans left their homelands to try their luck elsewhere.
  • Around three-quarters of them finished up in North America where the railroads had opened up the country and land was cheap.

Thanks to increase food supplies, and these great migrations, some areas of the world had registered huge increases in numbers since 1763. The population of Europe, excluding Russia, in spite of losses to migration, had exploded from around 110 million to something like 350 million. Russia itself, including Siberia, now had a population of 150 million. The population of the USA, on the receiving end of the tide of European migration, had passed 100 million.

Among the nations of Asia, Japan was home to 60 million people: prosperous, well educated and brimming with national self-confidence. China with over 500 million people, and an illustrious past, should have been one of the world’s great powers. But years of war and famine, complacent and ineffective government, and abuse by its foreign tormentors, had reduced it to a shadow of its former self, and left a large part of its population mired in debt and ignorance.

  • India’s population of 350 million – equal to that of Europe – was still subject to the whims of the government of one of Europe’s offshore islands. But they would not put up with it for much longer.


Chapter 36: Global War: Act One

Chapter 37: an Unquiet Interlude

Chapter 38: Global War: Act Two

Chapter 39: Making the Post-War World

Chapter 40: Peace and Prosperity – For Some

Chapter 41: Miracles and Magic Wands

Chapter 42: An Empire Overturned

Chapter 43: A New China

Chapter 44: America Walks Tall

Chapter 45: The World Today

Judged by sheer numbers, the history of the human race during the past few centuries is a story of stunning success. The population of the world in 1913 was 1600 million, having doubled in the previous 150 years. It is now approaching 7000 million, having quadrupled in less than a century. China alone now has 1300 million people, almost as many as the entire world a century ago. India, where the fertility rate per woman is nearly twice China’s, is home to over 1000 million, and is forecast to overtake China by 2050. The Indian subcontinent as a whole is already more populous than China.

The growth rate of the world population peaked around 1970. Since then, it has slowed down. Current forecasts suggest that world population will level out at about 10,000 million around the year 2050. If it does so, it would then be a million times what it was when our story began some 10,000 years ago.

The massive increase in world population since 1913 is not the result of runaway birth rates. Fully half of it is the result of people living longer. This in turn is the result of effective public health.

  • From the beginning of the 1950s, antibiotics, vaccination and improved sanitation brought about a dramatic improvement in survival rates.
  • Average life expectancy worldwide in 1913 was about 36 years. The average life expectancy for children born today is close to 70.
  • And this is a worldwide average. In some healthy, rich countries – for example Japan – the average life expectancy is now over 80.

In some developing countries, such as Taiwan and South Korea, the fall in death-rates was followed quite quickly by a fall in birth-rates. This led to an increase in the ratio of working population to total population that played an important part in the ‘economic miracles’ these countries experienced in the 1970s and 1980s. Women who were not occupied with babies were available to work outside the home.

  • The introduction of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s has transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of women worldwide.
  • In China, following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the government introduced a policy of one child per family. In the quarter century since this policy was introduced, China’s birth-rate has fallen by two-thirds.
  • In many poor countries, most notably in Africa and Latin America, birth rates have remained high, leading to increases in the numbers of dependent children, and limiting the ability of women of childbearing age to participate in the workforce.

The combined effect of improved public health and maintained birth-rates has been to dramatically increase the population of parts of the world. Sub-Saharan Africa, with a population of barely 100 million in 1913, is now home to 700 million, while Central and South America, which had a combined total of some 80 million, now come in at over 500 million.

Every so often during the past two centuries, the increase in global population has caused anxieties about our ability to continue to feed ourselves. Thanks to scientific advances during the past 50 years – the ‘Green Revolution’ in agriculture – this is one cause of concern that has largely been put to rest. We can say with confidence that, in theory at least, there is no reason why we should not be able to feed a population of 10,000 million forty years from now. A particularly striking illustration of the ability of modern farming methods – including the generous application of nitrogenous fertilizers – to deliver increased food supplies is provided by the experience of China, where average food production per head of population is now about twice what it was 40 years ago.

  • Eating meat is an appallingly inefficient way of using cultivable land. It requires a much greater acreage to grow crops to feed animals that are eaten by humans than it does to grow cereals, fruit and vegetables to feed human beings direct.
  • If we are to provide 10,000 million people with a decent standard of living, we will find it much easier to do so if they can be convinced of the benefits of a vegetarian diet.
  • If they cannot, then the price of meat (and fish) will long before 2050 have to rise to levels that a sizeable proportion of the world’s population cannot afford, and they will have to make do with a vegetarian diet, whether they like it or not.
  • The world is a much more unequal place today than it was in 1913. The past century has witnessed a dramatic improvement in living standards in the richer countries. In many poor countries, by contrast, living standards for the mass of the population are little better than they were then.

There are still at least a billion people living in countries that have so far been unable to get a foot on even the lowest rung of the ladder of economic development. And while famine and malnutrition are proportionately less common than they were in 1913, the absolute number of people suffering from malnutrition is greater now. The people of Africa are still at the bottom of the heap. Having drawn the short straw so often in the past thousand years, they look like doing so for a long time yet.

  • Modern manufacturing, and the service industries that support it, require large workforces that have to be located in towns. Improvements in agricultural technology reduce the number of workers needed on farms.
  • As a country industrializes, the percentage of its population engaged in agriculture must fall, and the percentage of its population living in towns must increase. As the proportion living in towns increases, the size of those towns also grows.
  • In the middle of the 18th century, as the first Industrial Revolution got under way in Western Europe, the population of its two greatest cities, London and Paris, reached the then amazing figure of 700,000 each.
  • Tokyo, Mumbai, Shanghai, Beijing, London, New York, and Mexico City are just some of today’s cities with more than 10 million people apiece.
  • As recently as 1950 only 29% of the world’s population was living in an urban environment; the figure is now more than 50%
  • It is not just the number of human beings in the world that has been increasing at a rapid rate; so has the volume of interaction between them in frequency and speed of information exchange and in the amount of information simultaneously shared through television, news, films and propaganda.
  • The rate of language death is faster now than it has ever been. There are still about 5000 languages worldwide.
  • Of the world’s 7000 million people, more than half share just 10 languages. The expansion of the internet and the influence of television and film are likely to spread Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish and Hindi both as first languages and as second languages in business and scientific exchange.
  • The introduction of the personal computer in the 1980s and the development of the worldwide web in the 1990s have so transformed the process of information exchange that we can truly say that we live in a different world from that of only a quarter of a century ago.
  • If we chose to do so, and have the means, we really can live in a global village.
  • As this interaction increases, so does the number of discoveries and inventions, and the speed at which new technologies spread around the world. This in turn brings about further acceleration of the rate of change in the workings of society.
  • There is a new technological revolution under way at the moment and we are now just at the beginning of what could be a century of innovation in the field of genetic engineering.
  • This will not only revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of human disease; it will make possible massive increases in food production, by creating new, high-yielding varieties of plants and animals, and preventing plant and animal disease.
  • Just over the horizon, there is another industrial revolution, based on nanotechnology: the technology of the extremely small.
  • We will have to get used to a faster and faster rate of change in both technology and social relationship.
  • Thanks to its industrialization, war, too, has become more unequal. The rich countries of the world now possess weapons of such sophistication and power that they can visit death and destruction on poor countries on an industrial scale, while suffering negligible casualties and damage themselves.

One has to suspect that this is a temporary state of affairs. The smugness of America’s more imperially minded politicians and intellectuals is reminiscent of their British equivalents 150 years ago, before the realities of a changing balance of power broke in on their self-serving delusions. It would come as no surprise to students of 19th century history if the growing strength and self-confidence of China, India and Russia were to bring this so-called ‘new American century’ to an end in much less than 100 years. If that should happen, the world would be back to the competing power blocs of the late 19th century. And we have seen what that led to.

The particular political systems these great nations finish up with will not be the determining factor in world affairs during the coming years. The coming power struggles will not be about political principles. They will be driven by the same forces that have always governed such contests: competition for natural resources; competition for trading influence; and, above all, pure fear – that same primitive fear of the ‘other’ that has governed human relations since our ancestors first stood up and looked across the wide savannah.

Chapter 46: A Backward Look

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