Humanity’s Turning Point

This is David, co-CEO of Datawrapper. This week, I’m taking over to publish my first weekly chart ever, after Gregor’s fantastic greenhouse emission chart from last week.

I recently read Yuval Noah Harari’s beststeller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which tells the story of the human race from the hunter-gatherer days until today. I was reminded of that when I saw Luke Muehlhauser’s blog post Three wild speculations from amateur quantitative macrohistory, which quantitatively analyzes how much of an impact wars, empires and diseases have had on human quality of life.

When we think about humanity’s greatest inventions, we tend to think about things like the wheel or the printing press. However, none of them had any noticeable impact on people’s quality of life on their own. It took until the late 1700s when a set of peculiar inventions made in rainy Great Britain set a process in motion that changed the fate of humanity forever:

In Muehlhauser’s original chart, additional metrics such as GDP by capita and Energy capture per capita are plotted as well, which I decided to not include in this version for readibility reasons.

Making charts that date back thousands of years is an imprecise science. Statistics offices were less well-funded in the Middle Ages, which means we have to resort to historical methods for measuring things like life expectancy a thousand years ago. If you’re curious, Muehlhauser has described his methods for collecting the data in this article.

Interestingly, this is not the impression of history I got from the world history books I read in school. Those books tended to go on at length about the transformative impact of the wheel or writing or money or cavalry, or the conquering of this society by that other society, or the rise of this or that religion, or the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire, or the Black Death, or the Protestant Reformation, or the Scientific Revolution.

But they could have ended each of those chapters by saying “Despite these developments, global human well-being remained roughly the same as it had been for millennia, by every measure we have access to.” And then when you got to the chapter on the industrial revolution, these books could’ve said: “Finally, for the first time in recorded history, the trajectory of human well-being changed completely, and this change dwarfed the magnitude of all previous fluctuations in human well-being.”

That’s it from me for today! Let me know in case you have any feedback. Next week, you’ll see a Weekly Chart from Simon again.