Much of the material in this blog comes from the wonderful book by Matt Ridley; The Rational Optimist.
I go for metrics. It is hard to compare living conditions around the world. An ordinary American in 1800 had a little salted beef or pork a few days a week, could only drink water in the form of boiled tea and ate mostly root veggies and hard bread. But an ordinary Japanese had rice, fish and a great variety of foods along with clean water and a daily public hot bath.
What modern commerce has brought us over the past two centuries:
Modern commerce has lit up our world. The amount of artificial light for an hour of work has gone from 186 lumens from a tallow candle in 1800 (about a 20 watt incandescent bulb by current standards) to 8.4 million lumens today; or put the other way around. One hours work these days provides 300 days of reading light in the modern commercial world. And that is for incandescent light. LEDs are 10 times as efficient. They don’t smell like the candle, don’t flicker and can’t start a fire by accident.
We travel about 250 times as many miles per year as we did in 1800. A stagecoach ride of 350 miles took 8 days and cost the average person a month’s wage. Today it is less than an hour by airplane and costs 2 hours of the average person’s wage. Or a day by car. A rental car can be half an hours wage.
A half gallon of milk took nearly an hour of milking. The milk was warm, teets, hands and bucket were seldom clean. Today one needs to work about 5 minutes to pay for the same amount of cold, clean pasteurized milk.
Lifespan has increased because of sanitation which began improving in Massachusetts in 1845, medical technology and diet. All the direct products of modern commerce. Sanitation and technology spread around the world by modern commerce. In 1800 males and females lived an average of 40 years but that was because of the high infant and child mortality. If the child survived to age 10 they lived to be 60 years old on average. Today the lifespan at birth around the developed world is roughly 80 years. For women, giving birth meant a 1 in 30 chance of death for each birth. Now it is less than 1 in 10,000 births.
Choice of livelihood is the most dramatic change brought by modern commerce. In terms of occupations in 1800 in the U.S. 80% of workers were in farming. Today that is under 1%. The remaining 10% were in fishing, sailing and mining and 10% were teachers, ministers and domestic workers. Take your pick. Today those last 6 occupations are about 8% of the labor force. We have a vast white collar and professional class of workers and they do over a million different types of jobs.
In 1800 education was only for those who could afford tutors. Maybe ¼ of the population could read and write; College was for the top 1%.
Medical treatment was in terms of humors and fluids. Bleeding was the most common therapy. The most common cause of death was tuberculosis, followed by fevers of typhus and pulmonary congestion.
Alcohol was the only anesthesia. Dentistry consisted of pulling teeth and using wooden dentures.
Common birth defects were clubfoot, cleft palate, scoliosis, bow legs and legs of different lengths.
It is hard to be sentimental about life in the past or about remote parts of today's world.
Modern commerce is the first major change, for the better, in human's living conditions in many millennia.