This interesting infographics ‘the richest people in history‘ reminds us that throughout most of our human history, the Agricultural Age, the richest people have been the kings, emperors and rulers of vast areas of land. Then, in the 15th century onwards (the start of the Industrial Age) came the time of bankers and merchants.
The infographic does not go as far, but of course from the 15th century, accelerating into the 19th century, the richest people started to be industrialists and bankers financing new machines and infrastructures. And now, they are industrialists of the economy. Still their wealth is much less than the historical rulers mentioned in the infographic whose wealth could be up to 20% of world GDP – which shows that in a certain measure richer people are now much less proportionally rich than historical figures.
The other interesting transformation to note is that up to the 15th century, wealth was derived regionally and mostly within one’s borders. Then trade spread and fortunes were made on this basis. In the 20th century it started to become truly global, and now it is definitely mostly global for the richest people on earth. Thus the geographical basis of wealth has also significantly changed.
It is often interesting to take such as historical perspective to remind ourselves that what we observe today is the result of a long evolution. Wealth is now not an exclusive property of tyrannical rulers, or industrialists but the domain of businesspeople with global interests that move resolutely into the Collaborative Age.
The site ourworldindata.org is always an excellent reference about worldwide statistics, and their page on economic growth is particularly instructive. The historical perspective is quite instructive.
Global economic wealth production is quite exponential when looked upon a long time frame, since the Agricultural Age through the Industrial Age. Lately, it has spread to many more countries and people, sustaining this exponential growth.
GDP per capita follows the same exponential growth, particularly in developed countries, but also – albeit at a lesser level – in developing countries.
As the page shows, conversely, extreme poverty has been decreasing significantly in the recent decades globally, which is excellent news (even more taking into account the significant growth in world population) – going down from a historical 75% of world population down to less than 10%.
Hence economic growth is definitely a major component of human well-being. Solutions to the current climate crisis should take it into account, looking at means to pursue growth – in a more sustainable manner – so as to continue raising the well-being of more people.
To those that still believe that somewhere on Earth there is something called pristine nature, untouched by man: this article and the scientific studies it is based upon demonstrate without doubt that even the deepest, (apparently) wildest Amazon rain-forest has been deeply transformed by Humans in the last 8,000 years – since humans reached the Americas.
“the human fingerprint can even be seen across one of the most biodiverse yet unexplored regions in the world, the Amazon rainforest.” Humans selected the most useful plants and made them reproduce with advantages, and slew some of the key animals. New tree types appeared through selection to produce larger useful fruits.
This is another proof that there is no place on Earth that has not been already shaped in one way or the other by humans. Pristine nature does not exist. We need to accept that our environment has already been engineered – for the best and for the worst. The issue is how to influence this complex environment in the direction we would need it to become.
Kevin Kelly notes about the birth of the religions we know today that they have all appeared around the same time, when agriculture was sufficiently developed to generate abundance.
“About 2,500 years ago most of humanity’s major religions were set in motion in a relatively compact period. Confucius, Lao-tzu, Buddha, Zoroaster, the authors of the Upanishads, and the Jewish patriarchs all lived within a span of 20 generations. Only a few major religions have been born since then. Historians call that planetary fluttering the Axial Age. It was as if everyone alive awoke simultaneously and, in one breath, set out in search of their mysterious origins. Some anthropologists believe the Axial Age awakening was induced by the surplus abundance that agriculture created, enabled by massive irrigation and waterworks around the world”
When the Industrial Revolution came with printing, these religions branched somewhat with for example, Protestantism for the Christians.
He continues: “It would not surprise me if we saw another axial awakening someday, powered by another flood of technology“. The conclusion of that observation should shake us. Is the spiritual awakening we can observe around us just a trend or is it a deeper movement linked to the Fourth Revolution? I tend to believe in the latter, and I am excited to see how that will materialize in the years to come as we move into the Collaborative Age.
Following on our previous post on “How the Fourth Revolutions Enhances the Power of Weak Ties” I find interesting to observe the history of weak ties throughout the different periods we have identified in the Fourth Revolution book: the Hunter-Gatherer Age, the Agricultural Age and the Industrial Age.
In the Agricultural Age, with the advent of Writing, Empires and Cities, weak ties developed, mainly within the wider urban community. Still the extended family (the ‘blood’) and unions between families remained extremely important and essential, before considering any additional relationships.
In the Industrial Age, with the advent of printing and long distance communication of ideas, weak links became much more important. There are a number of instances where weak ties played important roles in particular in the community of scholars, who were exchanging correspondence and ideas all over Europe. It also extended to the skilled workforce and artisans. However, because of the technical limitations, long distance weak links were still difficult to maintain and communication infrequent.
Finally the Fourth Revolution and the Collaborative Age will allow us to fully leverage our weak ties to a much wider and dispersed community of people.
Ideas are breeding through chance encounters with other ideas. They breed through our weak links. With these weak links becoming easier, more global and prevalent, how can the Collaborative Age not be an Innovation Age?
Our current tax base will soon be obsolete. It needs to be replaced by taxation of our new collaborative capabilities.
During the Agricultural Age, tax was based on a share of the crops. When the Third Revolution came – which would eventually lead to the Industrial Revolution, a new value system was created that soon dwarfed Agricultural value: Industry. The governments which had relied since centuries on agricultural tax became weaker and weaker. They had to get money lent to them by the new ‘bourgeois’, who created value by trade or industry. The system became less and less stable as the traditional governing elite became relatively poorer and poorer, as industrial value increased orders of magnitude above agricultural value.
Today in developed countries, agriculture represents 2 to 3% of the GDP. Even if it was taxed entirely it would not represent much of the 30-50% which is swallowed by taxes and social security payments!
Today, we are again in the same situation. Our tax system is mostly based on Industrial Age value. A new value production system has been created with the Fourth Revolution that is expanding and that will eventually dwarf the Industrial Age value. The only way to get out of this conundrum is to change our tax base to effectively tax the Collaborative Age value! This is going to be difficult immediately because our accounting systems which date from the Industrial Age do not account for it.
The Agricultural Age example also reminds us that tax is not necessarily only money, it can also be in kind, including the time of people doing certain activities for the public good.
The solution is thus not to increase tax the Industrial Age way. It is to create new ways of deriving a share of the tremendous value created by collaboration for the public good. Because collaborative value is not linked to geography, countries will find it difficult to create such new taxes on their own. The solution needs to be internationally agreed. But that is the only possible way forward to avoid our governments to become relatively poorer and poorer.
The challenge is huge but so important for the stability of our societies that it should be taken upfront. Do you have ideas on the matter?
Slavery is unethical. It is a terrible mistake of humanity, an example of the dark side of man.
Or at least that’s what our mindset of the Industrial Age tells us.
But in the Agricultural Age, slavery was a perfectly acceptable institution. It was an economical need. The surplus of manpower could not ask for more than subsistence.
Slaves were a significant part of the population in all ancient empires: Babylon, China, Egypt, Rome. When it is not pure slavery, it is exploitation of the peasants, the “serf” of the Middle-Ages.
In the Agricultural Age, slavery is a real, useful institution. And nobody finds anything to say against it!
Suddenly at the onset of the Industrial Revolution, this institution suddenly becomes inappropriate. It gets forbidden by the European powers. Is it because suddenly they realize that it is unethical? No, it is just that slavery is not needed any more in the Industrial Age production system. Workers need to be literate and educated. They need to earn money to become consumers.
Only after will people find higher order justifications on the moral level and try to impose it to the rest of the world.
We are now at the onset of a new Revolution. The value production system will change drastically.
Which of our current institutions will become inappropriate and unethical in the Collaborative Age?
From Age to Age, from Revolution to Revolution, specialization has increased.
Hunter-gatherers were mainly specialized between men (hunters) and women (gatherers and children-raisers)
In the Agricultural Age, priests, soldiers and specialist artisans were the specialists that did not produce their food.
In the Industrial Age, a multitude of specialist trades developed that did not produce their food and only contributed a small part of the production process.
Specialization cannot develop without trade. Specialists spend their time on their specialty and cannot get what they need to live without trade. Specialists need trade to develop to exchange their production and get what they don’t produce.
Beyond the Fourth Revolution, specialization will further increase. Even maybe to the point where each individual will be recognized as an individual specialist in it’s own self. In any case trade will also necessarily further increase.