Tuesday, February 5, 2019

If we could only see the future



I said "future" but this rambling train of thought originated in the past -- a hundred and ten years ago, to be precise, when Edith Nesbit wrote a children's book called The House of Arden. During my excessively fraught January I was looking for soothing reading; I like Nesbit's other books and was delighted to discover this one that I had somehow overlooked before. It's about a brother and sister living in 1908 who get the ability to travel to other times. On a visit to the England of Henry VIII they meet a boy who seems to know a lot about 1908 and doesn't like what he knows:

****

"I hate your times. They're ugly, they're cruel," said Richard.

"They don't cut your head off for nothing anyhow in our times," said Edred, "and shut you up in the Tower."

"They do worse things," Richard said. "I know. They make people work fourteen hours a day for nine shillings a week, so that they never have enough to eat or wear, and no time to sleep or to be happy in. They won't give people food or clothes, or let them work to get them; and then they put the people in prison if they take enough to keep them alive. They let people get horid diseases, till their jaws drop off, so as to have a particular kind of china. Women have to go out to work instead of looking after their babies, and the little girl that's left in charge drops the baby and it's crippled for life. Oh! I know. I won't go back with you."

****

My jaw dropped when I read this passage. Surely by 1908 the Industrial Revolution had improved life in England past this point?

That sent me to a very useful reference book, Ralph Fogel's The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100. I'd read this book many years ago but as it turns out, I was a bit shaky on the details. Yes, the Industrial Revolution and other developments (public sanitation, antibiotics) did eventually put humanity in the Western World on a rising path of better nutrition, better health, and longer lives -- but in 1900, though Fogel's graphs show the improvement was just around the corner, it wasn't there yet. Life expectancy in England had risen from 36 in 1800 to 48 in 1900 -- an improvement, but it could easily be missed in comparison with the astonishing gains of the next century: by 1990, life expectancy in England was up to 76. The English poor of 1908 were still undernourished, overworked, and prey to chronic ailments.

Nesbit's character Richard is a member of the aristocracy in Tudor times, but a poor orphan boy in 1908. He probably would have been better off staying in the time of Henry VIII. (Especially when you add what we know but Nesbit didn't: in 1908, Richard is just ten years away from the muddy trenches of the First World War.)

In 1908 Nesbit (and other writers, as I'll discuss in future posts) could see the disruption caused by the Industrial Revolution, the pollution of town and countryside, the ongoing misery of the poor. They couldn't see the vast improvement in the lives of everyday people that was going to happen over the next century. One can't blame them for thinking, "This industrialization business was a mistake; people might have been just as poor, sick, and hungry a hundred and fifty years ago, but at least they had 'England's green and pleasant land' in which to live out their miserable lives."

And given that, like most writers in any period, rigorous historical and economic analysis was not their forte, they could even have been forgiven for romanticizing, say, eighteenth century rural life. They would have seen it in terms of John Constable's paintings. The Hay Wain doesn't come with an attached note saying, "Those farm workers are undernourished, subject to injuries through regularly overstressing their bodies, and chronically ill."

I wonder if they would have been so quick to condemn industrial progress if they could have seen a hundred years into the future? If they could have seen the abundance of our society, the wealth available not only in the West but to countries like Japan and India, the reduction of severe poverty worldwide, the incidence of homelessness in England dropping from 10-20% in the mid-nineteenth century to .4% of the population today? If they could have known that as countries become wealthy through industry, they reach a point at which they clean up the pollution that industry created?

And all that leads me to wonder... what is just around the corner, practically under our noses, that we can't see yet? What terrible, horrible, very bad, no good problem in today's society is actually the harbinger of glorious improvements to come?

Ideas?

3 comments:

  1. Well here's a bet I won't lose, another recession/depression. It's on the cards. When is another matter. I predicted 2030, but I may have been optimistic.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm not betting on that unless you pick a date! Otherwise... well, the economy is like the climate, it's always changing. Far be it from me to be an economy denier.

    ReplyDelete
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