Give thanks that we no longer live on the precipice

“The only good thing about the good old days is that they’re gone.”____________________

“Thanksgiving is a good time to express our sincere gratitude that we no longer live on a precipice, in hunter-gatherer, subsistence farmer and primitive urban industrial societies – where backbreaking labor and wretched poverty were the norm; starvation was a drought, war or long winter away; and diseases and infections were addressed by herbs, primitive medicine and superstition,” writes Paul Driessen. “Our lives were certainly “eco-friendly,” but life spans averaged around 40 years.”

“Then, suddenly, a great miracle! Beginning around 1800, health, prosperity and life expectancy began to climb … eventually reaching the point where the average American today lives longer, healthier and better than even royalty did a mere century ago.”

The following article by Paul Driessen’s explains how this came about.


Give thanks that we no longer live on the precipice

Fossil fuels helped humanity improve our health, living standards and longevity in just 200 years

Paul Driessen

Thanksgiving is a good time to express our sincere gratitude that we no longer “enjoy” the “simpler life of yesteryear.” As my grandmother said, “The only good thing about the good old days is that they’re gone.”

For countless millennia, mankind lived on a precipice, in hunter-gatherer, subsistence farmer and primitive urban industrial societies powered by human and animal muscle, wood, charcoal, animal dung, water wheels and windmills. Despite backbreaking dawn-to-dusk labor, wretched poverty was the norm; starvation was a drought, war or long winter away; rampant diseases and infections were addressed by herbs, primitive medicine and superstition. Life was “eco-friendly,” but life spans averaged 35 to 40 years.

Then, suddenly, a great miracle happened! Beginning around 1800, health, prosperity and life expectancy began to climb … slowly but inexorably at first, then more rapidly and dramatically. Today, the average American lives longer, healthier and better than even royalty did a mere century ago.

How did this happen? What was suddenly present that had been absent before, to cause this incredible transformation?

Humanity already possessed the basic scientific method (1250), printing press (1450), corporation (1600) and early steam engine (1770). So what inventions, discoveries and practices arrived after 1800, to propel us forward over this short time span?

Ideals of liberty and equality took root, says economics historian Deidre McCloskey. Liberated people are more ingenious, free to pursue happiness, and ideas; free to try, fail and try again; free to pursue their self-interests and thereby, intentionally or not, to better mankind – just as Adam Smith described.

Equality (of social dignity and before the law) emboldened otherwise ordinary people to invest, invent and take risks. Once accidents of parentage, titles, inherited wealth or formal education no longer controlled destinies, humanity increasingly benefited from the innate inspiration, perspiration and perseverance of inventors like American Charles Newbold, who patented the first iron plow in 1807.

Free enterprise capitalism and entrepreneurship took off

Ideas suddenly start having sex, say McCloskey and United Kingdom parliamentarian and science writer Matt Ridley. Free enterprise capitalism and entrepreneurship took off, as did commercial and international banking, risk management and stock markets.

Legal and regulatory systems expanded to express societal expectations, coordinate growth and activities, and punish bad actors. Instead of growing, making and buying locally, we did so internationally – enabling families, communities and countries to specialize, and buy affordable products from afar.

The scientific method began to flourish, unleashing wondrous advances at an increasingly frenzied pace. Not just inventions like steam-powered refrigeration (1834) but, often amid heated debate, discoveries like the germ theory of disease that finally bested the miasma theory around 1870.

Fueled by abundant, reliable, affordable energy 

All this and more were literally fueled by another absolutely vital, fundamental advance that is too often overlooked or only grudging recognized: abundant, reliable, affordable energy – the vast majority of it fossil fuels. Coal and coal gas, then also oil, then natural gas as well, replaced primitive fuels with densely packed energy that could power engines, trains, farms, factories, laboratories, schools, hospitals, offices, homes, road building and more, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

The fuels also ended our unsustainable reliance on whale oil, saving those magnificent creatures from extinction. Eventually, they powered equipment that removes harmful pollutants from our air and water.

Today, coal, oil and natural gas still provide 80% of America’s and the world’s energy for heat, lights, manufacturing, transportation, communication, refrigeration, entertainment and every other aspect of modern life. Equally important, they supported and still support the infrastructure and vibrant societies, economies and institutions that enable the human mind (what economist Julian Simon called our Ultimate Resource) to create seemingly endless new ideas and technologies.

Electricity plays an increasingly prominent and indispensable role in modern life. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine life without this infinitely adaptable energy form. By 1925, half of all U.S. homes had electricity; a half century later, all did – from coal, hydroelectric, natural gas or nuclear plants.

Medical discoveries and practices followed a similar trajectory, as millions of “invisible hands” worked together across buildings, cities, countries and continents – without most of them ever even knowing the others existed. They shared and combined ideas and technologies, generating new products and practices that improved and saved billions of lives.

Medical research discovered why people died from minor wounds, and what really caused malaria (1898), smallpox and cholera. Antibiotics (the most vital advance in centuries), vaccinations and new drugs began to combat disease and infection. X-rays, anesthesia, improved surgical techniques, sanitation and pain killers (beginning with Bayer Aspirin in 1899) permitted life-saving operations. Indoor plumbing, electric stoves (1896) and refrigerators (1913), trash removal, and countless other advances also helped raise average American life expectancy from 46 in 1900 to 76 (men) and 81 (women) in 2017.

Washing visible hands with soap (1850) further reduced infections and disease. Wearing shoes in southern U.S. states (1910) all but eliminated waterborne hookworm, while the growing use of window screens (1887) kept hosts of disease-carrying insects out of homes. Petrochemicals increasingly provided countless pharmaceuticals, plastics and other products that enhance and safeguard lives.

Safe water and wastewater treatment – also made possible by fossil fuels, electricity and the infrastructure they support – supported still healthier societies that created still more prosperity, by eliminating the bacteria, parasites and other waterborne pathogens that made people too sick to work and killed millions, especially children. They all but eradicated cholera, one of history’s greatest killers.

Insecticides and other chemicals control disease-carrying and crop-destroying insects and pathogens. Ammonia-based fertilizers arrived in 1910; tractors and combines became common in the 1920s. Today, modern mechanized agriculture, fertilizers, hybrid and biotech seeds, drip irrigation and other advances combine to produce bumper crops that feed billions, using less land, water and insecticides.

Today’s cars emit less than 2% of their pollutants in 1970

The internal combustion engine (Carl Benz, 1886) gradually replaced horses for farming and transportation, rid cities of equine pollution (feces, urine and corpses), and enabled forage cropland to become forests. Today we can travel states, nations and the world in mere hours, instead of weeks – and ship food, clothing and other products to the globe’s farthest corners. Catalytic converters and other technologies mean today’s cars emit less than 2% of the pollutants that came out of tailpipes in 1970.

Power equipment erects better and stronger houses and other buildings that keep out winter cold and summer heat, better survive hurricanes and earthquakes, and connect occupants with entertainment and information centers from all over the planet. Radios, telephones, televisions and text messages warn of impending dangers, while fire trucks and ambulances rush accident and disaster victims to hospitals.

Today, modern drilling and mining techniques and technologies find, extract and process the incredible variety of fuels, metals and other raw materials required to manufacture and operate factories and equipment, to produce the energy and materials we need to grow or make everything we eat, wear or use.

Modern communication technologies combine cable and wireless connections, computers, cell phones, televisions, radio, internet and other devices to connect people and businesses, operate cars and equipment, and make once time-consuming operations happen in nanoseconds. In the invention and discovery arena, Cosmopolitan magazine might call it best idea-sex ever.

So, this holiday season, give thanks for all these blessings – while praying and doing everything you can to help bring the same blessings to billions of people worldwide who still do not enjoy them.

Paul Driessen is senior policy analyst for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow and author of books and articles on energy, climate change, economic development and human rights.

7 thoughts on “Give thanks that we no longer live on the precipice”

  1. Didnt medieval peasants work far less and enjoy far more leisure time than us moderns. And isnt it that life expentancy was only so low because of high infant mortality but exponentially increased as you approached adulthood.
    And didnt ancients enjoy a far deeper sense of family and community than us alienated moderns living in mass society with our consequent mental illnesses. Im sure you could think of more upsides of ancient cultures and more downsides of our own. How about the emptiness of consumerism and the endless pursuit of money as the highest purpose. And the malaise and lack of meaning that wage labour can lead to. And how about the infantalisation of being deskilled and totally dependant on experts for virtually everything we need. And how about all those cell phone zombies we live amongst. And the disaster of online dating with its unforseen damage to healthy relationships. Are those good things? We should stop and think before we do nothing but extol and worship technology.
    Also wasnt there a lot of resistance to modernization specificially the moving of independant rural people to cities to work in factories. And isnt the domestication of hunter gather societies always fought hard against with plenty of bloodshed amongst the primitives to keep their way of life.
    I mean dont get me wrong there are luxuries that we enjoy that are pretty incredible. For example, i love having hot showers, and i enjoy bananas from the tropics even though i live in a northern climate. But still shouldnt we take a more balanced approach when comparing ancient cultures to our own?

    • I think Sark should be on with this comment:
      Didn’t medieval peasants work far less and enjoy far more leisure time than us moderns. And isn’t it that life expectancy was only so low because of high infant mortality but exponentially increased as you approached adulthood.
      Medieval serfs worked a bone killing day working the field manually from dawn till dusk, rain or shine, the land was worked while it was possible to work the land when it wasn’t frozen, living in wattle and daub shacks constructed out of spare wood and junk released by Manor lord.
      Life expectancy at birth was a brief 25 years during the Roman Empire, it reached 33 years by the Middle Ages and raised up to 55 years, in the early 1900s. In the Middle ages, the average life span of males born in landholding families in England was 31.3 years and the biggest danger was surviving childhood.1 Dec 2005.
      Note Landholding families, medieval peasants didn’t hold land they were serfs of the manor lord.
      Woman’s life expectancy much less, killed by multiple child births and dawn till dusk slavery as it is now in the third world.
      A world the Greens wish to return all of humanity to.

  2. the jungle. upton sinclair..
    times for many in so called first world didnt improve till the early 60s if you lived anywhere bar cities, and even then certain areas were ok others were close to 20s living with few or no conveniences.
    weve gone from that- to excessive reliance on “things” to the detriment of health fitness and quality of real life. antisocial media as a prime example.
    and consider how everything thats been globalised (with skills lost, along with the business) can fall over in a matter of days when a suppy chains disrupted.
    people have dismal to zero coping skills no knowledge to make or repair and improvise. it breaks or stops working you throw it out or pay someone to repair it.
    people throw clothes out because they cant replace a zipper or rip or sew a button on.
    sure some things are better
    NOT all by a long shot.
    wheres the longterm difference between working to eat ,live a modest lifestyle and having a slower life
    or working to pay massive debt and have little time to enjoy what you think you “must have”
    which can vanish at the banksters demand?

  3. We virtually eliminated babies and mothers dying during childbirth. And we invented antibiotics and cured a few childhood diseases. But, the idea that we live a lot longer is a myth. How long did George Washington live? Or Martha for that matter. How about Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams. Look up famous painters from 1600 to 1800, or almost every other group of notable people.

    Those of you over 65, how long did your grandparents born in the 1800’s live? Rockefeller, Ford, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Picasso, Chaplin, Mary Pickford, etc.

  4. There is about a 30 day supply of stored food in the United States.
    Our entire power grid is far more vulnerable than the average person would care to know. With out the grid, there is no way to harvest, process or distribute food stuffs.
    The cushion of air in which we can live without assistance is barely 5 miles high.
    We still live on the edge.
    Species that forget that will not last long.
    Complacency doesn’t just kill. It exterminates.

    • 30 days of food ONLY at the calm, normal rate of purchase.

      IN the event of a New Madras Fault break, or Yellow Stone Caldera Eruption, that food will last less than 30 minutes.

      Coronal Mass Ejection? WE have about 8 minutes to clear the shelves of food.

      I have built up, for EACH of my family members, a food stock-pile for 6 months each, and have created a reliable water source, AND other nerdy geeky preper things.

      Sure, it costs me a few thousand dollars, but it is cheaper than my car and house insurance, per year.

      Do it while you can, even if you fell you will never need it, since when you need it, you can never do it.

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