Oh to have had shares in Zoom

Images above: More – The 10,000 Year Rise of the World Economy; author Philip Coggan

Two weeks ago I’d never heard of Zoom. Up till now there’s not been much call for international video conferencing with large groups of people on The Chiswick Calendar. Now at least once a day I find myself summoned to a Zoom conference. I am slightly handicapped by the lack of a camera on my PC, but at least have spared myself the embarrassment of the woman whose video has done the rounds when, forgetting she was on camera, she nipped to the loo mid conference.

When I’m not indulging in group gossip sessions, I’m reading Philip Coggan’s book More, a history of the world economy. Reading how populations have been decimated by famine and plague at various points in history and picked themselves up and continued, and even flourished, is oddly consoling. In 1000 AD life expectancy was 24 and a third of children died in their first year of life. It’s amazing we’re here today at all really.

Time and again we have invented technology to overcome adversity and prosper. The Chinese not only invented paper, but the stirrup and the wheelbarrow, which were both game changers in their time. They also developed printing 700 years before Gutenberg produced the printing press in Europe. As Philip says, it’s ironic that we (the West / America) now accuse the Asians nations of stealing Western technology.

Interview with Philip Coggan, author of More

There are seventeen ingredients in a typical tube of toothpaste, from titanium dioxide to xantham gum.

‘Its journey to your bathroom involves thousands of people and hundreds of processes. The titanium dioxide  that whitens your teeth has to be mined, probably in Australia or Canada, the calcium carbonate that acts as the abrasive has been extracted from limestone, and the xanthan gum used as a binding agent  comes from grinding up plants. The toothpaste in my bathroom lists 17 different ingredients and that doesn’t count the plastics used to make the tube’.

Then there’s the packaging, the manufacture, the transportation, the distribution, the retailing …

Philip Coggn traces the history of how the world has become so completely interdependent, from the earliest trading in prehistoric times to the modern economy ‘of dizzying complexity, and vast interconnections’.

‘If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes the world to stock your house with goods’.

10,000 years of economic history

More is a fascinating read. Written by a journalist rather than an academic, it is very readable. It is not one of those books, that expounds a grand theory, like End of History  by Francis Fukayama or  Why Nations Fail  by Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson. It deals in facts rather than theories: a meticulously researched history of how the world economy developed from ancient societies, coastal tribes exchanging fish for fruit gathered by those who lived inland, through the ancient empires, the trade routes of Asia, the ‘silk road’, the growth of Europe, the impact of manufacturing, of immigration and so on.

“There are a lot of books on economic history” Philip told me “but there hasn’t been one which attempts to tell the whole story like this one”.

More is a scholarly work. The appendix takes up quite a chunk of the book, showing just how much work went into it, all of which he did himself. But it wears its scholarship lightly, skipping along from one interesting fact or development to the next with his enthusiasm for the story. Most of his research was done online but he did get the odd trip out of it, to Felixstowe and Singapore to see the container ports, to Grand Central Station, a pilgrimage to a technological marvel which moves millions of people from their homes to their workplaces and back again each day, to factories in Malaysia and farms in California.

His chapter on the development of agriculture starts with a trip to the ‘Hanging Gardens of Boston’, a converted container growing lettuce, kale, flowers and wasabi inside it, in a carefully temperature-controlled environment which he trudged through deep snow in a blizzard to see. Freight Farms, the company behind the idea, have set up the container farm to be as efficient as possible, capturing moisture from the air and using less than five gallons of water a day while producing as much as two acres of farmland. Hydroponic farms are designed to grow food in the world’s most inhospitable climates. Philip uses it to demonstrate how human ingenuity can find new and more efficient ways of producing food.

Optimism for the future

“I think we can put Malthaus to bed” he says, in reference to the English economist whose book An Essay on the Principle of Population, published in 1798, predicted that an increase in a nation’s food production would improve the well-being of the populace, but only temporarily because it would lead to population growth, and food production wouldn’t be able to keep pace.

For him, the complexity of the modern economy and ever more ambitious growth in our expectations is no bad thing.

‘There’s a school of thought that belittles economic growth and the obsession with GDP statistics. Of course there is more to life than goods and services. But to understand how modern humans have benefited from economic growth, think back 600 years to the early 15th century. The typical European peasant would have had very little in the way of furniture but the odd stool to sit on (no upholstered armchairs) and a straw bed to sleep in (probably infested with fleas and lice); no privacy (all would sleep together, close to the fire, the only source of warmth); little in the way of cutlery (knives but not forks or spoons); and very little light at night (candles were very expensive).

Even within his own lifetime he remembers his mother on ‘washday’ spending ages doing the family washing and having to feed everything through a wringer before hanging it out to dry.

“I’m very suspicious of people who dismiss materialism. If you look at the invention of the washing machine, for example, a lot of the drudgery has been taken out of life, particularly for women”.

Life is easier and life is longer. In 1800 no country in the world had a life expectancy higher than 40. Now the world average is around 70.

“We value human life more now”

What of the current crisis? More went to press before the Coronavirus emerged, the last changes being made in October before being published in this country in February and in the US this week. I asked him whether he’d have to write a sequel Less, as the world economy shrinks and we all have to get used to being able to afford less.

Philip’s four years of research and writing have enabled him to view the current situation with equanimity. Taking the long view, by no means dismissing the seriousness of the situation now, he thinks within three or four years we’ll be back on our feet economically.

“Some things will have changed, but most things won’t” he told me.

Is it the first truly global pandemic?

“The Black Death spread from China to the UK, though it took five years”. (better not tell Donald Trump that. The Chinese will never hear the last of it). “Smallpox worked its way around the world, and so did the Spanish flu”.

“The way we’ve reacted shows how much more we value life” he said. “That we are prepared to disrupt our economies is an encouraging sign of the way we value human life now”.

Philip Coggan is the author of several books: The Money Machine, a guide to the City, which is still in print after 33 years, and Paper Promises, which was Spears’ business book of the year in 2012. ‘One of the most respected economics journalists on the planet’, according to Tim Harford, author of 50 Things that Made the Modern Economy. Philip writes the Bartleby column for the Economist and lives in Chiswick.

More is available to buy online

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