In Oded Galor's insightful book, The Journey of Humanity, she analyzes history to reveal patterns that led to accelerated progress and higher standards of living. Some of the cultural traits that positively impacted societies include cooperation, trust, higher levels of gender equality, an entrepreneurial spirit and a future-oriented mindset.
In addition to the cultural traits, Galor identified good and bad geographies for food production, the kinds of institutions that are helpful, and the right amount of diversity that helps improve a region's standard of living. We learn that diversity helps up to the point where it jeopardizes social cohesion.
In Galor's book we also learn that throughout our entire history, humanity has rarely been able to improve their standard of living for more than a few generations before it quickly dropped back to subsistence levels. This phenomena is identified by several different terms including Malthusian forces, Malthusian Trap or Malthusian theories after the cleric Thomas Malthus, who wrote a paper about it in 1798. Malthus argued that bounties in the form of extra food lead to higher birth rates and lower mortality rates, which resulted in populations that grew to the point where, again, there was not enough food to eat. Not enough food means higher mortality rates and lower birth rates, and a return to a subsistent standard of living. Time and time again this theory has been demonstrated and the average standard of living remained unchanged for most of human history. A farmer's standard of living in Africa was very much like a farmer's standard of living in Asia, South America and Europe. Subsistence is subsistence no matter the location. Humans could not seem to find a way out of this cycle.
The formula for overcoming the Malthusian forces was only discovered during the past two hundred years. It consisted of three things - lower birth rates, more food and increased investments in human capital, i.e. education. In other words, if you can produce extra food, while keeping the birth rates low, then you can afford to both educate and feed your kids. Without innovative ways to produce more food, people were forced to work full time at food production. It is only when there was enough food produced that kids could be taken out of the labor force to be educated.
Geographies that had cultural traits that enabled their societies to work together to improve food production were the first to escape the Malthusian forces. They were able to cooperate to build shared irrigation systems, roads, bridges, financial systems, canals and dams, etc., all of which helped increase food production.
Large projects required communities that could organize and work together, and had enough of a food abundance to support scholars, professionals and an entrepreneurial business class. Societies without the cultural traits of cooperation, trust and a future-oriented mindset were not able to organize in order to gain these mutual benefits, which made it harder for them to escape the Malthusian forces.
With increases in education came massive increases in economic development in the form of innovation, inventions, businesses, art, and dramatic improvements in the standard of living in the West, and later across the entire globe. The courageous and risky belief that higher levels of education would ultimately lead to economic development and a higher standard of living required one particular unique cultural trait - a future-oriented mindset. A future-oriented mindset means you have the belief that you can make progress against the challenges in front of you. A belief that you can influence the future by making wise decisions and investments today. That cultural trait, in particular - changed the world.
Partner | Futurist at TCS
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***Full Disclosure: These are my personal opinions. No company is silly enough to claim them. I work with and have worked with many of the companies mentioned in my articles.