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We live in the luckiest era in history, and here’s why

This op ed appeared in the Star Tribune on December 24th, 2019

This is my first Christmas without my dad, who passed away in April after a battle with cancer. It was a difficult time, and one thing that helped was messages from friends.

One friend, who lost his own father in 2018, wrote that, however painful it was, children burying their parents is the “natural” way of things.

I deeply appreciate what my friend was trying to say. But it just isn’t true.

Just north of St. Peter on County Road 20 is Green Lawn Cemetery. In it, you’ll find the grave of Thomas Pettijohn, who died in 1897, at age 72, and his wife, Charity, who had died, at age 54, in 1879. What is striking are the other names on the family grave — Lydia, who had died in 1863, less than a year after her birth; Mary, who had died the same year, age 9; Thomas, who had died before his first birthday in 1869; Amos, who had died the following year, also less than 1 year old, and William, who had died, age 3, in 1878. Thomas and Charity buried five of their children before the children had reached their 10th birthdays.

Such tragedies were commonplace only a few generations ago. Nor were they confined to obscure settlers like the Pettijohns. Two of Charles Darwin’s children — Mary Eleanor and Charles — died before their second birthdays. Another daughter, Annie, died at age 10 in 1851.

Nor did the frequency of such losses lessen the pain they caused. Of Annie’s death, Darwin wrote, “We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age. … Oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still and shall ever love her dear joyous face.”

The facts are that for most of human history the “natural” way of things was for parents to bury children. Nowadays, as my friend suggests, such sorrows are rare tragedies. The numbers tell the story. In 1860, the share of the global population that died in the first five years of life was 41%. In 2017, it was 4%.

In the U.S., in 1900, 1 child in every 4 died before his or her fifth birthday. Today it is 1 out of 167.

This 98% decline is an incredible success story. What changed? Call it the Industrial Revolution. Call it capitalism. The result was what economic historian Deidre McCloskey calls the Great Enrichment.

For most of history, humans survived on roughly the equivalent of $3 a day — enough for subsistence living. In good times living standards might rise, but one bad harvest or natural disaster could plunge a community back into abject poverty.

Around 200 years ago things began to change rapidly. Today the average American lives on about $130 a day. Europe, Canada, Australia and parts of South America and Asia have enjoyed similar increases.

This vast increase in wealth — widely shared — enabled us to afford medicines and medical treatments, diets, clothing and shelter, among other things, which banished such stories as the Pettijohns’ to the realm of freak horror.

This Great Enrichment — rooted in capitalism — continues to benefit humanity. Worldwide, there are 200 million fewer people undernourished than there were as recently as 1990. Since 1993, the share of humans living in extreme poverty has fallen from 34% to 10%, while the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by 1.1 billion.

Since 2000, worldwide deaths from malaria have fallen by half. The income of the median person on the globe has doubled since 2003. Life expectancy is now higher than ever before on all the world’s continents.

Hasn’t all this come at a great environmental cost? Perhaps, but it ought to be remembered that this cost liberated us from the horrific world of Thomas and Charity Pettijohn and generations of ancestors. When people say that we need “system change” or that “another world is possible,” we should remember what the world of the Pettijohns was really like.

And, beyond a certain level of wealth, countries become greener. Worldwide, between 1990 and 2014, CO2 emissions per $1 of GDP fell from 0.76 kg to 0.32 kg — a 58% decline. In the U.S., they fell from 0.81 kg to 0.30 kg — 63%. There needn’t be a trade-off between the environment and continued economic growth.

This is not just my first Christmas without my dad, but also my first Christmas as a dad. My son was born in May. When I think of what Thomas and Charity Pettijohn went through, I feel sick. My heart breaks for them, and I cannot imagine how I would cope. I am thankful that the likelihood of my having to try is so vastly diminished.

For all the doom-mongering around us, we are the luckiest generation in history. Considering the falling environmental cost of economic growth, there is no reason the Great Enrichment cannot continue. If we keep sight of what it was that has made us so fortunate, the economic possibilities for our children are bright.

John Phelan is an economist with the Center of the American Experiment (www.AmericanExperiment.org).

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