Saturday, December 5, 2009

We're Oddly Privileged Observers

The chart I present today is a somewhat more rationalized version of data from the Bureau of the Census that I had already posted here a while back. It shows the best scholarly estimates available on the subject of human global population for the period 1 to 1950 A.D. What I have done is simply extrapolated data points to fill in the gaps in the estimates, thus enabling me to show population on a continuous scale at 50-year intervals for the current chronological era. The raw numbers are available here. To this I might add that the original tabulation also provides estimates from 10,000 B.C. down to 200 B.C. The estimates for the human population for the time—and it’s nothing more than a guess-and-a-golly—suggest that in that entire period the human headcount was always below 230,000 million. When I arrived in America—the 1950 census was still being processed then—our population here was just a hair under 151 million. If I’d charted the entire range of the scholarly guesstimates, it would show a straight line running just above zero for all recorded history—and a huge, unbelievable spike appearing the day before yesterday.

In this chart I’ve plotted, along with the lower and upper estimates of scholars, the running average of the low estimate (green bars) and, overlaying them for most of the temporal trip, the difference between that average and the actual low estimate. What this tells me is that the real divergence from the perennials of history had its beginning in or around 1700, thus before the Age of Oil actually began. The early rising of the curve no doubt owed a great deal to advancements in agriculture discovered and applied in medieval times as documented by Lynn White in his fascinating Medieval Technology and Social Change. Coal mining began in the late 1740s; the steam engine appeared in 1770. And it was “hold on to your seats” after that.

We’re oddly privileged observers. We’re also, if you think about it, challenged to make the most of this odd and wondrous opportunity. The Age of Oil has already begun its descent from Mount Petroleum, and in another wink or two of historical time, the found wealth—which we, in fact, did very little to obtain beyond extraction—will have been consumed. We have a tiny window of time in which, somehow, we must, if we can, learn something from all this—and make the kinds of arrangements whereby we save and protect the physical gains we have been able to realize—not least electric light and the vast deposits of knowledge leisure has made possible to study under lamps—and to apply that knowledge to social well being.

The oddity of all this is how little one person can actually do. Thus this subject, already once touched upon in this blog, deserves this repetition—in new words and with a chart that features a blue sky.

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