In 1870, more than four thousand years after it was built, the Great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt was still the world’s tallest man-made structure. By 2010, only 140 years later, there were more than 10,000 buildings taller than the Great Pyramid.
Something fundamental changed between 1750 and 1800 and it changed in Britain. Since then, for example, the amount of energy each person has available to them in the UK has gone up 60 fold and overall wealth (in constant money) by 120 times. You are probably as sceptical of statistics like this as I am, but they could be very, very wrong and still the change would still be uniquely huge.
Looking at technical change we see the same pattern. From the oldest civilization, to the time of Columbus’s ‘discovery of America’, 4,500 years later, ships remained wooden and wind powered. Moving another 300 years forward from Columbus’s ship, the Santa Maria, in 1492, to Nelson’s ship, the Victory, 300 years later in 1805, and ships were still sail-powered, made of wood and with cannons down each side. But 101 years after the Victory saw the launch of the Dreadnought in 1906. It was all steel, turbine powered, firing shells ten miles from guns mounted in hydraulic turrets.
We have a perception of history as ‘progressing’. Slowly at times, perhaps; two steps forward and one step back and so on. Yet part of us knows that is not true; there were the Dark Ages in Europe, when the level of development slipped far behind the earlier Roman Empire. Actually, before the great change started around 1770, it is difficult to see any advance on Classical Rome, with its superb roads and under-floor heating. The Rome where the short-sighted Emperor Nero used eyeglasses to watch gladiators was larger than any city in Europe until after 1800. Sometimes progress seems to have been totally non-existent since first civilisation we know of, in Sumeria. The temple of Uruk in Sumeria had drains before 3000BCE but the great Palace of Versailles in France, completed by Louis XIV in 1714, did not have drains at all. With its population of several thousand, the smell was said to be ‘unique’.
A part of this change after 1770 has been called the ‘Industrial Revolution’, which is fine. So long as you include the Agricultural Revolution as well, with the tripling of food output in the UK in 50 or so years. And, of course, the transport revolution, with canals and railways. And the financial revolution, with the growth of banks, stock markets, insurance and paper money. Not to mention the political revolutions of democracy and social welfare and the abolition of slavery that followed quickly afterwards. Also calling something the ‘Industrial Revolution’ totally fails to explain why it happened, what the cause of it was. We had some lucky inventors, perhaps
Suddenly centuries of negligible improvement in human living standards – there is nothing to distinguish the earth-floored hovel of a peasant in 1700BC from one in 1700AD – turned to decades of advances in every aspect of human life. Before the change, Empires came and Empires went. Sometimes things got better, but then they got worse again. Little changed, apart from the names on the statues and the ceremonial uniforms. Now we have run-away change, so that we live in a country and where peasants and earth-floored hovels do not exist at all. This is also true of more and more of the world as China, India and others catch up. This was undoubtedly the biggest social, scientific, political change in the history of the world.
The cause of this vital, gigantic change is, of course, well-known, forming an essential part of the history curriculum – after all, if we didn’t know what started it, we would be at a loss to know where it was going or when it might stop.
Pause to think about the fact that that sentence is completely untrue. Here and now, in 2016, we have not the faintest idea why this change happened and why in happened largely in Britain! By far and away the most significant change in history: cause unknown. Look up the French Revolution and whole libraries have been written about its causes and consequences, even though the net result, at least in the short term, was the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy after a few years break. For thirty years, I have been astounded by the complete absence of any equal study – or almost any study at all – of these far more important changes and I have been looking for the answer to the question ‘Why did this momentous change happen where and when it did?’
Although the subject is surrounded by an extraordinary lack of consensus, a number of suggestions have been put forward, all rather tentatively, as to the cause of the change. People have discussed Empires, geography, invention and education, enlightenment and renaissance and other possibilities but with little clear emerging. Finally, in the last few years an answer has emerged, an answer with profound implications for the way we live now and in the future, as well as providing and explanation for the past.
The reason I cannot give the answer here is not a venal desire to sell my book. No, no, put that thought away completely. Seriously, it is because the answer is not like a detective story, where a simple name reveals whodunnit but because it is like a thriller: if you don’t read the set up you can’t understand the ending. It comes from two linked changes, one allowing the next, followed by a big bit of luck in the timing.
The rate of change since ‘The Birth of Now’, my book, is over a shorter period then we previously thought, so it has to be faster. As a consequence, the speed the changes are taking us towards their endpoint is also faster, much faster, and will probably be reached in our children’s lifetimes. We live in a unique era of high-speed change, where our grandparents – mine at any rate – were born before the first heavier-than-air flight, yet lived to see more than half a million people in the air, day and night. Now, at last, we also know how this change started, with its implications for the future.
About The Author
Jamie Cawley author of Beliefs: and the world they have created and The Birth of Now has filtered his lifetime of interest into why and how people think into these two groundbreaking books. At just age 13 Jamie Cawley first read the Qur’an completely of his own volition, although not unusual for young Muslim men reading the Qur’an was virtually unheard of at Jamie’s C of E school. After his passion for other people’s belief structures was founded Jamie went on to have an illustrious education, which culminated in a degree in studied Philosophy and Economics from Oxford University. After leaving university he started a long and successful career in branding. Jamie had developed a understanding of human behaviour at university and developed this further in his career as he designed and helped launch products that would fill niches in a range of different consumer markets including creating Boost bars for Cadbury, Dettox for Reckitt and Colman and Solo paint for Crown. Later he launched his own consultancy company and ran it successfully for more than 20 years. In recent years Jamie has stepped back from his commercial work. This was largely due to his wife’s career, which took her and their family to China. Since living in China, originally in Beijing but now in Shanghai, Jamie has had more time in his life for writing and has capitalised on this by crafting two books. Since finishing the first two books, his second, The Birth of Now, will be published in summer 2016, Jamie has found a new exciting opportunity. He is now a Tutor in Behavioural Psychology at the Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts (SIVA). Jamie is delighted about this opportunity as this is the first Chinese course on Branding addressing specifically behavioural psychology in marketing. “It will be fascinating because the 19 year olds are completely different, even from the 29 year olds, because they have grown up in an utterly changed world.”
Jamie lives with his wife and two children in Shanghai.