Chicago. Click to embiggen ©Atanu Dey

Imagine, if you would, a world in which people lived in perfect harmony with nature, in which the air was clean and the water pure, in which there were no threat of rising ocean levels or man-made climate change, in which there were no weapons of mass destruction, in which multinational mega corporations were not devastating the natural world seeking profit. A world in which thousands of animal species were not driven to extinction every year through human action.

Imagine the kind of world that John Lennon sang about in his appropriately titled popular song “Imagine”, much beloved of the hippy generation. Imagine no countries … nothing to kill or die for … imagine all the people living life in peace … imagine no possessions. An idyllic world of peace and prosperity.

One would suppose that the world at some point in the past was like what you just imagined. We may not be able to precisely state when the world was like that but we feel that that world must have existed.

But we would be ridiculously and tragically wrong.

Nearly all of the time since our species — homo sapiens — first walked the earth around 250,000 years ago has been one of unrelieved pain, suffering and misery. The disquieting truth is that for at least around 10,000 generations humanity has been trapped in a Hobbesian world where life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Nature is not kind, and it would have been the greatest miracle if humans were exempted from the struggle for survival, which is the common lot of all life on earth. Eat or be eaten. It has always been that your next meal is uncertain, and the only certain thing in life is death.

I don’t know who you are but I am certain of this: nearly all of your 10,000 generations of ancestors, regardless of how rich or poor you are today, where in the world you live or what you do, were desperately poor relative to you. It does not matter if your last name is Bezos or Gates, all of your forebears lived lives of abject poverty by our contemporary standards.

There’s another remarkable fact that we have not touched upon: inequality. Certainly, there was inequality in the past. Some people were more fortunate than others. Some lived in pleasanter surroundings, some were more or less endowed by nature, some were more powerful, some had more “wealth”, etc. I put the world wealth in quotes because we will define it more precisely later but for now let’s move on.

But that past inequality was nothing compared to the inequality we have in our modern world. The world is more unequal than it has ever been, and what’s more, inequality will continue to grow indefinitely into the future. The world will become unequal in all manner of ways with one important exception that we will come to presently.


Wealth is whatever is useful to us. Please bear with me if you have heard this before but it is worth repeating. Everything can be classified into two sets: wealth and stuff. Here are some fun facts regarding wealth.

First, wealth is a purely human construct. Wealth is artificial. It’s not natural. There was no wealth in the world before humans arrived on the scene; there was only stuff. There were mountains, forests, fertile lands, rivers, minerals in the ground, animals and birds and fish and all sorts of things we don’t even have names for. But that was all stuff, not wealth. Humans created wealth in the world (and who knows perhaps in the entire universe, if humans are the only intelligent life in the universe.)

Second, the amount of wealth has been growing monotonically since wealth began to be created. This increase is not due to some law of nature but it is an empirical fact. It’s partly because of the fact that humans create wealth coupled with the fact that the number of humans who have ever lived keeps increasing.

How many humans have ever lived on earth? The “on earth” bit is not necessary since humans have not lived anywhere other than on earth. Though that is going to change in a few decades. But let’s move on. Scholars who ponder such questions have a rough estimate: around 100 billion people. Currently the population stands at 8 billion (give or take a few million.)

Here’s how the human population has grown over time.

We see from the table above that the world population has grown from one billion to eight billion in 220 years. This, of course, doesn’t report the cumulative number of humans who have ever lived. But with a bit of simple arithmetic, we can arrive at the 100 billion number.

For more on the topic, see this post from three years ago: Planets and Population.

So it’s easy to realize that wealth will continue to grow because the cumulative number of humans will continue to grow, and more importantly, the growth of wealth will accelerate at an exponential (a word often misused but is appropriate here) rate because of technology.

What’s technology and why does it matter? I was coming to that.

Image at the top of the post: Chicago downtown where I was a couple of weeks ago.

Author: Atanu Dey


One thought on “Imagine”

  1. First,what does it mean by ‘perfect harmony with nature’? Do we not use insect repellent,mouse trap..?
    –Darwinism means when a species or tribe or ethnic group faced existential threat, to survive, it must fight, self-improve (or faced extinction)..and during the process, it will also evolve into a new ‘entity’
    –‘Morality’ basically is a set of behaviours supposedly to preserve/promote tribal/ethnic interests, often came under sugar-coating of religions. Why arabs(/ancient Egypt) have/had such high % of consanguinity marriage? Ans: They want to keep the family wealth/titles within the family.
    Because of human population explosion, human contacts become more frequent, so the above phenomena also went through seemingly rapid changes.
    My prediction:
    **In a few decades, robots will gain sentient ‘consciousness’ and citizenship.. There will be a BLM (Bot Lives Matter) movement. Those bots will ask for free parts replacement, free OS upgrades.. and reparation for old gen bots which literally worked round the clock in factory, not to mention the ordeals of sex(slave) bots!!
    **In a few decades further, human will be cyborgised and each ‘human’ can exist in several ‘avatars’, say one as a pet cat on earth, another one as a hermaphrodite ‘sex worker’ in a Martian brothel….
    all linked up through quantum communication. Religion, gender, race..will be just plug&play.
    **Finally, ‘humans’ in their death beds before their final cerebral collapse, will have their consciousness/memory uploaded to a computer network where they will live forever in an interactive cyber unverse… Jesus, Prophet Mohamed, Buddha… will be welcome as residential guests of honour.
    Collectively, we will become GOD.
    To an omnipotent GOD, what’s the difference between a cyber universe and a ‘physical universe’?


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