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There are major turning points in human history. Of special importance have been the transition from a hunter/gatherer existence to a settled agricultural economy, and the beginning of the Industrial Age which transition continues. These turning points have for the most part resulted in an improvement in the welfare of humanity. But this century will be the singular century in the definition of it “being like no other” with the coalescing of events that become in total the greatest turning point for mankind.

Within just the past two centuries an economic revolution, touching nearly everyone but not all equally, has seen improved living standards that could not have been imagined. These include the widespread use of fossil fuels in many applications including improved agricultural production, extensive electrification and related invention of myriad home and industrial appliances such as radio, television, computers, and much more. Indoor plumbing, air conditioning, motor vehicles, air transport, and huge medical advances have all made for a better world for humans. But can life improvements continue? This is the question posed in the epic volume by Robert Gordon (2016) The Rise and Fall of American Growth. This book might well have been titled The Rise and Fall of World Growth, as economic growth worldwide has slowed in comparison to the decades from 1870 to 2010. World economists and political leaders are aware of this, and by various means have tried to reverse this trend but so far to no avail.

The factors making this the singular century are many, some already apparent and making their way into our economies and way of life. This in contrast to many centuries that came and went and the course of humanity, economic and otherwise, changed very little.

There will have been three great revolutions in human history. The first two have already occurred. The agricultural revolution whereby humans abandoned the life of a hunter/gatherer in favor of settled agriculture which has gradually intensified to support more and more people. This transition took many centuries. Human numbers increased slowly so that about 10,000 years ago world population was only about 10 million. The Agricultural Revolution resulted in a great increase in population. By 1750 there were approximately 800 million people. The Industrial Revolution, generally dated from the time when coal in Great Britain came into widespread use to power machines, expanded as the advantages provided by coal, and later oil, became evident. This revolution continues to this day. The widespread uses of oil have allowed relatively few people on farms to provide for many others who have moved on to cities. There they could engage in a great variety of activities, one notably being the development and great expansion of medical expertise. This in turn, along with ample food supplies, resulted in world population increasing to the now 7.3 billion and still growing. This revolution has been extended mainly by the discovery and use of electricity whereby machinery is electrically powered and controlled electronically, and with robots doing some of the work formerly performed by hand-controlled machinery. These revolutions were in a sense “happy revolutions” in that they made life better for many people, but note that they were accomplished with a smaller population than exists today.

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Walter Youngquist

Dr. Walter Youngquist, Ph.D., has worked both as a petroleum geologist and a minerals geologist in the United States and abroad.He has visited more than 70 countries, observing the ongoing problem of continued population growth and declining supporting Earth resources.A Fellow of the Geological Society of America and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he is the author of GeoDestinies and several NPG Forum papers.

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