September 14, 2000
Twelve thousand years ago, there were only a few million human beings scattered around the globe in small bands. Most were hunter-gatherers, moving from site to site as supplies of suitable prey or food ran low. A few rude tools, treasured stones and garments apart, they owned no property, had no savings, passed on no inheritance, used no money and held few regular exchanges with others of their kind beyond their immediate group. Their standard of living, as we would use the term today, was in the most literal sense at subsistence level. Some were cannibals.
Today the Earth is home to over six billion people, living in ways utterly unimaginable not just to our primitive ancestors, but to our grandparents. In this magisterial book, just published in England to spectacular reviews, Peter Jay, the Economics Editor of the BBC, former Economics Editor for the Times of London, and former British Ambassador to the United States, tells the amazing story of mankind’s barely credible journey. From cavemen to cyberspace, and spanning the entire globe, The Wealth of Man is a masterwork of historical, economic, scientific and cultural synthesis. Jay begins thousands of years ago, before agriculture, when life expectancy was around thirty years and families roamed the planet, supplying their essential wants – food, clothing, warmth and shelter – directly from nature. He then explores the birth of cultivation and trade, and the ways agriculture led to the development of cities and – surprisingly – intensified workloads that have lasted until today. Jay details the invention of money, and writing, and shows how both combined to create a vast leap forward. We visit ancient empires – Akkadia, ancient Egypt, the Greece of Alexander the Great and the Rome of the Caesars – as Jay reveals why they rose, and why they fell. Throughout he draws surprising and illuminating parallels, such as the similarity of the Persian threat to Athens with the Soviet threat to the West after World War II, or the ways in which the common treasury of the ancient Delian League was actually a precursor to today’s IMF and World Bank.
Jay’s sweeping history takes us to China and India, where mathematics and seagoing trade develop. We follow the rise of the Islamic empire of the Near East, the founding of Europe’s earliest universities, the birth of trade guilds and cartels, and the invention of books. Along the way Jay explains the surprising impact of a multitude of inventions, such as eyeglasses, wheelbarrows and chimneys. He also delves into the details – such as why a camel was more useful than a hippopotamus, why an hour has sixty minutes instead of one hundred, why the Europeans and not the Chinese discovered the Americas – revealing how tiny variances led to major differences. Jay vividly describes the great age of exploration, as Europeans ventured forth in search of a faster trade route to India and discovered continents unimagined. Jay shows how globalization is not a new phenomenon at all, but dates back hundreds of years, to well before the Industrial Revolution, the greatest event in economic history. The Wealth of Man brilliantly explains why the Industrial Revolution happened – and how wrong most theories about its origin actually are. Jay charts the rise of America as a global economic powerhouse, and in his final chapters takes us into the twenty-first century and its “new” Internet economy.
Like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel or David Landes’s The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, The Wealth of Man is a big book that puts all of the pieces together. It is history as it should be written, boldly illuminating our past as it shines a bright light forward.
Educated at Oxford and a veteran of the Royal Navy, Peter Jay has a long and distinguished career as a journalist, historian and government official. He served for six years in the British Treasury Department before joining the Times as Economics Editor. After a decade at the paper, he was appointed Ambassador to the United States. He is currently the Economics Editor for the BBC and a frequent presence on British television. He lives in Oxfordshire, England.