This is an except from Douglass’ North Nobel Prize speech in 1993.
Moreover the radical improvement in economic performance, even when narrowly defined as material well-being, is a modern phenomenon of the last few centuries and confined until the last few decades to a small part of the world. Explaining the pace and direction of economic change throughout history presents a major puzzle.
Let us represent the human experience to date as a 24 hour clock in which the beginning consists of the time (apparently in Africa between 4 and 5 million years ago) when humans became separate from other primates. Then the beginning of so-called civilization occurs with the development of agriculture and permanent settlement in about 8000 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent – in the last three or four minutes of the clock. For the other twenty three hours and fifty six or seven minutes, humans remained hunters and gatherers and while population grew it did so at a very slow pace.
Now if we make a new 24 hour clock for the time of civilization – the ten thousand years from development of agriculture to the present – the pace of change appears to be very slow for the first 12 hours although our archeological knowledge is very limited. Historical demographers speculate that the rate of population growth may have doubled as compared to the previous era but still was very slow. The pace of change accelerates in the past five thousand years with the rise and then decline of economies and civilizations. Population may have grown from about three hundred million at the time of Christ to about eight hundred million by 1750 – a substantial acceleration as compared to earlier rates of growth. The last 250 years – just 35 minutes on our new 24 hour clock – are the era of modern economic growth accompanied by a population explosion that now puts world population in excess of five billion.
If we focus now on the last 250 years we see that growth was largely restricted to Western Europe and the overseas extensions of Britain for 200 of those 250 years.
Not only has the pace varied over the ages; the change has not been unidirectional. That is not simply a consequence of the decline of individual civilizations; there have been periods of apparent secular stagnation – the most recent being the long hiatus between the end of the Roman Empire in the west and the revival of Western Europe approximately five hundred years later.