Imagine that the story of our economic evolution is represented by a torch, the kind of torch we see athletes carrying during the build up to the Olympic games. Now, imagine that the torch from the time our evolution diverted from the rest of the apes, through to the point when many of our ancestors migrated from Africa and then later into cities, and then right on to the Industrial Revolution, was carried by a tortoise.

Natural evolution operates at three speeds: slow, dead slow and stop. It seems that for much of our history the trajectory of our economic evolution was akin only to the latter two of these categories.

Then, around 1820, something extraordinary happened. It was as if a rocket was inserted inside the tortoise’s shell, or perhaps as if the torch was passed on to a hare. From that moment, it all seemed to change. Most of the wealth creation that has ever occurred took place over the last 190 or so years.

This begs the question, of course, what kind of hare was it? Was it like the creature from Aesop’s fable, which was moved by its arrogance to stop its run, so that eventually the pace set by the tortoise proved faster? Or for that matter, will the hare move so fast that it fails to spot the road and the oncoming traffic, and runs straight into an oncoming carbon-fuelled disaster? Then again, it could pass the baton on,

perhaps to a cheetah, or even to a bird such as a swift, which combines speed with stamina.

This is the story of why that change of pace happened, and whether it will continue, stop or go into shuddering reverse.

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© Investment & Business News 2013

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