I loved Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony last night. At first, I was puzzled by the opening vista of grass and farm animals. “What the heck is this?” I asked. I was thinking, if this is going to celebrate some myth of a vanished, bucolic Britain, this is going to be a pretty boring show.
But then the drummers appeared and thousands of people began pulling up the sod, while giant smokestacks rose out of the ground. Thousands more appeared to puddle slag and tend the levers of machinery. I grasped what Boyle was up to: he was telling the story of Britain’s transformation from an agrarian economy to an industrial one.
That was one of the most profound transitions in human history. Here’s a few numbers to put it in perspective. (Source: Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules – For Now, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2010, pages 496-7, 502, and 628).
Time One Person Needs To Spin A Pound of Yarn
You can see how that changed the price of yarn:
And it had a vast impact on wages. In 1875, an unskilled worker in London earned six times as much as an unskilled worker in Florence or Beijing. That doesn’t mean they lived well by modern standards, but they were doing much better than in less industrialized parts of the world.
It’s fascinating to look at estimates of how many calories people in Rome, and then in Europe and the Americas, generated and used per day in the course of living. A calorie isn’t just a a measure of food consumption; it measures any energy expenditure. Your car’s gas usage can be measured in terms of calories, for example. Your body consumes about 2,000 calories of food energy per day just to stay alive. You consume many more calories than that in doing everything else.
If you look at the numbers below, you can see that energy usage actually dropped after 1 A.D. for centuries, because the fall of Rome set Western civilization back quite a bit. It didn’t return to Roman levels of energy use until the Renaissance.
But after that, with the Industrial Revolution, energy creation and usage took off to levels never before experienced in human history, with the leading edge of it happening in England and Scotland.
Energy usage, in calories per person per day:
(Remember, this doesn't mean a person today eats 230,000 calories per day. But the car you drive, the air conditioner you use, the light bulbs you switch on, and the computer on which you surf the Web, collectively consume about that many calories per day. In other words, you consume 2,000 calories per day in eating, and 228,000 calories in doing everything else.)
The Industrial Revolution transformed England, and allowed it to dominate the world between roughly 1700 and 1945. That is the story that Danny Boyle was telling last night. He was saying, “You want to know why we ruled the world? This is why.”
He didn’t overlook the human cost. Industrialized London in the 1800s was filthy and overcrowded, where children worked in factories at the age of six and workers who got sick were simply tossed out on the street. You could see how grimy and weary those workers were, with bent backs and shuffling feet.
But those horrors were gradually legislated out of existence, and social innovations emerged to better the lives of ordinary people. Boyle gave a delightful shout-out to the National Health Service, which takes care of citizens who get sick, no matter what.
I can only imagine how that part of the show must have gone down with Romney, who was in the audience. Romney pioneered universal health care in Massachusetts. It was his signature achievement. And now he’s desperately pretending it never happened.
Boyle continued the story into the postindustrial age. After World War II Great Britain’s relative military and economic might declined, but it continued to have a huge impact on world culture, with Shakespeare, the Beatles, Dr. Who, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, Harry Potter, and quite a lot else. One would have to review the show practically frame-by-frame to catch all the cultural references. At the end he portrayed a multracial, technologically saturated Great Britain, whose kids are busily texting each other – and falling in love.
That grand story was mixed in with abundant doses of zany humor. James Bond met up with the Queen, the real one, and jumped (on film, anyway) out of a plane with her to parachute into the stadium. Marvelous!
What I loved about this opening ceremony is that it wasn’t just a showcase of athletic talent and visual splendor. That’s been done many times. Boyle told a rich and fascinating story of why Great Britain had such a massive impact on world history. It was a brilliant achievement, and it makes this Olympics one to remember.