An optimist’s guide to the future: the economist who believes that human ingenuity will save the world

Oded Galor’s ‘Sapiens’-like history of civilisation predicts a happy ending for humanity. But should we trust him?

Why is the Anglo-Saxon world so individualistic, and why has China leaned towards collectivism? Was it Adam Smith, or the Bill of Rights; communism and Mao? According to at least one economist, there might be an altogether more surprising explanation: the difference between wheat and rice. You see, it’s fairly straightforward for a lone farmer to sow wheat in soil and live off the harvest. Rice is a different affair: it requires extensive irrigation, which means cooperation across parcels of land, even centralised planning. A place where wheat grows favours the entrepreneur; a place where rice grows favours the bureaucrat.

The influence of the “initial conditions” that shape societies’ development is what Oded Galor has been interested in for the past 40 years. He believes they reverberate across millennia and even seep into what we might think of as our personalities. Whether or not you have a “future-oriented mindset” – in other words, how much money you save and how likely you are to invest in your education – can, he argues, be partly traced to what kinds of crops grew well in your ancestral homelands. (Where high-yield species such as barley and rice thrive, it pays to sacrifice the immediate gains of hunting by giving over some of your territory to farming. This fosters a longer-term outlook.) Differences in gender equality around the world have their roots in whether land required a plough to cultivate – needing male strength, and relegating women to domestic tasks – or hoes and rakes, which could be used by both sexes.

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