Last night, PBS aired two hours of the eight-part series Colonial House. Two dozen 21st-century folk live for four months in conditions as close to those of early 17th-century New England as the producers can recreate.
Of course, each of these modern people survived childbirth, many of the women survived child-birthing, and all are inoculated against several crippling diseases – something that was untrue in 1628. Allowing for these and other differences that separate these ersatz colonists from the genuine article of 400 years ago, I enjoyed the program. It’s good to see images of ordinary life in the past so that we understand just how incredibly, marvelously, astonishingly, fantastically, immensely, stupendously, vastly wealthy everyone is today in the industrialized west.
I do say “everyone.” Even the poorest American is today far wealthier than were even the upper classes in colonial America.
Some readers might shout “status goods”; others will remind us that preferences are subjective; yet others will point out that colonial America’s air and water carried no industrial pollutants.
Granted. These points (and others) are all relevant. But I stick by my claim.
Actually, there’s something of a test of this claim going on constantly. It is the fact that modern Americans who would truly prefer not to live in a 21st-century society marked by a deep division of labor can return to pre-industrial conditions. (And I mean really return; not return in the way that the two-dozen people in Colonial House returned.) There’s a good deal of wilderness remaining in North America – Montana, the Dakotas, Canada. At fairly low money prices (or perhaps for much of it, by squatting) acres of this land are still available.
People who doubt that they are really wealthy in modern society can live on this land and enjoy their subsistence lifestyles. See my longer essay on this possibility. The fact that only a very few people (including an infamous mail-bomber) choose to live apart from modern society is sound evidence that, for all of its flaws and anxieties, it’s much better for almost everyone than available alternatives.