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Make money


The fourteenth installment of 'The world then', a history manual on current society written in 2120, deals with the many different means by which the main goal of those societies was obtained: making money

In those days it was not produced to produce, nor was it exchanged to exchange, nor was it served to serve.

Making money was the goal;

almost every activity was a means to reach her.

From agriculture to tourism, oil extraction or microchip manufacturing, medicine or transportation or sports, everything had that purpose.

To achieve this, there were three main areas: the primary sector, which included the extraction and production of all kinds of raw materials;

the secondary, which included the manufacture of any kind of object;

and the tertiary, which was defined as "services" and brought together activities as diverse as banks and nursing, literature and neighborhood stores.

It had all started with food production, the oldest branch of the economy, just ten thousand years before.

Since then, agriculture has remained the main task of the people.

Until the end of the 20th century, more people lived and worked in the fields than in the cities: most of them farmed the land or raised animals.

Agriculture, however, had already become an activity scorned as archaic.

Even so, it remained the sector that employed the most people in the world: around 1 billion, more than a quarter of the global labor force, farmed and ranched (see chapter 15).

But farmers were despised, considered the most primary of each society.

People work in rice fields drying the grains, in Santipur, India, in January 2023.SOPA Images (Getty Images)

The equation was clear: the poorer a country was, the more people worked in its fields;

the richer, the less.

In many African countries, 75 percent of its inhabitants still did agricultural work;

in certain Europeans and Asians it could be less than 2 or 3 percent.

In Burundi, for example, four out of five people lived and worked in the fields;

in the United States, one in a hundred.

It was a double sign: on the one hand, it meant that these countries preferred more profitable activities, advanced industries and services;

on the other, that they worked their fields with modern techniques, which used less and less labor.

Agriculture had changed a lot in just a few decades: various innovations managed to ensure crops on land that previously did not give anything and multiply the yield of those that did,

Genetically modified seeds had been instrumental in those advances.

Large corporations maintained their monopoly on them: it was an unprecedented case of private ownership of a biological model, patented life—and it provoked heated debates.

Many said that the problem was that this type of intensive cultivation ruined the land;

Others said that this increase in productivity was necessary to better feed more people, but that the worst thing was that a couple of companies controlled its use —and restricted it to the poorest farmers, causing all kinds of disasters.

These material differences between technical farmers in rich countries and traditional ones in poor countries were added to the fact that in the richest countries their activities were usually subsidized: thus,

the rich produced at much lower prices than the poor.

As the markets had become globalized, the poor had to compete against those prices reduced by the subsidies;

often they couldn't.

Still, in 2022 agriculture still produced the world's food base.

The diets of the vast majority were based on a few crops: rice, wheat, corn, potatoes.

And, as a country became richer, it incorporated more animal proteins: chicken, above all, and also pork and, at the top, cow (see chapter 8).

Food was made the same as at the beginning of time: to have beef they raised a cow, to have wheat flour they planted wheat —which occupied and deteriorated a good part of the Earth's surface.

In those days it was estimated that of the planet's 106 million square kilometers of habitable land, about half—48 million—was devoted to agriculture.

Almost all the rest was forest and savannah and only one percent was urbanized: more than half of the world's population crammed into one hundredth of its territory.

Twenty-three percent of that farmland was used to grow the grain that fed the planet.

The other 77 percent, on the other hand, were dedicated to livestock: there they grazed —or grew food for— those animals that people then ate.

And yet, agriculture only accounted for 4 percent of the world's GDP, that is: 24 out of every 25 euros in circulation came from anything else.

Which, of course, was not reflected at all in individual economies, where food accounted for a significant percentage of expenses—greater the poorer the household.

* * *

The other basic activity for the world as it was organized then was the production of energy—necessary to move the means of transport, to produce electricity, to heat and burn, to power the machines.

The world, in those days, consumed about 580 million terajoules a year.

A joule was a measure of energy—the force required to produce one watt for one second or to lift an apple one meter—and a terajoule was a million million joules: it was, for example, the amount of energy one of those primitive planes to cross the Atlantic.

In other words, the world consumed every day the equivalent of 1,720,000 intercontinental flights or the energy released by 22,000 atomic bombs like that of Hiroshima.

Although saying the world, we know, was still an abuse: the world consumption average was 55 gigajoules per person per year;

the North American average was 310, almost six times as many.

Europe was, again, in the middle: about 160 gigajoules per head.

In any case, global consumption had grown 30 percent in the first two decades of the century and was still growing, and more than 84 percent of that energy still came from fossil fuels: coal, gas, and, above all, oil.

About 7 percent was due to hydroelectric plants;

4 percent to nuclear, and another 4 between solar and wind.

View of the Tucurui hydraulic power station, in Brazil. picture alliance (Getty Images)

At the end of the 20th century, there had been a time when many analysts believed that these fossil fuels would run out very soon: the known reserves were running out.

They also pointed to them, with good reason, as the great destroyer of the environment and the clamor for “clean” energies, which did not affect it, increased.

Different sectors were trying to determine what the next energy paradigm would be: what type of energy would dominate the world in the following decades.

Whoever controlled it, of course, would control many things: if coal was, in the 19th century, the fuel that marked British hegemony;

if oil, in the 20th century, the North American one, that of the 21st century was in full discussion.

There was a fight, deaf but merciless.

There were powerful groups —especially in the United States— that wanted to recover the atomic option and used the ecological discourse for that: nuclear would be the only possible alternative to the environmental disaster of fossil fuels.

A couple of big accidents aborted the maneuver.

Nuclear power couldn't get over its periodic catastrophes: every once in a while, a plant would explode, killing many and polluting much more.

Less notorious —but very sustained— was the criticism of those plants as an extreme form of concentration of power: if the electricity came from an atomic power plant, a single person controlled the supply of many millions.

And the “soft” or “green” energies – the sun or the wind, which were clean and decentralized – had better press but were still a long way from producing the necessary flow to relieve the fossils.

Greenpeace activists block an excavator at a lignite mine in Jüchen, Germany, in November 2019. Bernd Lauter (Getty Images)

(At the end of that year, one of those ruptures occurred that would only be fully recognized much later. While the world's population was entertained by a human soccer tournament, a California laboratory—in the United States—announced that, for the first time in In history, nuclear fusion had produced more energy than was necessary to achieve it. That is, for the first time in history, man had obtained energy by fusing hydrogen atoms. Now it is easy to see the importance of that discovery. So, apparently , it was not.)

When the oil crisis of the last years of the 20th century seemed decisive, the technique, as so often, brought an unexpected solution.

Whims and twists and turns of the economy: due to its scarcity, due to its difficulties, the price of oil had increased so much that it became profitable to extract it from much more difficult deposits, more expensive to work on, which until then had been neglected.

In a very short time, mechanisms were developed to extract shale gas, methane trapped in layers of rocks at great depth, which oil tankers "liberated" by breaking the stones with jets of water at extremely high pressure.

It sounds dirty and ugly and it probably was;

in any case,

It aroused many reactions and returned the United States to its lost place as the world's leading producer of hydrocarbons and allowed it to depend less on its most uncomfortable suppliers —Venezuela, Iran, Russia, Arabia, Angola, among others.

The experts soon calculated that, if a constant level of consumption was maintained, these new deposits ensured fuel for more than two centuries.

We know that would not be the case.

Chile and its new leftist government, which was trying to nationalize its reserves, the largest in the world, and was being attacked and threatened by the big mining companies —they won't know how to do it, they won't be able to do it, they won't have credit—;

Bolivia that nationalized them and did it badly and failed to exploit them;

And the discussion was rampant in each country about how to not limit themselves to extracting it and delivering it.

Lithium, in those days, was a good live summary of what had been going on with the commodity for centuries—and would be, we know, another missed opportunity to change the rules.)

Bolivia that nationalized them and did it badly and failed to exploit them;

And the discussion was rampant in each country about how to not limit themselves to extracting it and delivering it.

Lithium, in those days, was a good live summary of what had been going on with the commodity for centuries—and would be, we know, another missed opportunity to change the rules.)

Bolivia that nationalized them and did it badly and failed to exploit them;

And the discussion was rampant in each country about how to not limit themselves to extracting it and delivering it.

Lithium, in those days, was a good live summary of what had been going on with the commodity for centuries—and would be, we know, another missed opportunity to change the rules.)

* * *

Some of the richest countries—the United States, China, Russia—had large reserves of raw materials but were still the main buyers of those from the rest of the world.

And other rich countries -Europeans, above all- did not have them and had no choice but to buy them.

Which meant that many poorer countries lived by extracting and exporting materials —food, minerals, drugs.

In these countries the origin of fortunes was not —as could happen in classical capitalism— in the accumulation of capital and the invention and manufacture of new objects and necessities (see chapter 16) and the intensive exploitation of industrial workers and the commercial and financial maneuvers, but in the control of the sources of these raw materials.

There, then, political power was decisive:

whoever had it could get or keep ownership of those fields, those mines, those wells.

For this reason, too, these used to be the countries with the most conflict, the most violence (see chapter 22): control of the state meant control of wealth in a very direct way, and the fight for it was fierce.

Commerce—the buying and selling of goods of all kinds, natural and artificial, solid and liquid, manufactured and mined, extraordinary and ordinary—was, then, incessant.

This movement fed a very rich aristocracy made up of “traders” —the most precise translation would be “traffickers”— of the great raw materials or “commodities”: oil, metals, food.

Their activity was exemplary unproductive: they did not extract anything, they did not produce anything, they did not manufacture anything;

they just bought what others mined and sold it to those who used it for something—and made fortunes.

Companies like Cargill, Vitol, Glencore had started out in one sector—grain, crude oil, minerals—but already then they were involved in all of them, and controlled them.

Very few companies dominated the global market.

Just five "traffickers" handled a quarter of the world's demand for crude and refined oil, some 24 million barrels a day.

The seven largest cereal companies controlled half of the grains and oilseeds on the planet, and so on.

They were very traditional companies —Glencore, still in 2014, was the last of the British Top 100 not to have any women on its board— that avoided, as a matter of principle, any political principle in their businesses: they bought and sold where it suited them, regardless of any other issue.

Curiously, they had been great beneficiaries of the decolonization of the mid-20th century: they found, especially in Africa,

with a series of new governments strong enough to want more money for their raw materials and weak enough to have to accept pressure from those who could get them those prices.

These companies, which had no conviction outside of profit, took advantage of the nationalist impulse of those years.

They were basically opaque: the general public did not know about them—and neither did the small one.

And they were another sign of the effects of globalization: organizations that evaded control of the states of origin of their owners —American, English, Swiss— and that, above all, avoided paying the taxes that would have been owed to them.

the great public did not know them —and neither did the small one.

And they were another sign of the effects of globalization: organizations that evaded control of the states of origin of their owners —American, English, Swiss— and that, above all, avoided paying the taxes that would have been owed to them.

the great public did not know them —and neither did the small one.

And they were another sign of the effects of globalization: organizations that evaded control of the states of origin of their owners —American, English, Swiss— and that, above all, avoided paying the taxes that would have been owed to them.

Trade, of course, was increasing in many other ways as well.

In the previous 50 years the world's population had doubled and its production quadrupled, but international trade had increased thirty-fold—and a quarter of all that was produced in the world then was exported.

(In that period, the percentage of US exports in the world total had risen from 12 to 9 percent; Chinese exports from 1 to 13 percent.)

Three factors had been decisive in this global increase in exports: the multiplication of objects (see chapter 16), the growth of a population with the power to consume (see chapter 1), the deployment of innumerable ships.

Ships seemed the oldest way of transporting goods: in fact, the world had traded on water for three or four thousand years.

And yet those big ships were still, as in Homer's time, the most efficient way to carry a lot of cargo far: 90 percent of world trade circulated through the 50,000 ships that plowed the seas then.

That is why the global fleet did not stop growing, 2 or 3 percent each year, both in number of ships and in their tonnage.

In that world, the movement of objects and raw materials took up so much effort, so much expense.

People were not aware of it, but much of what they consumed, the objects they used, the fruit they ate, the gas that heated them had crossed oceans.

Several container ships moored at the Burchardkai terminal in the port of Hamburg in 2022.Gregor Fischer (Getty Images)

Those ships filled the waters, dirtying the skies.

Some were more than 300 meters long, some cost like 10,000 medium cars, some transported oil in tanks and other cereals or dry minerals and other huge cars or machines;

The most common were those that carried those metal boxes called containers or containers, which had been imposed as the usual way of transporting merchandise: it was estimated that at any given time some 15 million containers moved around the world, with the most varied cargo. you can imagine, from fruits to televisions, from soccer jerseys to hidden drugs, from car wheels to Japanese bonsai;

every once in a while one would be discovered stuffed full of illegal immigrants.

But the most trafficked goods were crude and refined oil and its various derivatives,

closely followed by various computers—including pocket computers that were then called telephones—and cars and trucks;

behind came machinery of all kinds, infinite plastics, medicinal drugs, gold, diamonds, blood, steel, household appliances.

China, the United States and Europe alone concentrated more than a third of the operations.

For the majority of the planet's inhabitants, those thousands of ships did not exist: they were an alien, distant reality that they did not usually take into account;

for more than a million sailors they were their way of life.

Its main ports were Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong in Asia, Los Angeles and New York in the United States, Rotterdam and Hamburg in Europe;

its most active builders were China, Japan, and Korea.

And, curiously, in a time of very active control and surveillance, they still suffered attacks by pirates: in 2020 there were almost 200, the majority in Bab-el-Mandeb, near Somalia, and in the Straits of Malacca, between Malaysia and Indonesia. .

* * *

Beyond that explosion in international trade, another feature of the era was the great change in retail: in everyday buying and selling.

Until very recently, most of these transactions were in the hands of people: almost everything that was sold at retail was sold in stores specializing in one item —from the butcher shop to the hat shop, going through all the others—, which used to be owned by an owner or a family who took care of them with - if anything - the help of a few employees.

That model began to weaken with the “department stores”—or department stores—an Anglo-French invention of the late 19th century that Americans brought to their heyday during the 20th century, when the rest of the world followed suit.

And, in the MundoRico, single-family stores ended up in eclipse at the end of that century, when a group of large firms took over each segment of the market.

They were powerful companies—some even manufactured their own merchandise—that, due to their dominant position, could offer much lower prices and thus get rid of little competition.

These companies became brands that were repeated in all cities;

These continuous brands appropriated the space and turned all the places into the same place: the same things were offered in their stores at the same prices,

for the benefit of the same owner.

It was the retail version of concentration that was taking place in all sectors.

people who bought something that should be distinguished by its quality but was used to convert the person who carried it into someone of supposed quality.

It didn't matter if the item itself was bad and short-lived;

what mattered was what it communicated, what it said about who showed it.

And it was a strong ideological triumph: thanks to fakes, millions of people accepted the cultural leadership of the richest, trying to look like one of them.)

But material commerce, with stores and people, received its blow with the appearance of the giant distribution chains based on the "network" (see chapter 18): both the American, Amazon, and the Chinese, Alibaba, They were then among the twenty most powerful companies in the world;

the owner of the first, a merchant named Jeffrey Preston Jorgensen (a) Jeff Bezos, was from time to time the richest man on the planet (see chapter 13).

The reason for his success was that he had set up a large distribution network for ordered products over the internet.

He was, once again, a middleman who produced nothing.

His business model was simple: his company offered in the same virtual space almost everything someone could "need",

with guarantees of —relative— quality and the assurance that they would take it wherever they wanted in a very short time.

Comfort and greed prevailed;

the concentration became even greater, millions of people were left without work.

Employees sort Amazon packages at a distribution center in Neubrandenburg, Germany in October 2021.picture alliance (Getty Images)

With the irruption of these corporations, retail trade lost its materiality: it did not happen in one place, it did not touch itself.

It became a virtual fact and ceased to be an exchange between two more or less equivalent individuals to become a relationship between two absolutely unequal parties: the large corporation and the individual.

Which changed the meaning of the purchase: if it had always been a moment of contact, of going out into the public space to see and search and meet others, in those days it became a perfectly individual, solitary process that each one undertook in front of to his screen, which created no social link.

The disintegrated world was condensed in that gesture.

* * *

Commerce grew and grew: it was a “service”.

For the first time in history, the most important sector of the economy of rich countries was not production but what was then called "services".

The production of raw materials had been relegated to the poorest countries;

the manufacture of less complex objects, to medium ones;

the most sophisticated were still made in the richest countries, but the more sophisticated a country was, the more weight its “services” sector had.

Services, said those who defined them, were everything that could not be saved or accumulated: they had to be produced and consumed at the same time.

Services were what did not create anything material at a time when there was still a lot of matter: they included activities as diverse as medicine, entertainment, education, tourism, protection, banking and insurance, communication, hospitality, post-mortem hospitality, law and sports, prostitution and journalism and all kinds of public jobs.

Together they concentrated —in the old rich countries— up to 80 percent of the economy.

In those days, one of the most important "services" was tourism, employing multitudes and producing about 10 percent of the world's GDP: 1.5 billion trips a year.

Tourism was new and was a symbol, if anything, of those times: large masses of money and people in an activity that only produced a certain transitory well-being, an activity that had barely existed for a good part of history —and that, we know , existed for a short time.

Tourism had, within the scheme, a central function: those brief, slightly chaotic trips, justified the submission of the rest of the year.

It was often considered lucky who could raise, in the year of work, the money necessary to travel two or three weeks to some more or less distant place and live in those days a life absolutely opposite to their normality.

It was the modern version of the saturnalia or carnival: a few days in which the usual values ​​and impositions were set aside in order to continue fulfilling them for the rest of the year.

Postiguet beach (Alicante) crowded with people in August 2022. Marcos del Mazo (Getty Images)

While it lasted, tourism transformed the habitat of those who did not exercise it: it turned the most successful cities into caricatures of themselves, theme parks that had to adapt to all the clichés that painted them so that "tourists" did not leave disappointed.

They had to underline these particularities and, at the same time, offer a number of standardized services —types of accommodation, types of food, types of barbershops or fashion houses or breweries or shops selling uselessly cute objects— that would make them easy, “friendly”: the illusion of difference in comfortable surroundings.

Mass tourism was a clear example of an ephemeral custom, a crossroads of circumstances: it appeared when the legalized workers of MundoRico already had that period —depending on the country, between 15 and 30 days— in which they continued to collect their salaries without having to work. .

And it flourished when the transports that allowed it had already achieved a certain development and the virtual realities that would supplant it had not yet.

But if tourism serves as an example, it is because it clearly shows us a feature of that era: that, in most cases, those who felt the most effects of an activity were not those who practiced it, but precisely those who did not.

And it was also an example of another strong trend: millions of people worked in that field.

The cities were denatured, they were disintegrating, but they could not stop practicing it for fear of great job losses.

That was what happened with so many jobs (see chapter 15): they only served so that the people who did them had something to do, some income, options for survival.

So that they could earn their money and, above all, make their employers earn it.

Next installment:

19. The purposes of workPeople, then, were defined by their jobs: less and less production and more services.

But he planned the threat of the robots, the end of the job.

the world then

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Source: elparis

All life articles on 2023-01-29

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