Chart: World’s Biggest Economies, Past and Present

With well over one billion denizens each, China and India make up a huge proportion of the world’s population and, subsequently, its economic potential. But if you think they are large now, consider that for much human history, the area constituting these modern nation states made up an overwhelming percentage of the human race and its economic activity.

Indeed, for many centuries, China alone accounted for one out of every three humans on Earth (with what is now India estimated to have concurrently accounted for another third). Considering that most readers of this blog (as far as I have gleaned) have, like me, been steeped in a Eurocentric telling of world history, it may be strange to imagine that the bulk of human activity and experience was concentrated in these two regions.

A recent chart from The Economist drives this point home by showing the relative sizes of these two behemoths (among other contenders) over the last two thousand years.

Note that Italy and Turkey were, during their peaks, the centers of the Roman and Ottoman empires, respectively. Also, I imagine the U.K.’s proportion would be larger if the colonial empire beyond its modern borders were to be factored in (indeed, all of India and then some would technically be included). Britain’s proportion is pretty impressive given its small geographic and demographic size relative to other rivals — a testament to the speed and intensity of the Industrial Revolution.

Similarly, America’s rapid rise between the late 19th century and turn of the 20th century reflects its own mastery of industry (albeit at great human and environmental cost, like much economic growth at that time). The fact that the U.S. and Soviet Union dominated the post-World War II global economic testifies as much to the sheer devastation wrought on the rest of the world (especially the former great powers) as to their rise as superpowers (Russia’s proportion is particularly impressive given the horrific scale of human and material loss).

But now, it appears China and India will once again reclaim the mantle of being the world’s major centers of economic activity — which is to be expected, given their sheer size and, in the latter’s case, continuing fast population growth. By some measures, China has already overtaken the U.S., although this is disputed.

Still, it seems inevitable that these two giants — which together make up almost 40 percent of the world’s population of 7.1 billion — will take center-stage in the global economy, perhaps even following in America’s footsteps as cultural and ideological powers (thus far a position that the U.S. is likely to enjoy continued dominance for years to come, whatever its relative economic status).

Of course, with other sizable countries like Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, Turkey, Mexico, and more also rising to relative prominence, the world may become more multipolar than anything. Interesting times ahead. What do you think?


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