We Americans think of ourselves as independent and innovative. We like to ascribe our wealth and influence to our system of free enterprise and the personal liberty promised in our national Constitution. And it’s true that our systems and philosophies have been conducive to economic success. That’s undeniable. However, it’s equally undeniable that we had an enormous head start in the race to dominate the industrial revolution. We inherited a sparsely populated continent packed with natural resources. When it comes to natural resources — especially fertile agricultural land — our nation was born with a silver spoon in its mouth.
Most geographers today seem to agree that at least 40 million people lived in the Americas when Columbus landed here in 1492. One century later 90 percent of those native people were gone mainly due to diseases introduced by Europeans. Africans, Europeans and Asians had been traveling, trading and procreating together since humanity evolved. When a new cold virus emerged in northern Europe in 1200 A.D., people were probably sneezing in Beijing within a few years. The populations of Old World nations developed natural resistance to each other’s diseases. Disease was always present, of course, and sometimes its effects were catastrophic. The “black death” is estimated to have killed about half of Europe’s population around the beginning of the 15th Century.  But the scale of population loss in the Western hemisphere was unique in recorded history.
European immigrants found here a fertile land mostly free for the taking. We have mythologized the settlers and dramatized their conflicts with Native Americans. But imagine what the conquest of the Americas would have been like if there were 10 times as many native peoples.
It would have been very different, to say the least, and European settlement as we understand it might not have occurred at all. The Americas might more resemble northern Asia now, where the ruling Russians and Chinese remain minorities. If there were still 40 million or 50 million native people in the Americas in 1776, competing with the 25 million Europeans who lived here then , how different would our history be? And what about our present?
We are taught in the United States that our free-enterprise system is the primary cause for our prosperity. We extrapolate, popularly, that free enterprise is the key to future success. But what if our historic prosperity is mainly due to the fact that we brought the Industrial Revolution to a depopulated continent where we could make maximum use of our new tools to develop its resources? Our free-enterprise philosophies did a great job of facilitating the development of the North American continent and many, many people benefited. It worked super in the development of all that natural abundance. But how well would it work in a world of severely constrained resources?
If our basic assumption that North American prosperity is attributable to our political and economic systems is more myth than reality, then do we have the political and economic systems we need to prosper in a future that will, inevitably, be very different from our past?
Photo by Bryan Welch
 Denevan, W. M. The native population of the Americas in 1492, 2nd ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 1992 .
 S. Barry and N. Gualde, "The Biggest Epidemics of History: (La plus grande épidémie de l'histoire)" L'Histoire.2006. pp. 45–6, say "between one-third and two-thirds"; R. Gottfried, "Black Death" in Dictionary of the Middle Ages, vol. 2, (1983). pp. 257–67, says "between 25 and 45 percent".
 The World at Six Billion, United Nations Population Division.
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