What does wealth look like? For most of human history, it looked a lot like shiny things that humans pulled from the ground. Wealth was built on natural resources, and if you didn’t have them, you went to get them elsewhere. This was fuel for colonialism and exploitation.
But a recent analysis by The Economist finds something interesting. Looking forward, wealth looks less like things we take from the ground. In fact, it doesn’t “look” like anything at all because wealth is increasingly built by better thinking. “As natural wealth is used up, economies will rely more on human capital,” the article states.
In many ways, natural resources can have a regressive effect. They still generate wealth, but in many countries that leads to vast inequities, with a corrupt ruling class hoarding that wealth. In Congo, for instance, colonialism has gone but its economic spirit lingers.
On the other hand, human capital – the wealth generated by innovation, education, and opportunity – has no such effect. Singapore’s significant wealth, for example, is in its people. Its gross domestic product is under no threat from declining natural resources.
For the world, a shift is underway as economies learn that extraction is not the only – or even best – way to grow. The Economist notes: “Financial capital tends to accumulate. Natural capital seems destined to do the opposite.”