Sunday, January 29, 2012

Just Finished Reading 1493

By Charles Mann. One of the two "must read" books that came out last year. I'm currently reading the other one - Debt: the First 5,000 Years by David Graeber. Here are two interesting sections from 1493:
Hong Liangji was born in 1746 near the mouth of the Yangzi, into a family that slowly went on the skids after the unexpected death of his father...Sometime in 1793 Hong Liangji thought of an idea that may never have occurred to anyone else before. After finally winning a place in the Qing bureaucracy at the age of forty-four--Hong had failed the civil service exam four times--he was sent as an education inspector to Guizhou Province, in the southwestern hinterland. Essentially a sloping, heavily eroded limestone shelf, the province is a humid jumble of steep gorges, protuberant hills, and long caverns. It was another target for Qing occupation, thronged with migrants from central China who were pushing out its original inhabitants, the Miao. The newcomers were climbing up the hills, planting maize, and beginning families. Hong wondered how long the boom could last.

"Today's population is five times as large as that of thirty years ago," he wrote, with perhaps pardonable exeggeration, "ten times as large as that of sixty years ago." He imagined a man with "a ten-room house and 100 mu [about seventeen acres] of farmland." If the man married and had three adult sons, then eight people--the four men and their wives--would live on the parents' farm.

Eight people would require the help of hired servants; there would be, say, ten people in the household. With the ten-room house and the 100 mu of farmland, I believe they would have just enough space to live in and food to eat, although barely enough. In time, however, there will be grandsons who, in turn, will marry. The aged members of the household will pass away, but there could still be more than twenty people in the family. With more than twenty people sharing a house and working 100 mu of farmland, I am sure that even if they eat very frugally and live in crowded quarters, their needs will not be met.

Hong conceded that the Qing had opened up new land to support China's population, But the amount of farmland had

only doubled or, at the most, increased three to five times, while the population has grown ten to twenty times. thus farmland and houses are always in short supply, while there is always a surplus of households and population...

Question: Do Heaven-and-earth have a way of dealing with this situation? Answer: Heaven-and-earth's way of making adjustments lies in flood, drought, and plagues.

Five years later, in England, a similar notion came to another man: Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus. A shy, kindly fellow with a slight harelip, Malthus was the first person to hold a university position in economics--that is, the first professional economist--in Britain, and probably the world. He was impelled to think about population growth after a disagreement with his father, a well-heeled eccentric in the English style. The argument was over whether the human race could transform the world into a paradise. Malthus thought not, and said so at length--55,000 words, published as an unsigned broadside in 1798. Several longer version followed. these were signed; Malthus had become more confident.

"The power of population," Malthus proclaimed, "is definitely greater than the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man." ...Every effort to increase the food supply, Malthus argued, will only lead to an increase in population that will more than cancel out the increase in the food supply--as state of affairs today known as a Malthusian trap. Forget Utopia, Malthus said. Humanity is doomed to exist, now and forever, at the edge of starvation. Forget charity too: helping the poor only leads to more babies, which in turn produces increased hardship down the road. No matter how big the banquet grows, there will always be too many hungry people wanting a seat at the table. The Malthusian trap cannot be escaped.

The reaction was explosive...Hong, by contrast, was ignored. Unlike Malthus, he never developed his thoughts systematically, in part because he devoted his energy to criticising the corrupt officials whom he believed were looting the Qing state. Appalled at the government's brutal, incompetent reaction to a rebellion by starving peasants in Sichuan and Shaanxi, Hong quit his job in 1799. On his way out, he shot off a rambling but remarkably blunt letter to the crown prince, who passed it to the Jiaqing emperor. The angered emperor sentenced Hong to life in exile, silencing him.

The lack of recognition was unmerited; Hong apparently captured the workings of the Malthusian trap better than Malthus (I use the hedge word "apparently" because he never worked out the details.) The Englishman's theory made a simple prediction: more food would lead to more mouths would lead to more misery. In fact, though, the world's farmers have more than kept pace. Between 1961 and 2007 humankind's number doubled, roughly speaking, while global harvest of wheat, rice and maize tripled. As population has soared, in fact, the percentage of chronically malnourished has fallen-contrary to Malthus's prediction. Hunger still exists, to be sure, but the chance that any given child will be malnourished has steadily, hearteningly declined. Hong, by contrast, pointed to a related but more complex prospect. The continual need to increase yields, Hong presciently suggested, would lead to an ecological catastrophe, which would cause social dysfunction--and with it massive human suffering. (emphasis mine-CH)

Exactly this process is what researchers today mean when they talk about the Malthusian trap. Indeed, once way to summarize today's environmental disputes is to say that almost all boil down to the question of whether humankind will continue to accumulate wealth and knowledge, as has been the case since the Industrial Revolution, or whether the environmental impacts of that accumulation--soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, consumption of groundwater supplies, climate change--will snap shut the jaws of the Malthusian trap, returning the earth to pre-industrial wretchedness. China provides an example of the latter, at least in part. In the decades after American crops swept into the highlands, the richest society in the world was convulsed by a struggle with its own environment--a struggle it decisively lost.
from 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles Mann, pp.177-180.
Today scholars often describe the "Green Revolution" after the Second World War--the combination of high-yield crops, agricultural chemicals, and intensive irrigation--as the moment when humankind triumphantly escaped, at least for a while, the limits set by small-scale farms and local resources. But as the Amherst College historian Edward D, Melillo has argued, the arrival of guano ships in Europe and the United States marked an earlier, equally profound Green Revolution, the first in a series of technological innovations that transformed life across the planet.

Before the potato and maize, before intensive fertilization, European living standards were roughly equivalent with those today in Cameroon and Bangladesh; they were below Bolivia or Zimbabwe. On average, European peasants ate less per day than hunting-and-gathering societies in Africa or the Amazon. Industrial monoculture with improved crops and high-intensity fertilizer allowed billions of people--Europe first, and then much of the rest of the world--to escape the Malthusian trap. Incredibly, living standards doubled or tripled worldwide even as the planets' population climbed from fewer than 1 billion in 1700 to about 7 billion today.

Along the way guano was almost entirely replaced by nitrates mined from vast deposits in the Chilean desert. The nitrates in turn were replaced by artificial fertilizers, made in factories by a process invented and commercialized in the early twentieth century by two Nobel-winning German chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch. No matter what their composition, though, fertilizers remain just as critical to agriculture, and through agriculture to contemporary life. In a fascinating study of factory-made nitrogen, Vaclav Smil, the University of Manitoba geographer, estimated that two out of every five people on earth would no be alive without it.
from 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles Mann, pp. 219-220

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