The Malthusian energy-trap: old Europe, new China

Christoph Neidhart
13 December 2007

The price of oil is approaching $100 a barrel, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is accumulating faster than the most pessimistic scenarios are predicting, anthropogenic climate change is occurring. The recognition that the world's scientists, diplomats and media gathered at the Bali climate-change summit are arguing over - the necessity of moving beyond dependency on a fossil-fuelled, carbon-emission-based global economy - is becoming increasingly hard to ignore.

Christoph Neidhart is a Swiss writer and journalist based in Tokyo. He was previously a research fellow at Harvard's Davis Center of Russian Studies and (1990-97) Moscow bureau chief of Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche.

His books include Russia's Carnival: The Smells, Sights and Sounds of Transition (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002) and Ostsee, das Meer in unserer Mitte (Marebuchverlag, 2003)

Also by Christoph Neidhart in openDemocracy:

"Vladimir Putin, ‘Soviet man' who missed class" (24 October 2006)

"Tokyo's change, Moscow's echo" (28 September 2007)

Where is leadership in the quest for a new model to come from? The results of a BBC opinion-poll inviting the views of 22,000 people in twenty-one countries, released in November 2007, included the striking discovery that the Chinese were the most willing to change their lifestyle and accept higher energy prices in order to save the environment. True, opinion-polls in China are less than reliable, especially if conducted over the phone; still, the poll demonstrates a notable awareness of the threat to the climate and the earth's sustainability posed by modern production and consumption patterns.

Two centuries ago, certain areas of China, Japan, and India were faced with a similar crisis. These most densely populated and (then) most developed regions of the world were suffering from an acute shortage of energy: that is, firewood. In northwestern Europe too, Britain in particular, the same concern was arising - with the added twist that the food economy too was dangerously over-extended.

Wrong answer, right question

Thomas Robert Malthus expected an imminent "gigantic inevitable famine" that with "one mighty blow" would massively diminish earth's population. In An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), England's first professor of political economy argued that progress in medicine, hygiene and an improved diet would accelerate population growth, especially among the poor. Within half a century, the planet's arable land would not suffice to feed humankind. His chosen solution was to prevent or restrict population increase, in particular by forcing the poor into sexual abstinence.

Malthus's ideas were so familiar that he was accused of plagiarism. There was no need: his science was flawed, his principles ungrounded, his projections confounded by reality itself. In 1800, world population had just passed the one-billion mark. Today, the planet feeds more than 6 billion people, most of whom are much better provided for than were even the affluent in Malthus's day.

Despite his inept science, Malthus's basic fear was valid; the planet's resources are limited. The very same progress that allowed world population to grow, Malthus saw as driving the earth beyond sustainability. It was the extraordinary, unexpected inventions of the 19th century that saved the planet from becoming locked in what came to be known as the "Malthusian trap" (for a longer historical view, see Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms, Princeton University Press, 2007). The mechanisation of agriculture, the discovery of artificial fertiliser (one of the least appreciated of innovations), and the ability to undertake long-distance transport of food (particularly grain) were among the developments that Malthus could not have foreseen. But perhaps indeed his dire warnings and distinguished readership (not least by Charles Darwin) that helped provoke the search for these quantum technological leaps.

In Malthus's lifetime, Britain's primary ecological problem was not hunger but a looming energy crisis. The country's forests had been cleared and it was about to run out of firewood; the mining of coal did not yet take place on an industrial large scale. This was true for other parts of Europe's developed northwest, such as the Netherlands, in the early 19th century. Their progress had created a need for energy beyond what was available, thus breaking through the limits of sustainability: they were about to land in an energy-trap.

Also in openDemocracy on China, climate change and global energy:

Alejandro Litovsky, "Energy poverty and political vision" (4 September 2007)

Andreas Lorenz, "China's environmental suicide: a government minister speaks" (5 April 2005)

Dieter Helm, "Europe's energy future: in the dark" (16 January 2007)

Tom Burke, "Climate change: time to get real" (25 September 2006)

Camilla Toulmin, "Bali: no time to lose" (30 November 2007)

See alsoGlobal Deal, the openDemocracy / E3G blog from the Bali climate summit

chinadialogue, the bilingual forum on China's environment and the world

The worldwide challenges of energy policy today - including the threat and reality of shortages, energy poverty, the burden of pollution, and global climate change - may be appropriately described as a "Malthusian energy-trap". The planet as a whole is about to break through the limits of sustainability - if it has not done so yet. Despite this, politics - particularly in the richest and most developed country on the planet, the United States - displays a remarkable lack of urgency on the issue.

When China slept

In the early 19th century, China was today's America. The "middle kingdom" was then still the world's most developed, rich and vibrant economy, its capitalism arguably more sophisticated than the one in Europe or the young United States of America. Japan was not far behind China; indeed, some scholars consider that the two countries' standard of living and (in modern parlance) human development at the time was superior to western Europe's (with a higher literacy-rate, for example).

By coincidence, east Asia in this period ran into an energy crisis at approximately the same time as Britain. China's major centres of production - the lower Yangtze valley and the Pearl River delta - had burned all their firewood and used up the available timber for construction. Hardwood for boat-building had to be imported from as far as Vietnam; firewood was floated over more than 800 kilometres to the lower Yangtze. To overcome the subsequent economic crisis, manufacturers in the big Chinese cities cut wages or made their employees work more. The Chinese emperor of the day tried to promote coal - a source of energy known in China's north for centuries - but the highly developed areas of eastern and southern China did not see the need to switch (or wish to take the risk of adapting) to a new, untested energy-source. In hindsight, and despite the alarm-signals, they displayed a remarkable lack of urgency.

For its part, Japan reacted to its own scarcity of firewood by introducing laws restricting consumption, in particular by introducing guidelines on how to build houses that reduced the amount of firewood required for heating.

Thus, both China and Japan found ways to cope with the late 18th- and early-19th-century energy crisis by improving the existing, routine ways their economies operated. China may have been the source of most of the world's inventions for 2,000 years, but at this point Chinese people did not recognise a need for innovative technologies. Rather, they tried to improve the status quo, and as a result became stuck in what has been called a "high-level equilibrium trap" (see Mark Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China, Yale University Press, 2004).

By contrast, Britain - at the time consumed by a desperate war with France, and haunted by the loss of colonial America - was rife with fear of the future (of which Malthus's predictions were one example). The country had less to lose and more to gain from experimenting with revolutionary means of production. In addition, Britain could afford it: partly thanks to the fortunes it had extracted from her overseas possessions, which helped provide the capital base that was to make industrial revolution possible. Moreover, Britain's coal was much closer to her centres of production than China's.

Look east, world

Two centuries on, China's complex of problems and opportunities echoes on an even larger scale that of Britain in Malthus's day (and more recently of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore): a relative scarcity of native resources and energy-supplies, terrible pollution, but easy access to capital. China has less to lose and more to gain from a technological quantum-leap - and the Chinese people seem increasingly to be aware of it.

Can the analogy be taken a step further? It seems likely that the next industrial revolution - which will be as transformative as the introduction of coal, steam-power and the combustion-engine - will take off in China or elsewhere in east Asia. China, Japan, and Taiwan (and to a lesser degree South Korea) have become economically integrated. A product can be developed in Taiwan but manufactured in China, for example; or developed in common by scientists based in Japan, Taiwan and China; or - more and more - developed and manufactured in China alone. Already, major technological innovations are coming from east Asia - such as the technology to replace conventional light- bulbs, the car of the future, or the next generation of solar-cells.

Where is Silicon valley in all this? The Californian hotbed of high technology has reacted by starting to pour millions of dollars into the development of alternative sources of energy. But - as they say in Kaohsiung and Bangalore - Silicon valley would never have become what it is without the immigration of the Taiwanese and Indians (and Chinese, Koreans, and Pakistanis). Many companies in California have closer links to east Asia than to the rest of north America. The past - even in its errors - can be prologue. China could save as well as shake the world.

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