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Reading Ian Morris on the Wheat Lands and the Rice Lands

Suresh Naidu of Columbia told me to move Ian Morris's Why the West Rules--for Now to the top of The Pile--that it is a much, much better book than its title might suggest, and that Ian Morris knows lots of things that I do not. So I did, and I read it Saturday during downtime while watching a Berkeley Robotics Competition.

Suresh is correct: it is a very good book. And it is not about "why the west rules for now." it is, instead, Ian Morris's ecological materialist interpretation of global history, very well written, well argued, and well documented. I learned a lot from it.

The key features of Morris's theory are:

  1. Common human biology.
  2. Common human sociology.
  3. Agrarian foundations
  4. Wheat vs. rice
  5. Hard ceilings
  6. The five horsemen of the apocalypse
  7. Eye of the needle
  8. Atlantic trade
  9. Coal and factor prices

Humans have, Morris believes (and I agree), a common biology and also a common sociology: people whether they are East or West will think thoughts and arrange themselves in patterns that make sense to them given the ecological, material, and technological constraints and opportunities they see. What drives differences, Morris believes, is differences in geography.

The first way that geography is important is that it shapes the agrarian foundations on which post hunter gatherer human societies are built. A society needs to have the food to feed those people who are not farmers. In vista physiocrats are correct: the prosperity of an agrarian society is in extra complete tied to its agrarian surplus. No geographic, ecological, and technological possibility for an agrarian surplus, no possibility for a complex society with a high level of social development. A society may fail to achieve the order, repeats, and the production and distribution network to actually achieve and use that surplus. But without the possibility of an agrarian surplus it cannot even try.

Here, Western Eurasia gets its first edge over eastern Eurasia: the process of agricultural crop domestication begins three millennia earlier in the Fertile Crescent than in the Yellow River Valley. This three millennium headstart matters.

Moreover: Western Eurasia domesticates and focuses on wheat, while eastern Eurasia domesticates and focuses on rice (and millet). You can grow an awful lot of rice on an irrigated acre, and so produce an enormous agricultural surplus in that parcel of land that a knight or administrator on horseback come right across in a day. But you must do so with a relatively low labor productivity and a relatively high rural population: transplanting those rice seedlings requires many fingers. Hence rice societies tend to have high population density and low unskilled wage levels. Meet wheat societies, by contrast, can efficiently utilize much more capital-intensive methods of production based on clouds ploughs and animals and fertilizer. Lower total surplus per acre, probably, but higher marginal product of labor.

Over time technology and organization develop. Societies become more densely populated with more potential agricultural surplus, and they use that agricultural surplus to support other forms of production and distribution in more and more complicated and sophisticated ways. But, Morris claims, developing agrarian societies run into hard ceilings. Their modes of social organization come into conflict with the limited technological, organizational possibilities, and further development stops.

We see such hard ceilings hit, Morris claims, in different parts of Eurasia in 3100 BC, 2300 BC, 2200 BC, 1750 BC, 1200 BC, 1050 BC, 300, 1100.

When you hit a hard ceiling your society then has little room for adjustment. The five horsemen of the apocalypse--famine, epidemic, migration, state failure, climate change--can then, if you are unlucky, bring on a major crash, as elites who had been cooperating fight fiercely over a smaller-than-expected resource pool and wreak additional destruction.

OK, so what do I think is wrong with it? Three things come to mind:

First, Morris's "West" runs from Santiago to Vancouver to Rijkavik to Moscow to Chandigarh to Cairo and back to Santiago. It is made up of all the wheat lands, as opposed to the non-west of rice and millet. Manchester vs. Shanghai is certainly an interesting issue, but so are Manchester vs. Kiev, Manchester vs. Seville, Manchester vs. Cairo, Manchester vs. Karachi, Manchester vs. Samarkand.

Second, Morris appears to think that empires are nicer places than they are. They deploy lots of social power and can mobilize lots of energy, yes. And the pax romana is a very valuable thing to have. But I would rather be a serf of Hugh Goch in Anglo-Norman England than a field slave of Marcus Porcius Cato Senior: it isn't even close. In some ways and at some times some empires deserve to fall.

Third, Morris makes a lot of the "long-run edge" of his "West"--the whear lands. But his "East"--the rice lands--has the civilizational edge from 550 to 1700. The fact that his "West" had an edge of some sort in energy mobilization and socioeconomic differentiation before 500 is irrelevant for the question of why the Industrial Revolution in Manchester after 1800. And there I think we have much more to learn from Bob Allen than from Morris.

But all in all, a very nice book.

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