Many young idealists condemn the energy guzzling of our consumerist age, which burns fossil fuels and causes pollution and global warming. Many hark back with nostalgia to the good old pre-industrial days of organic farming.
I agree that we waste energy terribly and pay scant regard to environmental damage, and badly need to reverse both attitudes. But this must not be confused with misty-eyed disinformation about the supposed joys of pre-industrial agriculture.
Though all history till the 19th century, poverty was the natural state of man, and was considered inevitable by almost all great civilisations. All people save a thin creamy layer of the ruling elite lived at subsistence levels. Not even better income distribution could have made a major dent on poverty. The limitations of organic agriculture tended to perpetuate poverty for the masses. Only with the mass exploitation of fossil fuels from the 19th century did it become possible to raise living standards, possible to raise living standards.
Through most of history, people would have astounded by our assumption today that economic progress is natural, and that poverty can be eliminated within decades by the right polices. In the Middle Ages in Europe, people saw the past (the Roman Empire) as the golden age, not the future. In India people harked back to a Ram Rajya.
Why such pessimism about the future? Because in the pre-industrial age, living standards were overwhelmingly dependent on output from land. Land provided all food, fuel, fibre (for clothing) and construction material (in the form of wood). Mining, industry and transport came up, but all depended substantially on animal power, and animals too needed food and so were land-dependent. Most machinery and transport equipment (grain mills, horse-carts, ships) were made from wood. Even the limited metals in use were made by smelting ores with charcoal, a wood product, so industry was dependent on forest. The entire edifice of living standards depended on land.
But the total amount of land could not be expanded, and this seemed to set a limit for living standards too. Deforestation was extremely rapid in the Middle Ages in Europe to meet the needs of metal-makers and industry. It was clear to thinkers of the time that organic industry of this sort was creating an unsustainable environmental crisis, and that such industry could not rescue people from the poverty trap created by organic farming.
The law of diminishing returns, expounded by classical economists, said you could increase yields per acre through additional inputs, but each additional input yielded progressively less. This set a limit on farm output even with improving technology. Finally, along came Malthus showing that the main impact of higher food availability on a hungry population was likely to be a population explosion, which soon made food scarce again.
No wonder, then, that economics was called the gloomy science. Not only was the supply of land fixed, the seasons and rain gods were erratic. Population expanded in years of good rains, then shrank through starvation in droughts (this, incidentally is precisely how animal population remain sustainable in forests, and in nature’s method of population control. Nature-lovers should note that nature is naturally pretty savage). Poverty might recede in good years but then returned with a vengeance.
Not till the time of Karl Marx did economists realise that the industrial revolution had finally created the possibility of raising living standards for everybody by harnessing fossil fuels as its main source of energy, abolishing the limit land had earlier imposed. The availability of fossil fuels was finite too, but would last several centuries, and the energy obtained from fossil fuels was a concentrated form that could run steam engines and internal combustion engines, transforming industry and transport.
In the words of economic historian E A Wrigley, the industrial revolution created “a world that no longer follows the rhythm of the sun and seasons; in which the fortunes of men depend largely on how they regulate the economy and not on the vagaries of weather; a world in which poverty has become ands optional state rather than a reflection of necessary limitation of human productive power.”
Prof. William Baumol estimates that living standards in the Roman era were roughly the same in Germany and France in 1870, and in Japan in 1950. That is a measure of the stagnation of living standards before the industrial revolution, and also of the phenomenal change since. Stagnation gave way to an eight-fold rise in per capita income within a century. We now take it for granted that living standards should automatically rise, and when it does not, as in Latin America and Africa in the 1980s, we talk of a lost decade. By that yardstick the whole of history till the industrial revolution was “lost”.
An ironic side-effect of the industrial revolution was the gradual abandonment of wood as a source of energy, and so the regrowth of forests in Europe and North America. Fossil fuels, now criticised as a source of pollution and environmental degradation, stated off as environmental saviours which, almost miraculously, ended what thinkers in the Middle Ages regarded as the inevitable extinction of forests.
Is the use of fossil fuels sustainable? Fears that the world is running out of oil have proved bogus. But ultimately the supply of fossil fuels is fixed. However, an alternative is at hand in the form of nuclear fusion. Given research and effort, this will provide virtually infinite energy, and may one day make fossils fuels obsolete. Fusion energy is non-polluting, has no radioactive fall-out, produces no pollutants or greenhouse effect. If indeed we must dream about a new world, I thin one based on fusion energy in infinitely more attractive than the illusory green world portrayed by romantic pastoralists.