Clive Ponting, A New Green History of the World.
Penguin Books, 2007
There are many types of ecosystem such as a tropical forest, a grassland prairie or a coral reef but the foundation of all them, and therefore the basis for life on earth, is photosynthesis - the process by which the energy of sunlight is used by plants and certain types of bacteria to create chemical compounds essential for life. Apart from the exotic life forms that get live on the sulfur produced in deep ocean volcanic vents it is the only way that energy is introduced into the system. Very little of the sun's energy is, in fact, converted into matter and there is no way in which this efficiency can be improved since it depends on the amount of light falling on the earth, the laws of physics and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. (Selective breeding of plants does not increase the efficiency of photosynthesis, it simply makes the plants put more of their effort into producing those parts that humans find useful at the cost of other parts.)
The higher the animal is in the food chain, the rarer it will be. Each step up the food chain is further removed from the primary production of the photosynthesizers, is less energy-efficient and consequently the numbers that can be supported gets smaller. This is why a very small number of carnivores can exist within an ecosystem compared with a number of primary producers. In the case of a deciduous wood in southern England, almost 90% of the primary production by the photosynthesizers (in this case trees, plants and grasses) eventually falls to the ground and decomposes on the woodland floor and another 8% is stored as deadwood which eventually decomposes. Less than 3% is available for the herbivores to eat and even less for the carnivores who have to live off the herbivores.
A medieval cow in Europe produced one-sixth of the milk and one-quarter of the meat of the modern animal.In China all but 2% of the calorific value of the diet came from vegetables, primarily rice. In Europe most people survived on a monotonous diet of vegetable and grain gruels and bread; meat and fish were rarer items except for the upper classes. As late as 1870, 70% of the French diet consisted of bread and potatoes and in 1900 only about a fifth of the calories came from animal products.
Throughout Europe the majority of people lived on a maximum of about 2,000 calories a day (about the level of modern India), slightly higher in more prosperous countries such as England and Holland, but everywhere there were gross inequalities within society that meant that most lived on far less than this. In the early 19th century, in Norway, France and Germany, the average food consumption was still lower than contemporary Latin America and North Africa. The poorer regions of Europe had a particularly meagre diet. In some areas of France in the 18th century, for example in the Auvergne and the foothills of the Pyrenees, large parts of the population were still dependent on chestnuts for two or three months a year together with slops of maize and buckwheat, with some milk from a cow fed on weeds from the side of the road. These people lived on a diet that was far worse than that of their gathering and hunting ancestors.
An existence under the constant threat of starvation and in the face of the daily reality of an inadequate diet and malnutrition has been the common lot for most of humanity since the development of agriculture. Only slowly, in a few areas of the world, did some societies (principally Western Europe and its colonies in North America and Australasia) emerge from this long struggle to survive. They were able to do so as a result of a combination of developments which made larger quantities of food available to them. Over the centuries a number of small-scale improvements slowly raised agricultural output and productivity. It is possible to trace a slow improvement in European output and efficiency in the 600 years after 1200: by 1800 yields were about 2 1/2 times higher. This was the result of a wide variety of changes. The range of fodder crops was increased, legumes were more widely used to improve fertility, better breeding of animals and more cross-breeding enhanced output, rotations became more complex and rendering more widespread as more animals could be said during the winter months. Just as important though was the introduction of new crops and animals, which widened the agricultural base, providing greater stability against failure and improved food output.
The growth of rubber production in South-East Asia dealt a fatal blow to the Brazilian trade. In 1910 there were still over 150,000 tappers collecting it from the trees growing wild in the forests but this was far less efficient than gathering rubber from the neat rows of the Malayan states. Demand for Brazilian rubber fell steadily and by 1930 output was at about a third of the level in 1900.
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The creation of a world economy dominated by Western Europe and North America in the period after 1500 should have produced, according to the doctrines of liberal, free-market economics, a world-wide division and specialisation of labour. This should have allowed each country and area to concentrate on growing or making the commodities it was best suited to produce. As a result of this specialisation every area should, according to these theories, have benefited from the most efficient allocation of resources. The problem with this theory is that it completely ignores political factors -- countries and areas were not equally powerful and they were not left free to decide what to produce. Political control enabled the colonial powers to ensure that the commodities they required were produced and allowed them to enforce a highly asymmetrical series of exchanges. In the words of Cecil Rhodes, one of the driving forces behind British expansion in Africa in the late 19th century, revealed the realities behind the theories of liberal economics:
We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labor that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories.
The way in which one part of the world -- Western Europe, North America and the white settlement colonies – became 'developed' and the way in which another part became 'underdeveloped' are not separate phenomena.
In the world economy that was created after 1500 one region was able to extract a large surplus of products and natural resources from the dependent area. The dominant economies of the industrialized core were characterized by the production of capital- intensive goods and relatively high wages and profits together with rising levels of consumption and wealth. The subordinate, peripheral economies were characterized by crop, raw material and material production that were of low capital intensity and linked to low wages and they repatriation of profits to the developed world. Although development took place in the subordinate colonial economies, it was almost entirely geared to the needs of the colonial or economically dominant power. Railways were largely confined to links between inland regions and a few key ports and their purpose was to facilitate the export of crops and raw materials. The achievement of political independence did not bring economic independence because the structure of the world economy had already been established. Only a few countries could avoid this trap -- those are retained their political independence such as Japan, those that escaped European colonialism (and had huge US support during the Cold War) such as South Korea and Taiwan, oil-rich states of the Middle East and the trade-based economies of Hong Kong and Singapore. In late 20th century China, once it had recovered from the disasters of the century between 1850 in 1950, industrialised at a rapid rate and other countries such as Brazil and India made more modest steps in that direction. For most countries in the developing world particularly those in Africa, Latin America and much of Asia, these options were not available. All they could do was to increase production of a few cash crops or minerals in an attempt to raise income and exports. The problem was that this approach tended to lower prices, lower incomes, increase dependence on a few commodities and create greater vulnerability.
The consequence of this unbalanced development was a world characterised by increasing inequality. The industrialized world was able to live beyond the constraints of its immediate resource base. Raw materials were available for industrial production and food could be imported to support a rapidly rising population. This formed the basis for a vast increase in consumption and the highest material standard of living ever achieved in the world. Much of the price of that achievement was paid by the population of the rest of the world in the form of exploitation, poverty and human suffering. The environmental problems produced by this growing inequality in the world were different for the rich and the poor. The current environmental problems in the world can only be understood in the context of the nature of the world economy produced since 1500.
Humans are more efficient energy converters than animals. The amount of food they need is far less than the pasture and fodder requirements of animals and so in societies dependent on low-productivity agriculture there was little choice but to use people as the main source of power. For thousands of years it was a vast amounts of human toil and effort, with its cost in terms of early death, injury and suffering, that was the foundation of every society. Humans provided the main energy input into farming, carrying out a multitude of tasks, such as clearing land, sowing, weeding, digging, harvesting, constructing terraces and irrigation ditches, with limited assistance from animal power and with no more than primitive tools. With 90% of the population living as peasants this was the reality of human life for all but a fraction of the last 8,000 to 10,000 years. As late as 1806 one French agricultural writer could still advocate abandoning the plow and returning to digging fuels by hand which, he argued, although slower, was cheaper (there was usually plenty of surplus labor available) and more thorough. Humans also provided much of the power for industry. The Great Cane in the marketplace at Bruges, regarded as the technological marvel of the 15th century, was powered by a human treadmill. In the 19th century prisons in Britain offered a treadmill which could be hired by local industrialists. The highest walk on the Grand Canal in China was worked by teams of several hundred men using capstans and ropes. Human power was also the main form of energy in the house until the invention of a range of labor-saving household appliances in the 20th century. One hundred years ago 2½ million people (over 80% of them women) were employed as domestic servants in Britain and they constitute the largest single occupational category. However, the new household appliances were only available for the relatively prosperous. Even in the early 21st century hard work around the home, especially gathering wood and collecting water, was the norm for hundreds of millions of women around the world.
In the Inca empire the main method of communication, in the absence of domesticated animals, was a highly efficient network involving teams of runners to convey messages along the roads built by the state (using conscripted labor).
All the main coalfields of Europe were being worked by the 13th and 14th centuries, albeit on a very small scale. The call came from opencast mining or from shallow pits no more than about 15 meters deep. Deep mining was not developed until the 18th century when the high cost of charcoal offset the extra costs involved in the development of relatively efficient pumping machinery made it possible to remove water from deep shafts and galleries. These pumps were some of the first machines to utilize steam power derived from coal.
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Low prices and seemingly inexhaustible supplies have not encourage energy efficiency and therefore huge quantities of energy have been wasted. In some instances this was simply the result of new technologies necessarily being inefficient. In the 19th and early 20th centuries most coal was burnt in open fireplaces were over 90% of the heat was wasted (mainly by escaping up the chimney). Wood stoves were more efficient -- about two-thirds of the heat was wasted. The earliest steam engines are hopelessly inefficient -- at best 95% of the energy was wasted and they could do the work of no more than 200 men. The development of high-pressure steam systems increased efficiencies roughly 30-fold so that steam-driven turbines were about 20% efficient by 1910 and further improvements double this figure by the 1950s. Nevertheless this still meant that more energy was wasted than performed useful work.
Although electricity provides a highly convenient form of energy it is a highly inefficient way of producing energy. Generating stations have to be built and operated and high-voltage transmission lines constructed, all of which consumes energy. The earliest generating stations were only about 4% efficient. This rose to about 13% in the mid-1920s and then to about 25% by the mid-1950s. However, since then there has been almost no further improvement in efficiency. This means that although a third of the world's energy is used to produce electricity, at least two-thirds of it is wasted in generation and transmission. The United States wastes as much energy in electricity generation as the total energy consumption of Japan. These inefficiencies are compounded by inefficiencies in consumption -- homes, factories and offices are poorly insulated and domestic appliances and light bulbs use more electricity than is necessary. The sharp rise in oil prices in 1973-74 and 1979-80 did lead to programs designed to save energy and most of the industrialized world but once prices began to fall in real terms these programs were quietly abandoned and the emphasis placed once again on making more energy available.
Modern industrialized agriculture is highly inefficient in energy terms. The most energy-efficient agriculture in the world is rice growing in the paddy fields of China and South-East Asia where the output of energy is about 50 times greater than the input. Other so-called primitive agricultural systems are also highly-efficient, producing about 20 times the energy they use. At best, modern cereal farming produces only about twice as much energy as it consumes in the form of fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides and machinery. Modern agriculture is also becoming less energy-efficient. In the 20 years after 1952 energy imports rose by 70% of production only increased by 30%. Maize production in the United States shows an even worse situation. Energy inputs rose 400% between 1945 and 1970 but yields only rose by 138%. Overall the energy efficiency of American maize production has fallen by over half since 1915. Modern animal rearing systems consume large amounts of energy in heating the sheds where the animals are kept and in producing the artificial feed and the antibiotics they eat. Meat production in the industrialized world now consumes between two and three times the energy it produces. The production of frozen fish is the most inefficient of all forms of food production -- it consumes about 20 times as much energy as it produces. On top of these energy costs in food production it is necessary to add the energy cost of processing and distributing food. This takes about three times as much energy as producing the food itself.
In spite of these considerable inefficiencies modern industrial economies are far more energy-efficient (in terms of the amount of energy consumed per unit of GDP) than they were a century ago. The energy intensity of the British economy peaked as early as 1950-80 and begin falling slightly later elsewhere across the industrialized world -- Canada in 1910, the United States and Germany in the 1920s, Japan in the 1970s and then the newly industrializing countries such as China and Brazil in the 1980s. United States is now about 80% more energy-efficient than it was in 1920. Overall the world is about as energy-efficient now as it was in 1900 (reflecting the use of poor technologies by newly industrializing countries) but the peak inefficiency came in 1970 and since then the world energy efficiency has increased by about 20%. There are, however, major differences between countries in their energy efficiencies the United States is still 60% less efficient than Italy and Japan and worse than India and China countries such as Ukraine, still saddled with hopelessly inefficient Soviet-age technology, are worse still -- it is three times less efficient than the United States than five times worse in Japan.
There is, however, an important lesson to be learnt from the history of energy efficiency. Although the countries of the industrialized world are now more energy-efficient than they were a century ago this has not stopped a massive increase in energy consumption. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that increasing energy efficiency tends to lower energy, particularly electricity, prices (especially in real terms) and this encourages greater use of energy. The experience of the United States in the last two decades of the 20th century illustrates this factor very well. The energy intensity of the US economy fell by 34% in this period. Combined with a population rise of 22% this should have produced a fall in energy use. However, GDP per head rose by 55% and so the total amount of energy consumed rose by 26%. Across the world it seems highly unlikely that this pattern will change in the future. Further increases in energy efficiencies through new technologies will not stop rising demand for energy and even higher energy consumption. Ultimately the impact of energy consumption environment comes from the total amount of resources used in the pollution that is produced. How 'efficiently' this is done is of little consequence.
The switch to fossil fuels and the development of high energy-use societies has heightened the world inequalities. Fossil fuel consumption has been overwhelmingly the responsibility of the major industrialized countries. In the first half of the 20th century industrialized countries of Western Europe and North America consumed over 90% of all fossil fuels used in the world. In the early 21st century the fifth of the world's population that lives in rich countries of the world still consumed over 70% of the world’s energy. The United States makes up only 5% of the world’s population it every year it uses 27% of the world's energy. The majority of the world's people who live in the developing world use only 10% of the world's energy. The poorest quarter of the world's population (just over 1½ billion people) use only 2.5% of the world’s energy. The average American now uses four times as much energy as their predecessors did a century ago, twice as much as the average European, 30 times more than average Indian and almost 100 times more than the average Bangladeshi. Indeed the US military now consumes as much energy every year as the total energy use of two-thirds of the countries in the world and it is more than the total energy use of the rich countries such as Switzerland.
The energy problems of the majority of the world's population are close to the conditions experienced in the whole world before the 19th century. Energy is still in short supply and both human and animal power are still crucial. Half of the world's population (about 3 billion people) still depend on wood, charcoal and animal or crop residues for their fuel supplies. The rapidly rising population in the 20th century placed a severe strain on these limited resources. At least 100 million people are unable to obtain enough fuel for even their minimum cooking and heating needs and nearly 2 billion people are depleting their stocks of wood faster than the replanting rate. Shortages of would bring about a vicious cycle in which dried animal dung is used for heating and cooking rather than as manure, thus reducing soil fertility, crop yields and the ability to maintain animal numbers. This then exacerbates many of the other problems of people living on the edge of poverty and with a poor diet.
The last 10,000 years of human history have witnessed an enormous change in the pattern of energy consumption, from the minimal demands of gathering and hunting groups to modern American levels. However, nearly all of that change has taken place in the last two centuries and by far the biggest increase in energy use is common in the last hundred years. Despite the increasing level of technological sophistication in obtaining and distributing energy over that period there has been a remarkable consistency of attitude toward energy. Human societies have really taken account of anything except short-term considerations and have treated all sources of energy as though they were inexhaustible. That cannot be the case with fossil fuels. Estimates of the point at which the reserves will be exhausted are difficult to make because of the problem of estimating the size of undiscovered reserves and future consumption rates. However, most estimates agree that there is enough coal to last for several hundred years (even at increasing consumption rates) while reserves of oil and natural gas are likely to be exhausted during this century, perhaps within a few decades. Long before reserves are exhausted severe problems will be encountered as supplies become difficult to obtain from remote fields and prices rise as demand comes up against supply constraints. However, before the world has to cope with a shortage of fossil fuels is likely to have to face far more severe environmental problems caused by their consumption over the last 200 years.
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Building roads may be popular with motorists, the car industry and the construction lobby but the social and environmental costs involved are enormous, especially when compared to railways. The energy input in terms of steel and cement for road-building is 3½ times greater than that for an equivalent amount of railway construction and four times as much land is used. Overall railways are six times more efficient energy terms than roads. Despite this in every industrialized country the capacity of the rail system has been severely reduced since the 1950s. In the United States railways account for 1% of all intercity traffic, cars for 85%. In Britain the movement of freight by road has risen by nearly 90% since 1970 while that on the railway system has fallen by a quarter.
These problems are increased by the way in which cars are used in their energy efficiency. For the majority of journeys the driver is the only person in the car and the number of miles traveled per car per year has risen steadily -- in Britain it has quadrupled in the last 40 years. This trend is exacerbated by the energy inefficiency and high fuel consumption of most car engines. The average fuel consumption of American cars fell from 16 miles to the gallon in the 1930s to 13 miles to the gallon in 1973. The oil price rises of 1973-74 and 1979-80 improved this performance somewhat but the fuel economy standards for new cars has remained unchanged at 27½ miles to the gallon since 1985. The highly popular SUVs (4x4) are exempt from these standards because, following extensive lobbying from the car industry, they're classified as light trucks. They now have half the US new car market and only achieve an average of 17.7 miles to the gallon. This means that the average American cars still travels only 22.3 miles to the gallon, far below European and Japanese standards. The amount of fuel used by each car every year in the United States is now four times the level of the 1930s. By the end of the 20th century transportation in the United States was responsible for 7% of the worlds energy use and was 25% higher than total Japanese energy consumption. The same pattern of marginal improvements in fuel efficiency being offset by a much greater car use are found elsewhere in the world. In Britain since 1960 fuel consumption per mile has fallen by 7% but this has been more than offset by the rise in the number of cars and the greater distance each are travelled every year -- the amount of motor fuel consumed in Britain is therefore tripled since 1960.
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The fundamental problem in dealing with global warming is that there is no foreseeable technology that would, in the next few decades, stop the release of carbon dioxide every time fossil fuels are burned. 'Carbon capture' might be possible in a few decades' time on large power stations but the internal combustion engine is not likely to be susceptible to this treatment in the foreseeable future. There are, of course, many technical improvements that could be made. If vehicles in the US were as fuel-efficient as those in Japan and Western Europe than large amounts of carbon dioxide output would be saved. Houses, and the electrical goods in them, could all be more energy-efficient. Greater use could be made of public transport. However, past experience suggests that extreme caution should be applied to any idea that technical improvements and increased energy efficiency will solve the problem of global warming. During the 20th century all industrialized countries became far more energy-efficient but this did not stop a huge rise in energy consumption. Indeed there is plenty of evidence that increasing energy efficiency, combined with greater wealth in society, simply increases demand for energy by far more than any efficiency savings.
To stabilize concentrations [of CO2] at around 400 ppm would require emissions to drop below 1990 levels within the next few years and decrease steadily thereafter to only a small fraction of the current output.
What are the prospects for achieving this goal? Energy efficiency can be increased in every area from generation to distribution to domestic and industrial use. Cars could be far more fuel-efficient, particularly in the United States. However, past experience suggests that increasing efficiency does not reduce overall consumption; in fact it tends to increase it.