Saturday, October 13, 2012

Past patterns: the barren periphery

Cities tend to grow up where there is an abundant food supply, and also the means to bring in additional food supplies. In China, this meant the broad flood plains of navigable rivers.

Daniel Little, Understanding Society, 10 September 2012
Soil fertility and agricultural productivity are related factors. High fertility supports dense population -- hence "core" defined in terms of population density. And fertility is related to rivers. Flood plains have natural advantages when it comes to agriculture. But fertility is related to social factors as well. High population density yields fertilizer in the form of night soil. It also creates demand, as Skinner observed, for fuel, which led to a transfer of nutrients from periphery to core. And agriculture is responsive to investment in infrastructure -- roads, irrigation, water management systems. But these investments are easier to gain in high density populations. This all implies a couple of important feedback loops: density =>; rising agricultural productivity => rising density.

What about the periphery regions? They lack water transport; there is less economic demand for roads; agricultural productivity is low; and peripheries are generally difficult for states to penetrate with civil and military force. So bandits, rebels, and anarchists can loiter there in reasonable comfort.

Braudel, not making exactly the same point, noted the dichotomy between the low land farming areas and the upland pastoral lifestyle. Lifestyles that were both symbiotic, but also often in conflict. 

Since people like to ponder what a future collapsed world will look like, I think it is a good idea to start with how it all used to be before canals, steam, and rails really started to change things.  People seem to spend a lot of time worrying about what is going to happen in the first week of a collapse, the great exodus from the cities and all that, but don't seem to pay much attention to the natural lie of the landscape in their area and how it relates to other adjoining geographic regions.  In the United States this takes particular consideration because almost none of the initial farming was really geared toward subsistance, even the New England colonies, very early on, made their money by trading food to the tobacco raising Southern colonies which were exporting to Europe.  So from the very start development was tied into the a global economy, not some sort of pristine live-off-the land idealism.  People still had to pay taxes, and thus trade was still an issue.  In a collapse that knocked out world trade, redevelopment would not necessarily mimic the early colonial period development patterns.

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