It should be clear from the foregoing that a number of factors operate at present to induce many sets of people among industrial populations to claim surplus energy for themselves as against farm populations. This is true for the population generally. But it may not be true for those who wish to invest the product of surplus energy in a distant market, where their monetary costs are often lower than in industrial areas and their profits greater. Whether or not as the Marxian interpretation of history would have it, this differential was the factor that motivated English capitalists to invest abroad, England did export a large portion of the goods which her industrial system was able to put out.
The great majority of those in England who were in a position to direct the flow of energy believed in the virtues of trade guided by the profit motive. While it is true that the trader was forced to make some concession to British landlords and industrial workers, and to the government, and otherwise to disperse part of his surplus in England, he was by modern standards quite free to disperse most of it abroad if he wished to do so. With a fundamental belief that “in the long run” he would get back all that he put in, and more, he traded goods for promises, many of which it turned out were never kept. Sometimes, the energy that went into the goods returned to England as compensation for that expended to produce what was sent from England, was negligible in comparison with the energy costs of British exports.
Today in England and elsewhere the trader occupies a less strategic position than he formerly did. Many people in high-energy societies assert claims on what is produced, regardless of whether or not they are directly responsible as such for the increased productivity of their society. If the market apparatus leaves them “underprivileged”, they are likely to turn to other institutions which do recognize their claims. Doctors, lawyers, and many other professionals who set their own fees in a monopolized segment of the market gauge the worth of their services in terms of the income of the client or “what the traffic will bear.” An increase secured by workers or businessmen thus results in an increased claim by professionals. Similarly, government and business bureaucrats, police and firemen, teachers, postmen, and some distributors may, while continuing to perform exactly the same physical operations that they formerly engaged in, organize to secure an income that will preserve their status position vis-à-vis the industrial worker or owner. The same is true of workers in private “nonprofit” organizations. Industrial states are more and more using services rather than goods, so their claims of servitors on the material goods produced with the aid of surplus energy mount higher and higher. Nor is the farmer content to live the way his forbears did.
As a consequence, industrial owners and traders today have no such freedom as that which was enjoyed by merchants and industrialists in nineteenth- century Britain. Today national governments use taxes to claim a very large part of the surplus, either for military undertakings and public works civil services or for welfare purposes. After taxes, before the owner of converters gets his hands on the surplus produced with them, he has to contend with organized labor and management and with those who distribute the product. Moreover, he is limited by nationalistic efforts of people in other regions seeking to preserve for themselves their own markets, their natural resources, or their way of living. Only within these limits is he free to choose whether to invest either in agriculture or in other enterprises. Because, as we have seen, for reasons inherent in the nature of agriculture, gains in physical productivity from the use of machines are likely to be higher in other industry, investment in agriculture is not likely to prove attractive.
We must realize that most of the time, and for most products, the choice, to trade or not to trade, to invest or not to invest, is largely a unilateral one. That is to say, that those in areas with considerable use of high energy technology have a choice. They can produce for their own use, taking direct advantage of cheap energy, or they can use that energy to produce goods for exchange, taking in return goods and/or services that lower energy economics can produce. The choice will be made on the basis of the values of decision makers in the industrialized society. They will not be deterred from using this power by the fact that their decisions may have extremely adverse consequences in “underdeveloped” areas. These are likely to be people of whose existence they may not even be aware, and in any case, they have never seen nor heard, nor in whom they have any interest. Thus, where a substitute for the product of low- energy society can also be produced in a high-energy society, the latter will, if the local price is lower, probably choose to produce it even at the cost of using more energy that that used abroad to produce it.
In addition to the economic factors, many others operate in favor of this choice. One of the most significant is the opportunity it affords to employ those displaced in industrial society by technological change and, particularly, to remove from the land the population no longer needed in the farm areas of the industrialized society. This effort toward full employment is an important aspect of continuing technological change in high-energy areas.
Another important factor is the mounting cost of securing and maintaining in low-energy society conditions favorable to the growth of trade. We have shown why low-energy societies are likely to resist change. Local resistance is being organized into nationalist movements and equipped with fairly cheap but lethal weapons wielded by superabundant manpower. Their resistance makes foreign trade expensive in many of the old colonial regions today as compared with what it was in the days when an expeditionary force landed from a cruiser could be depended upon to keep large areas in check.
The cost of holding together the empires first developed under sail is making trade unprofitable now. Such costs might in large part be eliminated by reducing dependence of industrialized states upon low-energy areas. This can be accomplished by subsidization of chemical and metallurgical research, the development of new plants, and the increased use of synthetic fertilizers and other means to increase agricultural production in the industrial states themselves.
Industrial populations find it increasingly easier and less costly to devote energy to research which will make it possible for them to produce what they need within the area they politically control than to depend upon the natural products of areas outside that control. Nowadays the universities of the United States, and England, Sweden, Germany, Japan, the USSR and other high-energy societies, specialize in developing scientists who can deliver the kinds of knowledge that make this substitution possible. They no longer, as England and the other empires did formerly, train men primarily in the knowledge needed by the diplomat or the colonial administrator. Research goes into electronics, plastics, synthetic dyes, rubber, and fiber. Investigation is made into alloys or processes of concentration or beneficiation or ores. Cheap materials-handling and earth-moving equipment make it possible to use low-grade ores economically as well as to invest energy within the boundaries of a political and economic system. Such usages are replacing that system of exploration and conquest or political domination over foreign lands to maintain trade which was once thought to be necessary for prosperity.
Restraints on the diffusion of industrial agriculture
The empires built by Europeans during the nineteenth century have almost entirely disappeared. The reaction of the people in “under-developed” areas has made it impossible to maintain them. The increasing energy made available through foreign investment has been used to implement the growth and power or nationalist movements. These movements are themselves in part a product of the social disruption produced by introducing high-energy technology. Where nationalism (sometimes more accurately tribalism) develops, it is often accompanied by efforts to attain economic autarchy. Many times, this minimizes the possibility of getting a “fair return” or any return at all from foreign investment, and the flow of such funds stops. Dependency on the resulting “stop and go” flow of supplies is intolerable. This leads industrial states to stockpile specific goods through what amounts to barter rather than to encourage free trade and foreign investment. Certainly Japan’s experience in China, Manchuria, and Korea - as well as British experience there and in Egypt, India and Iran - demonstrates the fact that the reaction which follows when trade and investment mature, may be much more costly than was calculated when that trade was originally contemplated. Such costs, while no part of those calculated by the trader or investor are real, must be borne by the system in which he functions. Other groups in the system who have to share these costs may choose to continue to pay them. But they also may instead turn to any other available alternative.
Those who foresee a rapid expansion of industrial converters all over the world overlook many instructive examples. An outstanding one is the experience of the British in Ireland. In spite of tremendous effort, backed by overwhelming might, the British were finally forced to abandon the idea that the cultivation of large estates in Ireland could be made to yield large agricultural surpluses for Britain. In the United States even a Civil War costing four hundred thousand lives, forty billions of dollars, and untold misery failed immediately to create a new energy base for the South. Until quite recently, alongside the greatest concentration of industrial converters in the world, Southerners preserved a culture basically little different in energy terms from that of Egypt under the Pharaohs.
The refusal of the French peasant, given a unified piece of land after the First World War, to keep it intact so that the machinery could effectively be used is another case in point. After World War II, with the infusion of new machines and technology furnished under the Marshall France was able to increase the size of its farms and greatly expand the use of tractors. But only about 14 percent of its agricultural land is now in farms of 250 acres or more. Most European farms outside the Iron Curtain remain small. Whatever may be the advantage of industrialization in terms of the Western economists, most of the people in farming areas cling to the low-energy culture with which they grew up. Western theory has too long neglected the implications of the negative reactions to trade-induced change.
We have given too little consideration to the way in which trade disrupted Eastern culture. As I pointed out earlier, in China, for example, the introduction of cotton and silk from industrial countries had the effect of reducing productivity among those peasants who had hitherto used sheep to convert the grass of the cemetery and silkworms to convert the mulberry leaves that grew along the canals into fiber. This frequently not only clothed them but also created the means with which to pay taxes and to buy necessary articles from the towns. Cheap cotton, wool, and synthetic fiber from the West destroyed their market. With this source of income gone, many peasants lost their ability to hold on to their land. As a consequence, much of the “liberty” which was bestowed upon the merchant by Western intervention had the effect of producing penury for the peasant.
It must constantly be kept in mind that mechanized agriculture reduces the number of people that can locally live off the land, so that if it is to be adopted, something must constantly intervene in the food-raising area to induce reduction in the local population. Whether that reduction comes about through starvation and disease, migration, infanticide, or birth control is only in part a matter of local choice. It is sometimes wholly determined by outsiders with power to implement their demands. In effect, industrial areas can ordain starvation in rural areas by preventing migration from those areas and at the same time removing surplus food from the land.
Sometimes in the past they have invoked values which led to increased population. By public health efforts they reduced the death rate. At the same time, they promoted values they decry infanticide, contraception, and abortion. The consequences have often been an increase in population in the very areas where to get increased production of exportable food, there must be a decrease in people. It is not surprising that in these circumstances there is confusion, cynicism and social disorganization.
This disorganization has been greatly intensified by the social and economic instability of industrial countries. Recurrent wars have had the effect of producing repeatedly a situation in which mechanized agriculture is likely to be widely extended. Then, when war has ceased, areas which in wartime imported expensive food are confronted with a choice between continuing to import food, and of purchasing other products of high-energy technology. When food and human effort begin to compete for employment against other fuels and their converters, the real costs of mechanized agriculture begin to show up.
As soon as surplus food is available, its worth must be measured, by at least some of its potential users, in terms of the energy which its converter, man, will yield in competition with other converters. Food will no longer command a price which reflects its unique function. The relative inefficiency of agriculture in producing surplus energy forces the price of food down to a level which provides the industrialized food raiser with little more above costs that his own subsistence, or bankrupts him, and even then much food becomes a glut on the market. And in the meantime food raisers lose their ability to claim the products which other industries are set up to deliver to them.
Problems of agriculture in the high-energy society
As I shall point out later, the widespread use of high-energy technology has had the effect of enormously increasing the range of adjustments, which are made through the use of the price mechanism. This has been particularly disastrous to agriculture. It is not possible quickly to increase or decrease the factors affecting either the supply of or the demand for food, yet the price of food in those industrial societies with a free market fluctuates more widely than that of any other product. In agriculture taken as a whole, as distinguished from a set of diversified farmers in a favored area, changes in supply cannot quickly be made and consequently price fluctuates with demand. Demand in turn varies with conditions beyond the power of farmers to manipulate them. This is complicated by the fact that a shift in demand from beef or poultry, for example, to cereals, has the same effect as increasing the supply of cereals in relation to the demand for them.
It is workers in industrial society who consume most of the meat and dairy products. Industrial unemployment thus translates itself into immediate effects in terms of both reduced demand for and increased supply of cereals. Furthermore, since some industrial workers are members of farm families and some return to the farm when unemployed, industrial unemployment also increases the supply of farm labor at a time when it is employable only be increasing the supply of food or by decreasing the use of farm machinery. This also accentuates the instability of the demand for industrial products. It is little wonder that, all over the world, agricultural populations have rebelled against the operations of the pricing system.
Schultz points out that the excess supply of resources in agriculture is primarily labor and on the other hand, that the movement of labor resources into and out of agriculture has not been consistent with changes in prices. The cause for this paradox is that another economic force has superseded the effects of changes in relative prices. The availability of nonavailability of jobs (in industry) has been the dominating force.
The minimum size of the farm which can effectively use large amounts of power is constantly increasing. Moreover, to maintain fertility a good deal of land has had to be operated in rotation. This is no particular handicap where the tools are simple and the prime mover cheap, but when special machines are used, such as the hay baler, corn picker, and combine, it means that three complete sets of machines have to be used and that the land area in use each year for any one set must be great enough to justify its use. One study showed that to use a disk harrow at a rate that would return the cost of the machine in terms of the price of crops, required at least 200 acres. Tractor mowers required 100 acres. Hay balers required land yielding 150 tons, the combine with the corn picker header 175. Thus to use the baler and the mover for the hay, the combine for the wheat and corn on a three-year rotation program requires for efficient operation 300 acres of land, even with a favorable ratio between food and agricultural machinery prices. On farms smaller than this the farmer is paying the implement maker part of the productivity derived from the land and from his labor.
In some cases, the farmer has used cheap fertilizer to avoid the necessity for rotation. This makes him still more dependent on the market. As a result of these kinds of factors, farms in the United States are getting larger. In 1974, the average farm was 385 acres; 786,000 of them were more than 260 acres in extent and 367,000 had more than 500 acres.
The combined effects of shifting prices, fluctuating industrial employment, increased size of land unit, and increased capital investment are numerous, and they have revolutionized traditional farm life and farm communities. Fuel consumption and farm power and machinery have multiplied, and the proportion of income going for purchased inputs and depreciation has continually increased.
Traditionally, farm income was largely disposable at the will of the owner. Today, the farmer acts as collector for a good many men located in other sectors of the economy, over whom he exercises only the control that any other buyer in that market exercises, and on the same terms. The extreme variations in farm income as contrasted both with the stabilization of these prices of industrial products by institutional devices and with the more stable situation of industrial producers, throws a great share of the risk upon the farmer. He must pay the suppliers of the goods and services he uses what they are able to get from other buyers, without reference to what he can get for his own product. The result has been an increasing demand for some form of insurance against these risks.
The operations of the free market- which bring the farmer great gains during periods of food scarcity become an impossible burden when the number of those with access to food is limited while the productivity of industrial workers increases. The reaction, in many parts of the West is a demand for protection against industrialized agriculture in other countries and “exploitation” by urbanites at home. Traditionally “liberal” policies are favorable only to the large farmer with adequate land located where he can rapidly shift production practices to meet changing demand. To do this he must be able to hire cheap migratory labor, for which he is responsible only a small part of the year, and be in many other respects quite untypical of food raisers in general.
There are also other necessary consequences of industrialized agriculture which contravene past policy and make old institutions less efficient. The increase in the minimum size of the farm means a reduction in the number of farm owners and a great increase in the value of the holdings. It is no longer a simple matter for a man to acquire the acreage necessary for efficient production, and it is almost impossible for him to save enough to supply other farms for his children. A farmer who is already possessed of large amounts of land can better afford to pay more for additional land which will make use of his now only partly employed equipment than one whose holdings are so small as to make the use of such equipment prohibitive. The aggregation of large farms in turn permits increased use of still more specialized equipment, earning from which can be used to enlarge the production unit still further.
Capital goes to those farms large enough to use it effectively. The result is a situation in which the farms that are family-sized in the technical sense that they can be farmed by an average family are tremendously larger than the farms that are family-sized in the sense that families are likely to be able to accumulate enough to purchase them, or to operate them once they are purchased, in the face of competition with large farmers. Moreover, in many countries the traditional system of inheritance requires division of the land among the children at the death of their parents. Thus, the aggregation of land into larger units can be maintained after the death of the owner only by the sale of the whole farm and the division of the proceeds of the sale among the children, or through some kind of arrangement that separates the function of ownership from that of management.
Demographic and ecological repercussions
The increase in the size of the farm has meant a great decrease in the density of the farm population in farming areas. In the United States, the development of the railroad, which could cheaply carry the product of large farms to distant urban centers, together with the practices already discussed, led to residence of the farm. This is a pattern of agriculture living quite unlike that in older countries such as China. There, in the food-raising regions, villages are about as far apart as farm dwellings are in Iowa or Kansas. In the United States, residence on the farm made it very difficult to obtain locally those goods and services which the villages provided in Europe and in Asia. To fill the need the mail-order house and the central market place, which with the aid of the cheap automobile, could provide specialized services for a very extensive area, grew up. The decrease in local demand for these services reduced the demand for other services below the point necessary to support them. For example, the use of the mail-order house to supply implements, wagons, buggies, harnesses and saddles, reduced local demand for those implements and also for church services, schools, lodges, fire protection, theatres, doctors, hospitals and stores by the amount of demand that the machinery builders and local agents of the manufacturers supplemented by the mail-order house would have created. The same holds, of course, for many other items, such as heating and plumbing, hardware and building supplies, etc.
Thus the reduction in local population had the effect of reducing effective demand for local services by far more than the difference in the number of persons required to till the farms. The outcome was a great reduction in the vitality of the village community in the farm areas and a transfer of functions to larger and more distant centers.
It does not appear that all rural areas will go to the extreme that no one lives on a farm, but this situation is now approximated in some areas that were formerly occupied by subsistence farmers. For example, in certain counties of Wisconsin, once increasingly populated by subsistence farmers living on scattered patches of fertile land, the costs of maintaining the schools, roads, utilities, welfare, and sanitary services demanded for all their people by the voters of the state, mounted very high. To meet this situation, the electorate in 1929 voted the complete removal of farmers from these areas and prohibited further farming there.
In some areas of the semiarid West, where farming could be made profitable only be the wholesale use of high-energy converters, the numbers of the needed continuous residents fell very low, and the overhead cost of maintaining families thus became very great. It was not profitable to farm if families were provided with adequate services either directly by the owner or by his paying sufficient wages or higher taxes. For example, where in order to profit it is necessary to operate 5,000 acres of land in a unit, on which machines might be used (for putting in the crop and taking it off) only 20 or 30 days a year, the maintenance of families during the whole year to supply the necessary labor becomes very uneconomical. If families continue to live on such large units, the bringing together of enough students in one school, or patients in one hospital, supplied with the equipment and trained professionals to provide the service expected, causes the cost per unit of service to mount so high as to be prohibitive except where very high returns could be made from the land.
The result of economic choice has been the annual temporary import of machines and men to put in the crop, and their temporary return to harvest it. In the years in which the crop is so small as to make harvesting prohibitively expensive, enough livestock to consume the scanty crop is put on the land to eat whatever has grown, or it lies fallow. Between times only a caretaker who will keep up the fences and prevent abuse of the land is needed. Frequently here, as in sheep-raising areas in Nevada, this task is assigned to bachelors or childless couples willing to live in almost complete isolation for fairly long periods. Similar land use is seen in Australia and New Zealand, where the use of refrigeration of ships as well as rail has brought about a situation in which the raising of livestock for a distant market brings greater return than subsistence farming. Here, too, the village community has lost many of its functions and a very large part of the population is urban.
We do not anticipate that the great bulk of farms will reach a parallel situation, for, as we have indicated, the mounting costs of mechanized farming are likely at some point to stop the further development of the process except in specialized circumstances such as those noted above. But it is quite probable that the ultimate limits to which it will go have not been reached.
The reduction of the number of those engaged in farming changes greatly the character of the political relations between farmers and other producers. The hold on the landowner in Britain was, as we have seen, finally broken with the repeal of the Corn Laws. The power of the farm bloc in the American Senate may disappear, if it has not already done so, as suddenly as did the power of the old Tories in the British Parliament. The farm population will under such circumstances be at the mercy of the urban voters.
One of the tremendous changes that have taken place since World War II has been the “population explosion.” This created a new demand for food far in excess of what had been expected.
Together with the movement of people from rural to urban areas it grossly affected the nature of world food distribution. States like Argentina and Uruguay, that were for years large exporters of food, found that their urban populations were demanding so much food that they had little left to export. The demand of industrial workers for meat was backed by politicians concerned with their votes rather than the wishes of the landowner who wanted to ship food abroad for a higher money return. Reduced overseas sales of food in turn forced those who wished to sell to Latin America to invest in industry there and this further increased the local demand for food.
Today, very few countries can be depended upon to export much food. France is still in that position, as is Denmark, but the total demand of their neighbors for food is far beyond their capacity to fill. Only four countries have the technology and the land to produce a great deal of food for export. They are New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Any viable theory of industrialization must take into account those facts. Each of these countries has an agricultural policy that is subordinated to the national policy. A brief look at them will give some idea as to how these policies fit those of any area seeking to increase its supply of food by importing it from them.
New Zealand’s geography controls very narrowly the agricultural policies it can safely adopt. Grassland represents 75 percent of the occupied farmland while only 2.6 percent is cultivated. There is only about ½ acre of cultivated land per capita. In general, the New Zealand farming system is geared almost entirely to grass-fed live stock products for export. So long as they can continue to use their system in this way, New Zealanders have a competitive advantage over most exporters of meat, dairy products and wool. But the development of artificial fiber and the substitution of vegetable fats for that of animals have limited the price rise for meat, dairy products and wool that would otherwise have occurred. The growth of New Zealand’s population threatens to force an increase in the use of land for the production of food for local consumption.
There is a considerable growth of light industry dependent in part upon hydroelectricity and some coal, but also increasingly dependent upon imported petroleum. The industrial worker in New Zealand, as elsewhere, consumes energy-costly meat and this reduces the amount that can be sent abroad at prices that are acceptable there. Japan has been increasingly the nation willing to pay the necessary price for New Zealand’s exported food. The most threatening factor, however, is the growth of New Zealand’s rural population. There is little hope that New Zealand could become a major supplier of food to nations seeking to industrialize who must compete for food with affluent industrial areas.
Australia is in a somewhat similar situation. While farm holdings include more than 1,250 million acres only about 38 million were in 1973 used for crops. The decline of the British Commonwealth as a viable economic unit was signalized by England’s entry into EEC. Without the special connections that could previously be depended upon, Australian farmers are increasingly turning to their nearest industrial neighbor, Japan, as a market. But the number of persons living permanently on farm holdings now includes only about 7 percent of the total population with correspondingly few notes. The result is that Australia’s policies increasingly reflect the domestic demand for cheap food. The government that came to power in late 1972 stated its intention to discontinue agricultural subsidy that had been used to stimulate surplus food production. They sought to adjust food supply to effective demand. This means that there will not be a large supply of cheap food for export produced at the expense of other sectors of the Australian economy. Nor is there any great deal of cheap land on which more grain could be produced even if the world price rose. Some areas now covered with non-marketable timber are being put to the plow. But with the cost of deforestation it remains marginal land, subject to the vagaries of both world price for food, and drought.
Australia has begun actively to seek immigrants, most of whom are going into food-consuming rather than food producing activity. So in the long run it can not be depended upon for any great flow of food exports. In 1973 her export of cereals was 7,310,000 tons. Of that 2,895,000 was wheat. Compare that figure with the millions of tons that the USSR alone has recently had to import to keep from regressing. The likelihood that Australia could supply any great number of poor nations with food becomes more and more apparent.
Canada’s export of wheat in 1971 was 11.3 million tons, something less than Russia’s purchases abroad in 1973. Cereals make up about 60 percent on Canada’s agricultural exports. Most of the wheat is grown in the western plains where it is subject to great variations in weather conditions, so that the policy is to fallow the land and keep sufficient grain in storage to cover the bad years. Because of the instability of farm income from wheat there has been a fairly strong movement toward the planting of feed grains and oil seeds. Canada is now the leading exporter of rape seed. Canadian demand for meat has grown rapidly so the export of fresh meat has had to be offset by canned and frozen lower grade grass fed meat from areas like Argentina. The land available for further agricultural expansion is very limited. Expansion of output has largely come from the use of fertilizers, insecticides and more effective farm practices. Farm labor has declined as increased use of capital involved increases in the use of energy. As energy increases in costs, small farmers will find it increasingly difficult to compete, and already small farms are being phased out. Canada offers little increased food for those who cannot compete for it against already industrialized areas. This leaves only the United States as a potential supplier of increasing food for export. Each year between 1971 and 1975 it exported over a billion bushels of grain, mostly wheat and corn, with soya beans a rapidly growing competitor.
Surpluses once held have been drained down. In 1975, all government programs of holding land out of food production were dropped, but American domestic prices rose as food was being exported in increasing quantities. In consequence there has been mounting public outcry against further increases in the export of food. People living on farms in 1973 represented only 4.8 percent of the population and farm workers were only 5.5 percent of the labor force. Their political power has fallen below that of many minorities who clamor for food at lower prices.
As I have shown, some of the practices which permitted the very high production levels reached in the United States involve heavy use of energy for tractors, fertilizers, insecticides, and transportation. The bulk of this energy comes from petroleum which will be in increasingly short supply and prices for it are high now and will inevitably rise. With increased costs, more farmers may return to crop rotation, fallowing, and other uses which reduce productivity per acre, but are more profitable. One recent study demonstrated that in 1974 farmers who invested heavily in fertilizer did not get enough additional income to pay the difference between their costs and those of other farmers using less fertilizer. Since so much of the increased cost of fertilizer comes from the price of nitrogen, and since legumes may furnish nitrogen at less cost, the movement back toward use of rotation has probably already set in. Except where soya beans are used, this usually results in an increase of feed and a decline of food crops.
Another factor to be taken into account is the fact that a great deal of what is exported is used outside the United States for feed rather than directly as food. For example, 70 percent of the soya beans imported by Japan from the United States go not for food but to feed and fatten livestock for slaughter. The outlook for low energy societies to receive increased food from abroad is very dim.
Some still see industrialized agriculture as a solution to the problem of hunger and of transition to other forms of industrialization. They have thought to support that transition by exporting agricultural technology from the United States and other agricultural areas with high productivity into “undeveloped” areas.
From what we have just been pointing out, this solution also seems improbable. Movements like the “Green Revolution” have had other effects in addition to those anticipated. Increased production has come only with new inputs in the form of fertilizer, tractor and pumping fuel, transportation and insecticides. But the increased production of food cannot be used to produce income adequate to pay those costs, except by increasing food prices. That, of course, destroys the objective of feeding the hungry poor. Even if we disregard this transition barrier and assume that a country, say India, could overcome it, that would provide no solution. To feel the population of India on a diet providing 3,000 calories a day per capita using energy at the rate now required by American agricultural practices would take more energy that the total now produced in India for all purposes. Many other countries are in a similar fix.
Chancellor and Singh (‘73) have studied planned agricultural development in the Meerut district in Northern India. They recorded energy inputs and outputs in seven villages. Their findings while thus narrowly based give some idea of what has happened and is happening where inputs of other energy plus high yield seeds are made in order to produce increased food. Their summarized first results showed that as the level of mechanization advanced total annual production per unit increased, total labor utilization didn’t change much, energy units per unit of crop output increased, labor inputs per unit of crop output decreased, and production costs per unit of crop output decreased. This would indicate that mechanization was a success. In making the study, they classified farms into six levels of mechanization. To move each category of farm up to the level of the one currently above it meant greatly increased consumption of energy in the form of electricity, fertilizer, and tractor fuel. A further report, made in 1975 showed that the increased demand for fertilizer, electricity and fuel pushed costs to the point that many farmers cased to produce wheat with its high protein content and switched to sugar cane, which, while high in calories, was deficient in supplying the other nutrient demands of the human body.
The demand for electricity outran the capacity to produce and deliver it, so the greatest gains (which came from electronically pumped tube well irrigation) were greatly reduced though lack of sufficient water. The gains thought to result from high yield wheat were thus cut off completely. This is a study of a very small area but it may be characteristic.
Results obtained elsewhere by the use of high yield (Green Revolution) seeds support the idea that in the longer run the farmer is little if any better off by using them. One estimate is that in the Punjab such use will displace 20 percent of the present farm labor force by 1984. A study by Jones indicated that in Mexico where the Green Revolution has gone full cycle, the farmer is just about back where he was when it started. There is more and cheaper food for the urban consumer, but the peasant has paid and will continue to pay its cost in the disorganization of traditional social systems. Moreover, the peasant population continues to increase while his productivity in terms of what it will be exchanged for remains static or falls. So he increasingly emigrates to the city.
Social and political affects on industrializing agriculture
A great deal of the effort to change traditional low-energy societies has been accompanied by the appearance of hundreds of new nation states. What appears to have happened is that the old Empires were not an adequate form to deal with the economic and social changes produced by the energy revolution that they introduced. With the decline in comparative economic advantage which has accompanied the diffusion of technology, particularly military technology, small units have gained the ability to weaken and destroy the empires that were built on the theory that trade is the source of, not only of economic gain, but also of increased political power.
There seems, under these circumstances to be limits on the size of the effective social unit. Beyond a certain point organization cannot be made comprehensible enough that succeeding generations can learn to operate it effectively. It begins to appear that such large units as China, the USSR, the British Commonwealth and perhaps the United States have reached the point where technological gains made possible by increased size are more than offset by the increasing costs of creating and maintaining the necessary social, political, and legal controls. Assuming that these organizations are presently big enough to maintain their military defense, enlargement would weaken rather than strengthen them. It seems apparent that the greatest per capita energy surplus can be secured through limiting the number of food raisers and population to a minimum set by mechanized agriculture and maximizing production which can be carried on with the aid of energy from sources other than food. For those regions where the population-to-land ratio is already so high as to require the continued production of food even if it means “regression” toward hoe culture, there seems little prospect of relief. The possessors of abundant converters of coal, oil, falling water, gas, and uranium would only export if the great mass of the already industrialized people of the world accept some universal self-denying moral and religious code and subsidize the export of food.
During the last half century such a base has been eroding rather than increasing. The Christian Church, which once claimed to be the ultimate belief to which all the worlds peoples would adhere, has been forced to contract its operations in very large areas where it once claimed to be flourishing. Secularism, promoted by the gains that science has produced, weakens the hold of all supernaturalism. Nor is the claim of some humanistic universal moral system making progress that would indicate its eventual dominance. Instead such divisive codes as will promote nationalism and other parochial systems, are merging. The idea of democracy, which encourages widespread pluralism, is in clear conflict with the standardization required by high-energy technology.
Can population growth be stopped?
The social controls required to bring population under control, and reduce it to a level at which it can be fed are missing in most of the underdeveloped world.
The apparent ability of capitalism or communism to provide increases in food to match population growth is a delusion still being promoted. If what I have been saying is true neither ideology is going to be able to do what it promises.
There was a time when demographers claimed that there were biological factors that would work automatically to reduce the birth rate as populations became denser.
Few hold that position today. One of the primary effects of high-energy technology has been to increase longevity and thus increase population. This has, of course, been accentuated by the application of science and by the existence of values which favor the use of science and technology to reduce the death rate. So the combined effect is to increase the rate of population growth at a rate far in excess of the rate of increase in the creation of high-energy converters. In any case, the relation between fertility and increased energy consumption needs further examination.
Much of the evidence gathered from the experience of Northern Europe, North America, and the British Commonwealth shows that the decline in the Western birth rate was related to the way in which the products of increased energy were distributed. That is to say, the decline was sharpest among the households receiving the largest share of the increased output, and least sharp among households receiving the least share. Thus a lowered birth rate would appear to be the specific result of the impact of specific facts upon potential parents rather than a general characteristic of the high-energy society. The most that can be said, even after analyzing the evidence, is that where the per capita production of energy reaches the level reached earlier in areas like Northern Europe and the United States, and is similarly distributed, fertility will probably decline.
In studying Western experience we also see how increases in energy affected the birth rate before the rate of per capita increase in energy reached the point where the birth rate began to decline. This evidence bears upon the future course of industrialization in the present low-energy regions of the world. Under the special conditions prevailing in Northern Europe, North America, and the British Empire and Commonwealth during the last two or three centuries, the rate of increase of the accumulation of converters was even higher than the huge rate of population growth. The stock of natural resources in these areas was quite other than that existing in many of the portions of the world where the birth rate is still high. This difference alone makes it doubtful whether per capita production in these regions can ever reach the level it attained in the older high-energy societies before the birth rate there began to decline.
The population of the low-energy areas of the world is so great that to reach the level of per capita productivity at which fertility could, on the basis on Western experience, be expected to decline would require a rate of converter accumulation far in excess of that seen in the early development of the West. Such an increase appears highly improbable. Thus if the rate of growth of population is to decline in low-energy areas it will probably not be because of a decrease in fertility accompanying or resulting from increased productivity. The enormous size of these populations also implies that unless a very marked decrease in fertility does occur, population growth will outstrip any increase in converters that is likely to occur.
So, a crucial dilemma for those seeking to industrialize is that while conditions remain unchanged, fertility remains static and while fertility remains static, it is difficult to change conditions to the point where they will affect fertility. Many efforts to change the birth rate in low-energy societies by propaganda and persuasion have failed in the past. This may indicate that it will not be easy to effect such change in the future. Up to a point, a considerable increase in energy may serve primarily to induce changes, such as a fall in the death rate, which are themselves inimical to further increases in productivity. This point must be passed before the battle to create more high-energy converters of increased capacity can be said to have been won.
In other words, if energy is devoted to increasing the stock of converters when there are other demands for energy which must first be met, the result will be abortive. The conditions that determine what are the “other demands which must first be met” vary with each specific situation in which an effort is being made to accumulate converters. We have already indicated some of the types of factors that enter into every such situation, and it may be well to summarize here the factors that appear to be necessary for the success of an effort toward a high-energy system.
- Above all, the stock of converters must continually be used to produce the surplus energy required to offset the decline in surplus energy due to farm mechanization.
- Energy must continue to be supplied to those on mechanized farms to induce them to continue to use the land under their control in that manner. Since at times continued local use of machinery and the export of food may result in the starvation of the food raisers’ neighbors or even members of their own families, this may represent a cost considerably above that required of low-energy food raisers.
- If further spread of farm mechanization is to occur, energy must be supplied to induce both adults and children located in low-energy agricultural regions to leave and to sacrifice those goods which cannot be taken along with them. These assets, both public and private, may be of considerable present worth but will have no future value. Either their owners and/or users must be compensated for loss of these things or the necessary force to cause their abandonment must be exerted.
- Cooperation in producing change has often been secured by promises of increased material well-being. To secure cooperation in this way, the system must actually deliver the promised goods to keep people playing the roles required in the new system. The material cost of inducing change can be kept to a minimum if those who favor change have been induced to pursue it for moral, religious, political, ideological, or other nonmaterial reasons. There is always the possibility, if not the probability, however, that the expectations built up to induce initial change may be such that they require the continued use of all newly available surplus energy merely to maintain stability and prevent regression. Thus further utilization of surplus to increasing the stock of converters becomes impossible.
- The likelihood that the situation outlined in “4” will occur is increased by the fact that most systems require the cooperation of many who demand increased reward but continue to perform services that contribute nothing new in the way of increased physical productivity. Technologically advanced societies continuously increase the demand for services. Many of these services require as much time from those who deliver them as they did before the energy revolution. Those who enter these fields are induced to do so by high status. So to preserve their necessary status relative to industrial workers, they must receive a higher income per hour day week or year. Thus when workers whose physical productivity has been increased by the use of high-energy converters get a higher reward, an increase must also be supplied to all these others. The relative size of this physically non-producing group grows as the stock of converters in use grows, 5 and their demands are frequently well organized and effective.
- The very speed which changed methods permit, requires more energy to be used to secure a given end than would be required if the work were done more slowly.
- The cost of replacement and repair mounts as the stock of converters is increased.
- The costs of technological unemployment and obsolescence of both men and materials which arise from changes within industry itself must be met. Either compensatory reward or coercion may be used to induce those who must change to do so; both usually require more energy than would have been expended if no change were sought.
- To all these costs there may be added others because an “outside influence,” not previously dealt with here, may seek to prevent further change, since that change would make it impossible for the outsider to reply upon the local populace to continue their previous functions. The efforts of some of the old imperial powers to maintain the status quo in their colonies and the efforts of some religious orders bent on preserving what they consider to be sacred may fall into this category
The role of imperialism
A good deal of emphasis has been placed on this last factor of outside interference by the many who view the age of Western expansion with a jaundiced eye. They decry the selfishness of the imperial powers in specializing certain colonial areas in the production of raw materials and denying them the opportunity to industrialize. It is certain that this motive characterized some of the colonial powers. But, it is also true that in many areas, particularly in the British Empire, a good deal of the energy used to keep the colonial system going came from the mother country and that the outgoing energy sometimes exceeded that represented by what was returned to Britain. The costs of the shift to high-energy technology have been grossly underestimated by some anti-imperialist thinkers, and the significance of monetary profits probably has been overstated. These errors of estimate are most likely to occur when, as happened in many cases, the machines and fuels brought into the colonies were real but the profits turned out to be irredeemable promises worth less than the paper they were printed on. The fact that they misjudged the results of their acts does not make the motives of the foreign investors any more or less noble. However, it may account for the disappointment of many who “nationalized” their economy, turned control over to the local populace, and discovered that the result hardly bore out their dreams of what “freedom” would bring in the way of material well-being.
We have already shown that progress toward the high-energy society has been slowed, stopped, and reversed many times in the world’s history. There is mounting evidence that this is happening today in many parts of the old colonial empires, particularly those of the French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish, where population pressure has made regression toward a hoe-culture almost inevitable. This makes the unique character of the British experiment even more significant.
Great emphasis has been laid here on gains in efficiency that result from substituting converters using the energy of coal, oil, and falling water for organic converters. That is because this is central to the thesis we are pursuing. We do not assume, however, that this is the only way by which energy can be conserved, or efficiency increased. Up to a point, the increased energy required by a growing population and/or higher physical productivity can be secured through more rational use of the same energy sources. Tools and machines can be invented and adopted which use the flow of energy from existing converters more effectively to attain the desired ends. The gains to be made through superior organization of work, particularly the specialization of labor, are also impressive. Regional specialization, which takes full advantage of the differential productivity of various areas, also permits great gains in productivity. It was in fact from improvement in organization and superior technique that most of the increases in physical productivity among low-energy societies were derived. It was also from these sources that many of the Victorian economists thought all the increased physical productivity that they observed arose.
This is a chapter from Energy and Society: The Relationship Between Energy, Social Change, and Economic Development (e-book).
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