The Unending Frontier by John F. Richards

The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World is a series of case studies looking at what happened when organized pre-industrial administrative states or globalized markets came in contact with other human societies with less organizational capacity and power. It was a little dry, but I really liked the diversity of examples and the way they fed into each other, knitting together almost 300 years of history, from about 1500 to 1800. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who wonders what the global economy looked like in its awkward teenage years.

This is the first time that all the disparate parts of the human world became connected persistently, with flows of information, material resources, pathogens, culture and people growing almost continuously throughout. Communication and travel weren’t fast, but they were reliable enough that people kept doing them, and built huge economic and cultural and political structures around globe-spanning trade. Capital markets that vaguely resemble what we have today were starting to form. The state and market apparatus were sophisticated enough in some places to wield huge collective resources in very focused ways, impacting huge populations and natural resource stocks, even for what seem like kind of trivial ends. European fashion trends and status hierarchies nearly drove the North American beaver to extinction, dramatically reshaping the watersheds of half a continent.

The Old World

I liked how there was often a narrative link between the chapters, even as they jumped around the world. There was a weirdly long introduction to the Dutch Republic, and how they came to set up some of the first successful capital markets and became a global seafaring power, but then we follow the VOC (Dutch East India company) to its colonization of Taiwan — which I was previously unaware of. They used Taiwan as a kind of staging area to access Japanese and Chinese markets, as part of the silk / spice / silver trade they were engaged in, circling SE Asia endlessly, ultimately indirectly shuttling Spanish silver extracted from the Americas to China. They had a not entirely terrible relationship with the indigenous people of Taiwan (who are the progenitors of all the pacific islanders… even as far afield as Madagascar!). But eventually the Dutch were kicked out of Taiwan by the Chinese! I had no idea that China didn’t take over Taiwan until the 1600s, and in the end the Ming Dynasty fled to Taiwan in exile after being defeated by the Qing, in a weirdly familiar parallel to the Nationalists being exiled to Taiwan after the mid-20th century Chinese Civil War. It makes more historical sense now why the PRC feels so strongly about the current situation. Eventually the Qing take over Taiwan and drive out the last of the Ming holed up there, and engaged in a different kind of colonization with the indigenous people than we’ve typically seen in the west. They granted them land rights, and allowed them to collect rents on the land that was being occupied by Chinese settlers engaging in agriculture or forestry. In the long run the original Taiwanese still ended up dwindling and being assimilated, but the process was different. This is another running theme in the book — that while the means and even intentions behind the expansion of these systems of organization (markets and states) were pretty different in different contexts, the outcomes were remarkably similar. The highly organized systems, wielding distant collective resources with a very clear purpose in mind pretty much universally overwhelmed whatever smaller scale localized organization they encountered.

Then we hop across the straights to mainland early-modern Ming China, and the expansion of the centralized Chinese administrative state (and its attendant markets) into the foothills of the Himalayan Plateau to the south, where indigenous mountain peoples lived a localized, subsistence existence. Weirdly, it was partly the introduction of New World crops that made this expansion possible — wet rice agriculture wasn’t possible in the uplands, and so people had a more pastoral way of life. The introduction of maize and sweet potatoes meant that the mountain people could become farmers, and were more sedentary, which made it much easier to incorporate them into the systems of the Chinese state. Even though they often weren’t directly controlled by the state, they were integrated economically, and became a huge source of forest products for imperial China, leading to massive deforestation and loss of topsoil.

Weird aside on sweet potatoes: they were first domesticated in the Americas, but genetic studies indicate that they had been adopted by Pacific Islanders as a staple crop by about 1000 years ago — centuries before Europeans started exporting new cultivars from the Americas. So it seems that there was tenuous communication between the peoples of the Pacific and South America. They just didn’t stick around or engage in frequent, ongoing trade. But it was Europeans that introduced maize and sweet potatoes (and chiles!) to China, enabling this wild ecological / economic / societal chain reaction in the south.

From the disaster of South China’s deforestation, we hop over to Tokugawa Japan, famous for its isolationism and longsighted forestry practices. Japan is about as close as we get to a modern voluntary autarky. Communication with the outside world was punishable by death. The islands had a finite resource base and a powerful centralized administrative state. It’s one extreme of how a society can respond to encountering real ecological limits — one that I’d really like to read more about. Strict management of forest resources kept harvesting within sustainable bounds. Birth control was common. The material aesthetic of the culture became spartan. They made extensive use of marine resources. They adapted and survived, but didn’t really progress much technologically. They did have their own colonial relationship with the Ainu people of Hokkaido though, extracting deerskin from them in exchange for trade goods not unlike the French/English & Native American relationship. Through the Dutch (given special access to the Japanese markets through Nagasaki as protestant heretics — the Japanese did not like the Jesuits…) they also had access to deerskins from Taiwan (one of their main exports).

Then we bounce all the way around the world to another island nation off the coast of a big continent: Great Britain. Facing similar problems, the British had almost the polar opposite response to the Japanese. The gleefully cut down every tree in sight, and moved on to burning coal. They aggressively sought to import resources from absolutely anywhere on Earth, at gunpoint if need be: India, South Africa, North America, Myanmar. Rather than adapting their society to finite resources, the expropriated the resources of others, and developed ever more powerful technologies and economic institutions.

Then we jump to the borderlands between modern day Russia and Ukraine, and the settling of what had previously been a more pastoral environment by agriculturalists. I’d never really thought about the processes of “settling” these parts of the world that have been nominally connected for all of human history, but it does sound strangely similar to the colonization and frontier mentality we’re familiar with from the New World. Russia was a fairly brutal feudal state in the 1400s, with serfs all but enslaved to their landlords. But to the south and east were the differently brutal Tatars of the steppes. In between was a mix of grasslands and woodlands with incredible topsoil, not entirely under the control of either Russia or the Tatars. The Russians tacitly allowed outlaws and runaway serfs to percolate into the borderlands and settle down outside of the feudal system, gradually expanding their cultural and economic sphere and transitioning the area from nomadic pastoralism to settled agriculture.

Then we’re back with the Dutch, but this time in South Africa. I hadn’t realized that the Dutch basically colonized South Africa as a way station for the VOC — a small outpost raising cattle, running a hospital, and providing provisions to inbound and outbound ships rounding the cape for hundreds of years (until they lost it to the British around 1800). The “commercial pastoralism” of the Dutch displaced the indigenous Khoi Khoi pastoralists with more intensive export-oriented ranching practices. They imported slaves from India, Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula, and Madagascar. They also killed off an enormous proportion of the charismatic megafauna both for sport and for food.

The New World

Only at this point, halfway through the book, do we get to what I think we (at least in the Americas) more frequently think of as “the frontier.” And here the main character in the human drama is strangely non-human. Shortly after contact all throughout the Americas, wherever and whenever it happens, the indigenous peoples are decimated by disease. Often within a single generation, 90% or more of the population dies out, from wave after wave of different kinds of plague. Smallpox, influenza, measles. Often the very first accounts of the New World from Europeans describe a well peopled place — bustling towns, productive agriculture, trade networks, infrastructure, wealth, power — But the next time a chronicler passes through there’s nothing but the ghosts of a collapsed civilization.

I did not appreciate how rapid and complete this destruction was before, and I can’t help but wonder what the story of the Colombian Exchange would have been like in the absence of this dimension. Without pestilence on the side of the Europeans, would the Americas have seemed so much like an untrammeled wilderness? How different would the power dynamics have been? Once the Native Americans had widely adopted horses, writing, metalworking, firearms, and other imported technologies… would they have been so easily dominated if there had been 10 or 20 times as many of them up for a fight? The conquests of Pizarro in Peru and Cortez in Mexico were at least a little bit freakish, and only worked because they were able to take advantage of preexisting divisions within the empires they conquered, playing different factions off against each other.

Or what if the balance of pestilential power had been reversed? What if the the diseases of the New World had been vastly more deadly than those of the Old? What if the Europeans had unwittingly carried back a host of plagues, and the population of Afroeurasia had crashed by more than 90% in the 1500s instead? And what if at the same time the peoples of the Americas had adapted newly encountered technologies to their own purposes? Horses, iron smelting, printing presses, firearms, new crops, ocean-going vessels. What kind of multi-polar cultural world would we live in today? How long would the industrial revolution have been delayed?

But that’s not what happened. Instead, not long after conquering the Mexica with the help of their Tlaxcala rivals and turning Tenochtitlán into a smoking ruin, the Spanish found themselves occupying a suddenly depopulated, rewilding mesoamerica. The economy that developed hinged primarily on ranching and mining, where “ranching” frequently meant hunting down feral cattle, skinning them for their hides, and leaving the meat to rot. Silver and leather were the main exports back to Spain. A very “land-ist” economy — just taking what was buried in the earth, or were arose through biological productivity with minimal effort. Only gradually over centuries was the land repopulated and intensively worked again.

A different version of this played out with the Portuguese along the coast of Brazil. They really only took over a thin fringe of the country in pre-industrial times. The area under cultivation of sugar cane and the colonial population were both tiny. The natives were resistant to being enslaved, but susceptible to disease. Only the discovery of gold in the interior finally tempted Europeans away from the coast. Indigenous people retreated into the forest, and were pursued. But the forest was so vast that both the indigenous peoples and many African slaves were ultimately able to simply disappear and live independently away from their colonizers / enslavers.

As with the minimal amount of land being cultivated along the coast of Brazil, it’s wild to think that sugar production on the tiny Caribbean islands could have been significant in the context of the European economy. They ended up being a kind of laboratory for industrial agriculture, with just a single local crop, and all other necessities being shipped in from elsewhere — food, equipment, labor. There was a terrible feedback loop between sugar production, the slave trade, and the extraction of furs from northern latitudes. A constant flow of slaves was needed from Africa, since they were worked to death, and almost entirely male. With all provisions being shipped in to support sugar production, the plantation owners didn’t think it was worth supporting women and children. The islands were denuded of their original forests and indigenous populations. Some of the sugar and molasses were used to make rum. Rum was shipped north and part of it was used to create dependency in Native American populations, who were hard at work procuring fur bearing pelts for European traders. Profits from the sugar and furs and rum were plowed back into buying new slaves for the plantations.

The World Hunt

The last section of the book is about “the world hunt” — direct extraction of wild animal populations for furs, leather, ivory, oil, or meat, especially in the northern latitudes. In North America furs were obtained through trade, while in Siberia the Russian state extracted them by force as a kind of tax, with failure to pay punishable by violence against a person or their extended family. The outcomes were weirdly similar, despite being engaged with very different systems. Native Americans ended up totally dependent on Europeans for trade goods (firearms, steel tools, alcohol), and almost depopulated the continent of fur bearing animals. The Siberians were chased all the way to the Pacific, hunting desperately after sable and marten and ermine. Alcoholism, disease, dependency, and disempowerment.

New World cod fishing and arctic whaling were the only two case studies where the story really only involved one human population, going directly after a product of the natural world, and pushing both stocks to the point of collapse. It took hundreds of years to get there with the cod fishery, which only finally collapsed with the advent of “super trawlers” in the mid-20th century, which caught as much cod off Newfoundland in 15 years as was taken in the century from 1650-1750.

Being so accustomed to the use of petroleum it’s bizarre to imagine hunting whales for oil — not food oil, but oil for lubricating machinery. Oil to burn for light. But it was cheaper and easier than growing vegetable oil at the time. The plankton grows in the ocean for free, no fertilizer required. And the whales concentrated all that captured sunlight into a nice compact package you just had to go haul out of the water. One thing that amazed me about this story was that before commercial whaling took off, the entire population of right whales was only a few tens of thousands. This whole species in its pristine state only had as many individuals as the population of a medium sized university town. A college football stadium would hold more people. And yet they outweighed the entire circumpolar population of reindeer and caribou. It is totally bizarre that there are as many human beings as there are today. 8 billion. We make up a third of all the biomass of terrestrial mammals. And our livestock make up almost all of the remaining two-thirds. We are an anomaly.

What did I learn?

The dynamics of colonialism and unsustainable resource extraction aren’t unique to the story of European colonization. Very similar stories seem to have played out whenever large institutional organizations come into contact with smaller, less well organized sociotechnical polities that have something they want.

Organized commercial markets and administrative states can play the role of resource aggressor equally well. In the case of markets the focused attention is coming from a diffuse network of incentives, that get transmitted down to individuals on the ground, as in the case of Native Americans sent into the wilds to extract every last beaver. In the case of administrative states, the incentive structure is much more obviously hierarchical and intentional. It’s easier to think of markets as something that “just happens” but throughout the book there were many, many examples of intentional government policies being made to create, protect, and shape the markets that ultimately ended up doing the extraction.

Globalized markets that change quickly in a coordinated way are terrifying. Especially today, any local or niche product that gets noticed by the world can explode in an orgy of destruction. I heard people talking about this with mescal in Oaxaca — suddenly it’s the new popular hipster cocktail mixer in the US, and so artisanal distilleries are cropping up all over the place. Plantings of the espadín maguey are taking over land that used to grow food. Wild type maguey varietals that take longer to mature and can’t be cultivated are being hunted in the woodlands in the mountains and harvested with abandon to produce rare, higher priced products. Avocados have experienced something similar in Guanajuato and Michoacán, expanding monocrop plantings, and inviting drug cartels to diversify their business lines. Not everything can be commoditized and scaled up to serve the whims of global market attention, at least not rapidly, and not when it’s a natural product of the world. That’s what we’ve come to expect on the basis of our experience with manufactured goods that are just novel assemblages of already commoditized inputs. We can change the informational aspects of products very quickly, but the material parts are much slower. The US and Europe haven’t been on the receiving end of this dynamic for a long time, but as they shrink as a proportion of the global economy, it’s going to happen more and more, and it’s going to be uncomfortable.

Old World diseases are what destroyed the indigenous people of the Americas. We would be living in a very different world if the pathogens had been fighting against the Europeans instead. The colonizing Europeans were also horrible actors, but their intentional impact pales in comparison. This is not just a historical curiosity. After 3 years of the coronavirus pandemic we still don’t get it. COVID was a horror show, but it could have been much, much, much worse. All the risk factors that warned us to watch out for a pandemic are still there. We haven’t really changed anything systematically (though the mRNA vaccines are nice). If it had been a MERS pandemic we would have 2 billion dead instead. And that still wouldn’t have been nearly as bad as what happened to the indigenous people of the Americas.

Societies that acknowledge limits can adapt and evolve within them. The example of Tokugawa Japan is really interesting, and I want to read more about it. It wasn’t entirely something you’d want to emulate: widespread infanticide and general technological stagnation aren’t great selling points. But you could imagine an island nation (*cough* planet *cough*) that accepted physical resource limits without simultaneously isolating itself technologically and culturally. How would that be different?

The energy transition is a big natural resource shift, and that’s weird. If we are successful in pulling of the transition from coal, oil, and natural gas to an almost entirely electrified economy that depends primarily on solar, wind, battery storage, heat pumps, etc. we will be redirecting vast streams of primary material resource demands — billions of tons a year less of fossil fuels, and hundreds of millions of tons more of lithium for batteries, copper for motors and dynamos, rare earth elements for magnets and semiconductors, etc. This will be a different kind of change than when we use all the same materials but arrange them differently this year than we did last year, and maybe use 5% more of them overall. We’re talking about ramping up production of some raw inputs by a factor of 100x, and crashing production of some of our highest volume commodities to zero. In a single generation. It will be a discontinuity.

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Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

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