Back to Contents

11. NEGLECTING NATURE
WORLD ACCUMULATION AND CORE-PERIPHERY RELATIONS, 2500 BC TO AD 1990
Sing C. Chew

[216]

From an ecological point of view, one factor that is overlooked in the study of world system history is the dynamic-exploitative relationship between the process of accumulation and Nature. In an era of increasing global concern and awareness of the finite limits of natural resources, the growing realization of the contemporary losses in plant and animal species, and the continued susceptibility of the human species to climatological changes and diseases despite various scientific and technological advances, we cannot continue to direct our efforts on understanding world system history by focusing only on the dimension of the accumulation of 'capital.' In this chapter, I will proceed by emphasizing the necessity of including the continuous exploitative relationship with Nature in our attempts to discuss 5,000 years of world system history. I will suggest that the ceaseless accumulation of capital - which is seen as the motor force of the system - is self-defeating. Nature establishes limits on this process. The question is how does this dynamic relationship between capital accumulation, core-periphery relations, and Nature play out over the long term.

The exploitation of Nature: plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose

According to Frank (1993a), the accumulation of capital has played a central role in world system history for several millennia. For Wallerstein (1992), its 'ceaseless' nature emerged only with the modern world-system in the sixteenth century. Regardless of whether this process has been the underlying feature over the last five hundred years or the last several millennia, one of its manifestations is the appearance of environmental degradation and crisis. To maintain a surplus there must be continual exploitation of the natural environment. This is played out at the system-wide structural level via core-periphery relations and power rivalries within cycles of expansion and stagnation. Nature as the underlying basis of this equation fosters, conditions and inhibits the continued reproduction of the system. As suck, the limits of Nature become also the limits of the system. The interplay between the limits of Nature and the trends and dynamics of the world system defines ultimately the

historical tendencies of world system evolution.

Given the exploitative relationship with Nature, the continuity of the systemic process of the accumulation of 'capital' over the long term becomes an important

[217]

concern. Capital, in this case, is by no means what Marxists would define as wage-labor capital, but is used in a more general context to mean the accumulation of surplus dependent on the state of technology and sociocultural practices of the period in question. In this regard, as Frank and Gills stated:

for millennia already and throughout the world (system) there has been capital accumulation through infrastructural investment in agriculture (e.g. clearing and irrigating land) and livestock (cattle, sheep, horses, camels, and pasturage for them); industry (plant and equipment as well as new technology for the same); transport (more and better ports, ships, roads, way stations, camels, carts); commerce (money capital, resident and itinerant foreign traders, and institutions for their promotion and protection); military (fortifications, weapons, warships, horses and standing armies to man them); legitimacy (temples and luxuries); and of course, the education, training, and cultural development of 'human capital.'
(Frank and Gills 1992:7)

This kind of argument might be objectionable to some for it would mean that there has been no break in the systemic logic (i.e. the process of capital accumulation in the conventional sense) of the world system. However, this line of reasoning fits in with our analysis of ecological degradation and crisis over the long term of the world system.

If the accumulation of capital is one of the central dynamics of world history, the specifics by which it takes place becomes important. The dimension of trade exchange has been identified as one of the underlying processes circumscribing the accumulation of capital. Much has been written on the question of whether trade exchange constitutes and enhances the accumulation process. In the Dobb-Sweezy debate, Dobb (1952, 1976) suggested that trade was not the prime factor in the accumulation of capital at the start of 'capitalism.' Sweezy (1976), argued that medieval trade was one of the prime factors leading to the transition from 'feudalism' to 'capitalism.' In other words, trade exchanges arc part of the overall process. Wallerstein (1974a: 41-2) has argued that the exchange of preciosities in Europe and Asia during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries did not produce important impacts. Schneider (1977) challenged this position by arguing that prestige goods did generate systemic effects in premodern times by providing local elites with important sources of power and stability. Abu-Lughod (1989), Frank (1993a) and Gills (1995) also underscore the importance of prestige goods exchange. Ekholm and Friedman (1982:90) have shown that besides preciosities, trade exchanges in bulk goods such as wood and grain were undertaken by Mesopotamia around 3000 BC. What this means is that trade exchanges were part and parcel of the capital accumulation process in ancient world-systems. Chase-Dunn and Hall (1992:89-90) shared this view that trade exchanges, which can include staples or preciosities, are important aspects reflective of the interconnections of world-systems. In my own work (Chew 1992, 1993, 1995), the exchange of timber and wood products (bulk goods) between kingdoms, civilizations, and states over

[218]

5,000 years does suggest that trade exchanges help constitute the world accumulation process. The production and exchange of preciosities (such as scented woods) and bulk goods reflect the processes of the accumulation of capital on a world scale and the global exploitation of the natural environment.

Trade and commodity exchanges do play a part in the process of capital accumulation, and thus in the overall dynamics of world system/s. The issue of whether these exchanges occurred within a single overarching system as Gills and Frank (1992) have argued or whether they reflect intersocietal networks of interactions as Chase-Dunn and Hall (1992) and Curtin (1984) have stated is an issue. The discontinuity argument has been the dominant mode of analysis in contemporary historical research and world-systems analysis for a while. We have witnessed its outcomes, including the Eurocentric emphasis of world historical transformations. There is, however, less research done to date examining the possibility of a historical system that has been evolving for quite some time. In my own work, the exploitation of Nature via the production and exchange of timber and wood products suggests a continuous process for over 5,000 years. Some qualitative changes in the manner this economic production and exchange have occurred may be noted, however the exploitative manner by which human communities have related with the natural environment across spatial and temporal dimensions has not changed significantly. What qualitative and quantitative shifts have occurred are the results of technological changes in the capacity to assault the natural environment. Few forested areas of the planet have been left untouched. In reaction to this, we also find movements of resistance and philosophical challenges to the assault on Nature over world history (Chew 1995).

The accumulation of capital over the long term is characterized by core-periphery relations. In my own work, core-periphery relations contribute to the assault on Nature especially after a long cycle of intensive and extensive capital accumulation. Furthermore, this degradative activity over the long term establishes limits to the reproduction of accumulation processes (for example, requiring relocation of production depending on the exigencies of the accumulation processes), which in turn impacts on the continuation of core centers of accumulation of the world system/s.

Naturally, if cycles of expansion and stagnation punctuate the rhythms of the world system, one would expect that environmentally degradative effects would follow the patterning of the cycles of growth and stagnation. Because of their long temporality, it would be more appropriate to term the increasing appearance of environmental degradative instances as 'long swings.' My beginning and thus far limited exploration of these 'long swings' of environmental degradation seems to suggest that they correlate with population growth, at least for one country (China) over a 2,000 year period. Population growth trends have been described to fit an 's' curve (a logistic curve) whereby a period of accelerated growth is followed by a slowdown, and the limits of the curve asymptotically approaches a horizontal line that is parallel to the asymptote of origin. If this is the case, the dimension of population and its interrelations with the other features of the world

[219]

system must be included in our analysis of long-term change. Especially in our case, population is a variable that determines the sustainability of Nature, which in turn is also determined by Nature.

What follows attempts to address these thematics. The information and data presented should be treated as suggestive (rather than conclusive) of the dynamics of the world system over the long term.

Forest exploitation in world history: capital accumulation, core-periphery relations and environmental limits

Wood has been exploited as a building material and a fuel for over 5,000 years (Perlin 1989; Ponting 1991). These requirements meant that forests had to be cut leading to deforestation and its associated consequences such as flooding, loss of topsoil, temperature increases and biodiversity losses (Roberts 1989). Wood has been a basic commodity underlining the reproductive aspects of societies, kingdoms, states, and civilizations. As such, it facilitates the accumulation of capital or depending on cultural needs and availability, is itself a precious commodity for exchange in overall surplus generation. Deforestation to meet needs for wood is by no means the only difficulty. The clearing of land for agriculture so that grain and livestock needs could be met for local consumption or exchange has to be underscored. The advent of agriculture has been one of the main causes of deforestation and environmental degradation in early world history (Ponting 1991).

2500 BC to 500 BC: Mesopotamia, India, Crete, and Greece

If we examine the world from Mesopotamia to the Indus valley around 2500 BC we find the sustained utilization of wood products to meet various needs. In third millennium BC, the kingdom of Lagash and Ur utilized wood for buildings (including temples), ship construction and canals. Consumptive needs were high, as Lagash and Ur had populations of 37,000 and 65,000 respectively. The widespread use of tools requiring wooden handles, and the need for wooden furniture and utensils increased wood imports. With the increased use of bronze, wood was required as fuel for foundries. As a core center of accumulation, both local forests and imports from the Ammanus mountains (Southwest Turkey), from Southeast Arabia, and as far away as the Indus region of India were exploited (Tibbetts 1956; Edens 1990; Ratnagar 1981). Wood was in such high demand that during periods of accelerated economic expansion its value was equivalent to precious stones. Some types of wood were even stored in the royal treasury (Perlin 1989:41). Expeditions were sent to seek new sources when wood supply was constricted. Luxury goods from Babylon were traded for Cretan wood. What we witness was the overall expansion of socioeconomic growth sustained through wood consumption in production, and the functioning of coreperiphery relations.

[220]

In the Indus valley around mid-2500 BC, the Harappan civilization with its trade contacts with Mesopotamia was flourishing. Wood, stone, metals, cereals, oils and other items were exchanged with Mesopotamia. The Indus valley was richly forested during this period (Ponting 1991). Teak, fir, pine were extracted from the Western Ghats, theJammu ranges, and the Panjab piedmont. Widescale building of temples and palaces required mud bricks that had to be manufactured by drying in ovens fueled by wood (Wheeler 1968; Marshall 1931). In addition, the utilization of copper and bronze for farming implements and other household items also required wood as a fuel source for their manufacture.

Bronze Age Crete, with its trade in wood products with Near Eastern Mari and Babylon, emerged as a center of accumulation. Growth was concentrated at places like Knossos (population 30,000 in 1360 BC) where an abundant supply of timber fueled transformations (Chandler 1974:79). Like Mesopotamia, massive utilization of wood was required for shipbuilding, bronze and pottery manufacturing and building construction, including palaces and administrative offices. At the height of Minoan power, there was extensive demand for wood to build merchant and warships as a consequence of the increased trade between Crete, mainland Mycenaen Greece and the eastern Mediterranean (Meiggs 1982:97).

The trade between Crete and Mycenaen Greece was facilitated by the bountiful forests on the Greek mainland. This control of abundant resources allowed the Mvcenaens to demand a hefty sum for wood that the Cretans needed. As a consequence, wealth was transferred from Crete to the mainland (Perlin 1989: 54). As a center of accumulation in the Mediterranean, Mycenae by 1350 BC had a population as large as Knossos, and was in an expansionary phase building palaces and manufacturing bronze products and pottery. There were also extensive trade relations with southern Italy and the Levantine coastal areas (Chandler 1974:79; Perlin 1989). This intensive use of the environment led to major deforestation, generated severe pressure, and eventually led to decline.

Deforestation does not necessarily mean that the land is permanently devastated if the assault on the woodlands is not continuous or intensive, and ample time is provided for rejuvenation. In the case of mainland Greece, by the sixm century BC the forests had recovered. However, by this time the urban population had increased as well, and between the sixth and the fourth centuries widespread maritime trade ensued between Greece and Asia Minor. Large merchant fleets were built and colonies were established to ensure a flow of essential commodities and materials to the mother city' (Thirgood 1981:9). Colonization also spread with settlements in southern Italy and Sicily in the west, and around the Black Sea as well as in northern Greece (Meiggs 1982:121). These settlements became centers of commerce and manufacturing activities in addition to agriculture drawing on their hinterlands for supplies. All in all, this socioeconomic expansion facilitated the accumulation processes of the city-states of mainland Greece. In terms of timber, die trade extended to cover the central and eastern Mediterranean including die Black Sea, Asia Minor and the Caucasus (Thirgood 1981). There was also exchange of special wood products such as teak and ebony with India paid for by manufactured goods, underscoring the continuity of trading relations

[221]

with India as far back as the third millennium BC. With continued economic expansion came increased urbanization, leading to pressure for increased agricultural production requiring the colonies in the outlying areas to provide food. Industrial products were manufactured to exchange for basic primary resources. Hinterland areas such as eastern Greece and western Asia Minor were sub-sequently depleted of forests. Other coastal regions of Phoenicia, Syria, Egypt, and Italy provided for the food needs of an urbanized Hellenistic Greece. Deforestation occurred in these areas as well.

This expansionary period generated an increase in the production of manufactured commodities requiring basic natural resources such as iron ore. Where iron was exported to mainland Greece, forests were depleted for metal smelting. A million acres of productive woodland were required to meet the needs of a single metallurgical center during the classical age (Thirgood 1989:56). With developments in the banking system from the sixth century BC there were profitable investments made in agricultural production. Rising prices for agricultural produce, and the increasing use of manures coupled with controlled times for ploughing and harvesting, made farming more profitable and thus facilitated this expansionary process. Such financial investments further spurred on deforestation.

Ecological crisis of the period

The extensive and intensive utilization of the forests led to excessive deforestation. These early social systems were dependent on the production of an agricultural surplus to reproduce their social hierarchies, with increasing numbers of priests, rulers, bureaucrats, and soldiers. In Mesopotamia, land clearings created soil erosion leading to siltation of the rivers, and making the land more waterlogged. As the land became waterlogged, the water table would rise, leading to more mineral salts being brought to the surface where the high summer temperatures (40 degrees C) produced a thick layer of salt. Perlin (1989:43) has indicated that excessive deforestation of the northern mountains of Mesopotamia around 2400 BC led to an accumulation of mineral salts in the irrigated farmlands of southern Mesopotamia which over the course of 300 years led to 42 per cent declines in crop yields. By 1800 BC, crop yields were only about a third of the Early Dynastic period, and no wheat was grown in southern Mesopotamia (Ponting 1991:72). Thus when agricultural production went down in Sumeria due to increasing salinity, 'the superstructure of administrators, traders, artisans, warriors, and priests that comprised this civilization could not survive' (Perlin 1989:43). Deforestation was one of the factors leading to the shifting of the center of accumulation from Mesopotamia to Babylonia around 1700 BC. Second millennium BC Babylon eventually suffered from the same condition. The scarcity of wood led to increasing fuel costs and prices for wooden articles.

As in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley's complex, hierarchical social system involved intensive agricultural production to feed the ruling elite. Trees were cut down as fuel to dry bricks for their buildings and palaces. Along with deforestation, salinization also occurred in the agricultural areas leading to the further

[222]

inability of the social system to support itself (Ponting 1991; Hoffinan 1980:34). By 1900 BC, environmental degradation was contributing to the decline of the Indus civilization (Ponting 1991:73).

In the late Bronze Age, these conditions were repeated in Mycenaean Greece where the deforestation of the hillsides resulted in large amounts of earth and water draining from the slopes onto the Plain of Argos and filling up the streams, leading to extensive flooding. Tiryns and its agricultural lands were affected by flood waters. Pylos' harbor suffered from siltation, as did the island of Melos. With the loss of topsoil, agricultural production in areas such as Messinia diminished.

Extensive deforestation also impacted on the production processes of these social systems. Wood scarcity at Knossos forced changes in production locations or resulted in their closures. Over time, the continued reliance on imported wood from Mycenae and Pylos resulted in the transfer of wealth from Crete to the Greek mainland (Perlin 1989:54). Mycenae benefited from its abundant supply of forested areas and did not pursue a sustainable yield for its forests. By the late Bronze Age, where pasture land was cleared in Mycenae for sheep grazing, metallurgical production works had to be relocated to lesser populated areas where wood supplies were more available. Mycenaean prosperity built on metallurgical and pottery works suffered with the decline in fuel supplies, especially the pottery works at Berbati and Zygories. Population migration followed the closure of these manufacturing centers and the abandonment of Phylakopi coincided with the deforestation of Melos, where the town was located. The same situation occurred in Berbati, Midea, Prosymna and Zygories in 1200 BC, and there were also population losses for Mycenae, Pylos and Tiryns. Throughout Mycenaean times, towns and settlements disappeared. In Southwest Peloponnese the number dropped from 150 to fourteen. Other regions experienced similar declines (Perlin 1989:66). By the eleventh century BC, the number of inhabitants fell by 75 per cent (Perlin 1989).

490 BC to AD 500: Classical Greece and Rome

By the beginning of the fifth century BC, the ecological conditions in Athens and on mainland Greece had recovered and it was on a socioeconomic growth trajectory. Becoming a center of accumulation also required a strong navy to ensure control of trading routes and to thwart aggression from Persia. Because the Persians controlled much of northern Greece, Athens initially had to rely on local timber for shipbuilding. By 357 BC, it had an inventory of 285 triremes (Meiggs 1982:123). With the defeat of the Persians in 469 BC, Athens' position as a center of accumulation in the Mediterranean was ensured and socioeconomic expansion resulted in rapid urbanization requiring large quantities of wood for buildings and houses. By this time the city's population had grown to nearly 200,000 (Chandler 1974:79). This demographic surge, like the previous period in world history, increased the demand for wood as fuel (charcoal) and for the manufacture of commodities (Perlin 1989:86). As a consequence die price of wood rose. This prompted the Athenians to search for other sources through conquest and colon-

[223]

ization. One such source was Amphipolis which Athens colonized in 495 BC. The extensive use of timber for shipbuilding to fight the Peloponnesian War led Athens to rely on Amphipolis (Meiggs 1982; Perlin 1989). When the latter source was cut off, Athens turned to Macedonia for wood (Meiggs 1982).

Like Hellenistic Greece, the pace of socioeconomic activity increased when Rome became a center of accumulation. Urbanization engendered deforestation. To meet its timber need, Rome subjugated its surrounding hinterland. The forests of the Po valley were also exploited. As the power of Rome grew, expansion followed into western Europe and North Africa. There was pressure to increase die food supply, and many of the outer areas of the empire were transformed into granaries, particularly after 58 BC when Roman citizens were given free grain (Ponting 1991; Thirgood 1981). The forested areas in North Africa were deforested and cultivated, and by the first century AD, the Roman province of Africa sent each year enough grain to feed a million people for eight mondis (Meiggs 1982:374). Besides grain, other natural resources were sought to fuel die processes of accumulation. Iberia was conquered for its silver, and copper was sought in Cyprus. Mining for these resources meant further deforestation. An extensive region-wide trade ensued, for which cheap manufactured products were produced (Thirgood 1981:29).

Like the centers of accumulation in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley; a lavish lifestyle was established in Rome. This required die utilization of wood directly and as fuel to make bricks or concrete. By the first century AD, Rome had a population of one million people requiring substantial inputs of resources such as water. The water had to be transported via aqueducts from 700 storage basins and 130 reservoirs made out of lime-based concrete or fired clay. An oak trunk of 32 feet, one and one half feet in diameter was required to make one ton of lime (Meiggs 1982). Wood was used to heat Roman baths and villas, and to manufacture newly popular products of glass, as well as pottery, bronze, and iron. To maintain temperatures of between 130-160 degrees Fahrenheit for a single public bath, 114 tons of wood was required per year. Central heating of a Roman villa required over two cords of wood per day (Perlin 1989:112).

Ecological crisis of the period

With this scale of economic expansion, ecological degradation naturally followed. Roman forest loss was predominant by the end of the second century AD and continued to the fourth century (Shaw 1981:392; Ponting 1991:77). During the four hundred years of silver smelting in Iberia, 500 million trees were cut (Perlin 1989:125). North Africa's forests were devastated to make way for grain cultivation. Morocco lost 12.5 million acres of forests over the Roman period. Attenborough (1987) and Randsborg (1991) both note the deforestation. The Roman's view of the natural world was similar to die predominant anthropocentric viewpoint of the late twentieth century. In the words of Cicero: 'We are the absolute masters of what die earth produces. We enjoy die mountains and the plains, the rivers are ours. We sow the seed and plant the trees. We fertilize the

[224]

earth ... we stop, direct, and turn the rivers, in short by our hands we endeavor, by our various operations in this world, to make, as it were another nature' (Thirgood 1981:29-30).

With deforestation we also witnessed soil erosion and siltation of ports and low-lying areas. The port of Paestum in southern Italy silted up and the town of Ravenna lost its access to the sea (Ponting 1991). Ostia, which was the port for Rome, managed to survive after major dock reconstruction. Because of siltation, cities in Greek Asia Minor such as Priene, Myus, and Ephesus (fifth century BC to second century AD) became landlocked.

Deforestation also has the impact of forcing the relocation of industries which over time might lead to loss of commercial and productive dominance. By the fourth century BC, Athens experienced this fate and faced shortages of wood. It had to relocate its metal industries. This also occurred toward the last years of Rome when industries had to be relocated to Europe so that fuel sources were closer to production.

AD 500 to 1500: A.sia

The pattern of wood resource extraction is repeated in Asia. The first assault on the forest cover in India was as early as the third millennium BC, in northern China around the Hwang Ho river basin from about the same period, and in Southeast Asia (such as the Malayan peninsula) about 2500 BC (Wheatley 1961;

Tibbetts 1956). Our previous discussion underlined the trade exchange between India, Mesopotamia, and the Mediterranean zone. Tibbetts (1956:1831) reported evidence of Indian wood in early Sumerian cities indications of wood imports as early as 2000 BC. Trade between Mesopotamia and China began as early as the seventh century BC. Wheatley (1959:19) noted that Chinese trade envoys were sent by the Han emperor Wu to explore the South Seas as far as the Bay of Bengal during his reign from 141-87 BC. Besides luxuries and spices, brazil wood, cotton cloth, swords, sandal wood, camphor, rugs, and even African slaves were traded (Wheatley 1959; Lim 1992; Lian 1988).

With the unification of China by 221 BC, expansion to the south was pursued. The classic core-periphery relationship with China as the center of accumulation and kingdoms and city-states in Southeast Asia as the periphery can be seen in the trade exchanges that occurred. China supplied the silk and manufactured commodities while the hinterland supplied the natural resource products like wood and spices. Tribute missions from Southeast Asia and South India started arriving in China during the second century AD. Such missions, according to Wang (1958:119), paid tribute so that political and economic concessions could be obtained. The state of Lin-yi in AD 433 provided tribute to obtain territorial concessions in Chiao-chou, and the state of Funan in 484 AD demanded justice from the incursions of Lin-yi. A mission from Lin-yi brought tribute of 10,000 kati of gold, 100,000 kati of silver and 300,000 kati of copper (Wang 1958:52). Such tribute missions increased over time. By the Tang dynasty a total of sixty-four missions were recorded (Wang 1958:122-3).

[225]

By the third century AD the trade in wood products had grown. Gharu wood was imported to southern China by merchants from the Malay archipelago, Sumatra, and even Sri Lanka. City-states such as Lo-yueh (near Hanoi) were the (semipcriperal?) collection centers for forest products. Tun-sun, situated on the Malay peninsula, was a dependency of the state of Funan in Indochina. Judging from the amount of tribute provided to China, these states must have been prosperous. Lo-yueh, for example, was said to have 20,000 soldiers and palaces (Wheatley 1961; Wang 1958; Dunn 1975).

The trading relationships between the kingdoms and city-states of Southeast Asia were buttressed by Persian and Arab merchants around the seventh century AD. The power and number of these merchants grew. By the mid-eighth century AD they were of such substantial strength that they settled their disagreements with the Chinese by burning buildings in Canton in 758 AD. Along with the Arabs and Persians, the kingdom of Srivijaya situated in Sumatra was developing into a regional power in Southeast Asia (Wolters 1967; Wang 1958; Wheatley 1961; Coedes 1966). Srivijaya maintained its commercial position for at least two centuries (eighth-ninth).

By the end of the ninth century AD, the zone circumscribing the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the Straits of Malacca, and the South China Sea was one of trade and exchanges between cities and kingdoms located in southern Arabia, southern India, the Malayan archipelago, Sumatra, Java, Indochina, and southern China with the Mediterranean (Wang 1958; Wheatley 1961). The volume of trade exchange which included wood products continued and by the middle of the Tang Dynasty, the ships of Sri Lanka - over 200 feet long and carrying six to seven hundred persons - were plying the waters of the South China Sea. These ships were probably built in China because of the abundant timber resources in the coastal areas of Chang-chou and in Ch'ao-chou, Hsun-chou, Lui-chou, and Chin-chou of Kwangtung province (Wheatley 1959:109). By AD 987, during the Sung Dynasty, the southern maritime trade provided a fifth of the total cash revenue of the state. Such a high volume led the state to support missions overseas to induce foreign traders to come to trade at Chinese ports.

With its overland Central Asian trade routes cut off after 1127 AD, China proceeded to exploit the routes of the South China Sea. Ebony, gharu wood, laka wood, pandan matting, cardamons, ivory, rhinoceros horns, and bees wax were imported from Asia and India (Dunn 1975; Wheatley 1959). To illustrate the increase in trade between 1049 to 1053, the annual import of tusks, rhinoceros horns, pearls, aromatics and incense was about 53,000 units; after 1175 AD they reached 500,000 units. The increase in activity naturally led to the emergence of a powerful merchant group which gradually came to manage all the major governmental trade monopolies. With the Mongol control of South China in 1277, trade with the rest of Asia and the Middle East was further encouraged. Southern China by the end of the thirteenth century had about 85-90 per cent of the country's population. The region experienced an expansionary phase between the ninth and fourteenth centuries whereby industry intensified and agricultural production increased. This must have led to deforestation to clear land for

[226]

farming and to provide wood to fuel kilns for the manufacture of pottery and metals. Metallic currency was used as payment for products of Asia and the Middle East, and along with this silk and pottery were exported. According to Wheatley (1959) and Yamamoto (1981), by the time of the Sung dynasty, there was a deficit in the Nanhai Trade which was covered by payments in bullion. During this period, China was also to experience a metallic coin shortage (Yamamoto 1981:24).

After the fall of the Yuan dynasty, the Ming dynasty proceeded to build the Nanhai Trade. China had a sizable navy; by the end of the fourteenth century, it had 3,500 ships of which over 1700 were warships and 400 were armed transports (Lo 1958). China utilized its own pine and cedar forests for shipbuilding. Between 1403 and 1433 there were seven naval expeditions comprising as many as sixty-two vessels each, and carrying 37,000 soldiers (Yamamoto 1981). Under the command of Admiral Cheng Ho, these expeditions sailed as far as Mecca, Ormuz, Aden, Mogadishu, and Juda.

The pattern of accumulation is also repeated in Japan. Forests were cleared from AD 200 onwards for fuel to produce metal implements for domestic use and for fortresses, temples, and shrines. To Totman (1989:10), 'agriculture and metallurgy were the human innovations that most dramatically affected prehistoric Japanese forests.' Forest exploitation was continuous from AD 600 to 1670. From AD 600 to 850 the ruling elites of Japan proceeded with a building boom, constructing palaces, mansions, shrines, temples, and monasteries. These buildings were erected near the capital cities of Nara and Heian (Totman 1989, 1992). By AD 628, forty-six Buddhist monasteries were built. It has been estimated that 100,000 koku of processed lumber were used to build a single monastery (Totman 1989:17). (A hundred thousand koku of processed lumber is sufficient to build 3,000 ordinary 1950s Japanese style houses.) Tokoro, as cited by Totman (1989:17), estimated that the three centuries of monastery building starting from AD 600 consumed 10,000,000 koku of processed lumber.

By AD 1000, the population of Japan had reached 6,500,000 and it was to double by 1600. Such surges meant that wood resources were required to meet the needs of the growing population. The capital city of Heian faded away by the twelfth century after its surrounding forests were cut (Totman 1992:19-20). To meet the socioeconomic expansion, Japan's old growth forests were devoured by the seventeenth century, with continued monumental construction and rising urbanization in cities like Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo, whose populations ranged from 400,000 to one million persons. By 1720, the country's population increased to thirty-one million.

Mediterranean and Europe

In the Mediterranean during this period we find Venice a center of accumulation, assuming mastery of the seas. A giant ship factory was built called the Arsenal, comprised of previously fragmented privately owned shipyards that were organized into one state operation. To satisfy the demands of this enterprise the surrounding forests provided wood and pitch for shipbuilding. The Venetian glass

[227]

industry also required extensive amounts of wood that led to deforestation. To feed the growing population, pasture land had to be cleared. This led to scarcity, and by 1530 shipbuilders had to pay twice the price for wood compared to their predecessors. As a consequence, the pace of shipbuilding had to be scaled back affecting the accumulation processes. Later in the century, Venetian ships were built in northern Europe, especially in Holland, thus giving the latter the opportunities for its ascent as a center of accumulation. To Perlin (1989), this lack of access to wood further hampered Venice's position in the overall accumulation processes, and was one of the factors that led to its decline as a major trading center. Venice's decline led to the shift of commercial power to northern Europe.

By the fourteenth century the forests of southern England had regenerated from Roman era exploitation, and England was exporting wood to Holland and France. The growing rise of Holland as a center of accumulation meant that England was part of the peripheral hinterland supplying wood to fuel Holland's needs. Six hundred shiploads left England for France each year, and English wood, especially its oak, was in high demand (Perlin 1989:163). England's own consumption of wood accelerated with the development of munitions production around Sussex during the reign of Henry VIII. With the production of iron for the manufacture of canons, wood consumption rose. Production of one ton of bar iron required forty-eight cords of wood. Demand for wood also rose with increased production of copper, salt, glass, and shipbuilding for the Royal Navy and merchant marine. For the latter, a large warship required 2,000 oak trees at least a century old (Chew 1992:25). Besides utilizing its own wood resources, England also exploited the forests of Ireland.

Ecological crisis of the period

Like the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, rapid deforestation in early China generated the conditions of ecological crisis. With population increases requiring more arable land, and the increasing utilization of wood to provide palaces, temples, and tombs, more pressure was added to the already fragile ecological conditions. Problems emerged in the fifth century BC (Bilsky 1980).

Deforestation causes top soil loss and siltation. When forest cover is depleted flooding usually follows (Roberts 1989; Ponting, 1991). Population increases add pressure to increase agricultural production which means the clearing of land for cultivation. The statistics available for early Chinese population growth and recorded number of floods reflect a high linear correlation (0.949) (see Table 11.1). Regression analysis also shows that population increase is a good predictor of an increasing number of floods. The level of significance (r-square) is over 90 per cent. Placed within the wider context of the expansion and stagnation of growth over the long term, it is suggestive that environmental degradation also exhibits 'long swings' correlating to population growth and economic expansion. The economic growth of China from 1 AD to the present reflects successive surges (logistics) correlating with population increases. The limited data suggest

[228]

Table 11.1 Population of China by year and by number of floods, AD 1-1900

Year

Population (millions)

Number of floods

1

53.0

0

100

58.0

2

200

63.0

23

300

58.0

17

400

53.0

4

500

51.5

7

600

50.0

2

700

50.0

13

800

50.0

26

900

64.0

20

1000

66.0

42

1100

105.0

44

1200

115.0

72

1300

96.0

33

1400

81.0

81

1500

110.0

26

1600

160.0

52

1700

160.0

160

1800

330.0

172

1900

475.0

362

Source: Chu 1926; Feuerwerker 1990.

that there were four logistics in population growth: 400 BC to 200 AD, 400 AD to 1200 AD, 1550 AD to 1600 AD, and starting from 1700/1800 AD to the present. These population logistics are also repeated for Europe over the same period.

Within these long swings of population growth, the number of floods over time also exhibits increases and decreases over 200-300 years in length. Figure 11.1 and Table 11.2 outline the tempo of these long swings over the last two millennia, with the number of floods increasing and decreasing over A/B phases (following Frank 1993a,b) of the system up to 1700 AD. The limited data suggests that floods increase during A-phases and decrease during B-phases.

Conditions in China were repeated in Japan: erosion, extreme river silting, and flooding. Between 600-850 AD, the mountains adjoining the Kinai basin were deforested giving rise to fires, flooding and erosion. Deforestation was so extensive that the Emperor by 675 AD announced forest closure policies to protect the remaining stands of trees. This forest protection policy continued well into the ninth century AD, though over-cutting continued to 1678.

Besides ecological degradation, continuous assault on the landscape also engendered scarcity which, as in Hellenistic and Classical Greece, meant that production processes had to be relocated. For this period, English industrialists transported iron ore from England to Ireland for smelting because of the availability of wood. Core centers of accumulation not only had to relocate their production processes, but the lack of access to wood also engendered slippage in

[229]

wsh_fig11-1.gif (9314 bytes)

Figure 11.1 China - floods by year (population). Source-. Chu 1926; Feuenverker 1990.

Table 11.2 Number of floods via A/B phases for China, AD 1-1700

0-200

A-phase

Increase

200-400/500

B-phase

Decrease

400/500-750/800

A-phase

Increase

750/800-950

B-phase

Decrease

950-1200

A-phase

 

 

Increase

1200-1500

B-phase

 

Decrease

1500-1700

A-phase

Increase

terms of their commercial and productive strengths. Venice's commercial and productive processes were affected by its lack of access to forest resources, and thus impacted on its competitive relations with the Ottoman Empire. Venetian transfer of shipbuilding to Holland facilitated Holland's rise as a commercial power in northwestern Europe.

AD 1500 to 1990: Asia

The rise of northern Europe following the fifteenth century led to increased utilization of wood for shipbuilding, construction, and manufacturing. Portuguese

[230]

penetration of Asia in 1498 led to increasing needs of the Portuguese fleet (Gadgil 1988:49). The Dutch colonization of Java in the seventeenth century engendered the cutting of teak wood for the Dutch East India Company, and imperial Holland. Further consumption is revealed by the construction of shipyards, where we find by 1675, one employing over 250 persons and the presence of wind powered sawmills. In concert with local rulers and middlemen traders, the Dutch East India Company harvested the teak trees which occupied about 6 per cent of the total surface area of Java. Other trees that covered approximately 17 per cent of Java were deemed junglewood and treated as worthless, suitable for destruction 'of which nobody suffers' (Boomgaard 1988:61). When the Dutch East India Company ceased to exist in 1800, control of the forests was turned over to the Dutch Republic. In later years, the degradation of the forests was exacerbated by the production of sugar, coffee, indigo, and tobacco. This cash-crop production required the increased felling of trees to generate arable land, building construction, and fuel to process the sugar, tobacco, and coffee. Annual production of teak logs grew from an average of 16,700 logs from 1733-1765 to 145,000 logs from 1837-1865 (Boomgaard 1988:66, 77).

Such practices occurred in other parts of Southeast Asia where Great Britain was the colonial power. Malaya, Burma, and British Borneo witnessed the exploitation of their tropical forests by the British colonial administration. British companies searched for teak wood in Burma, and according to Rush (1991:41) such quests 'would play a part in Britain's annexation of Burma.' British companies also cleared lands surrounding the Irrawaddy River for rice cultivation (Adas 1983). In Malaya, the forests were cut to grow rubber and to open up areas to mine tin. To facilitate the establishment of a rubber plantation economy, the British Government encouraged the local rulers to sell their land and provided tax incentives to the new owners to plant rubber for export. As in Java, local Malay rulers and merchants were intimately involved in the extraction of forest products. Borneo was administered by a chartered company, the British North Borneo Company. The forest and forest products were, in many cases, the company's main source of revenue (Lian 1988). In Thailand, British timber companies also penetrated teak forests in the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century, Thai forests were granted as concessions to foreign companies from Great Britain, France, and Denmark.

Such penetration also occurred in the Philippines. Spanish colonization saw the island of Cebu stripped of its hardwood to build Spanish galleons (Tadem 1990:15). Under US rule, the Forest Law of 1904 formed the blueprint for the modernization of the logging industry and cemented the close relationship between the Bureau of Forestry and large foreign and domestic timber companies. A number of other laws such as the Public Lands Act of 1902, the Mining Law of 1905, and Executive Order No.27 of 1929 opened up the forests for private commercial exploitation. Huge profits were made from the harvest of the tropical forests (Tucker 1988:223). As with other parts of Southeast Asia, the local elites were active participants in this accumulation process. The exploitation of the country's natural resources by foreign concerns transformed the economy to one dependent on natural resource exports to the United States (Bellow et al.

[231]

1982). Deforestation rates were about 140,600 hectares per year during the 1920s and 1930s. This increased by another 30,000 hectares per annum in the post-independence era (Bautista 1990:69).

Europe and North America

Back in Europe, English merchants and the state sought to replenish England's wood supply which was running low by the mid-seventeenth century (Chew 1992). This condition had been reached as a result of the previous century of growth. It was as some would say an 'age of wood' (Lower 1973). Tanners, soap boilers, gunpowder manufacturers, and glass makers all required wood products, such as oak bark and potash, for their operations. The mining industry needed sturdy timber for its mine shafts. Brick manufacturers, sugar refiners, and salt producers used wood. Fifty cubic feet of hardwood was required to produce 2,000 bricks, and more than a load (50 cubic feet) of hardwood was needed to produce 2 hundredweight of salt (Chew 1992:23). Such intensive utilization was exacerbated by the enclosure movements and the intensive growth in farming prior to the mid-seventeenth century which led to an extensive cutting of trees. We find England seeking out wood resources in northeastern Europe and North America. The fir forests of the Baltic shores and the oak belt found to the south and west, along with the forests of New England, became important regions for exploitation. The Baltic area was preferred because of its proximity. However, with Napoleon's blockade of 1807, British timber interests shifted operations to North America. The pace of operations continued throughout the nineteenth century, and along with indigenous American operations, the forests on the eastern seaboard of North America continued to be assaulted until the early parts of the twentieth century. Deforestation occurred, though these areas had lower population densities, and thus were less impacted in terms of floods and other consequences. After the turn of the twentieth century, the exploitation of the forests of North America progressively moved to the mid-west and the west coast. Douglas fir and coastal redwoods were shipped from the Pacific Northwest.

In the late-twentieth century, the exploitation of the forests continues to be a global process. In Latin America and Asia, the tropical rainforests have been systematically cut to meet accumulation and consumption needs which are both local and global in nature. Either operating independently or in collaboration with local concerns, multinational companies based in Japan, Canada, and the United States have been active in harvesting the forests (Petesch 1990). In India, the forests of the Himalayas are being assaulted (Guha 1989). In Southeast Asia, Japanese timber operations have managed to penetrate the tropical rainforests (Chew 1993). In Latin America, debt servicing, multinational activities, ranching and international organizations have been responsible for the destruction of the rainforests (Barbosa 1993; Hecht and Cockburn 1990). With mounting environmental group pressures in North America the search for wood has moved to Siberia, and to Canada's boreal forests (Goto 1993:6, Chew 1993).

In the late-twentieth century, the United States and Japan have replaced

[232]

England and France as the two main centers of accumulation, and consequently wood consumption. At this stage, the dynamics of wood exploitation occur in parts of the world system that are the most amenable to the accumulation of capital. Consequently we find extensive wood operations by American and Japanese multinationals in North America, Latin America, Asia, Siberia, and West Africa. For Japan, whose wood resources were severely exploited in the past, global efforts are made to maintain a constant supply from foreign sources (Nectoux and Kuroda 1990:27). Japanese dependency on imported wood has risen from 5.5 per cent in 1955 to 55 per cent in 1970 and 66.5 per cent in 1986 (Nectoux and Kuroda 1990:27). For nearly two decades, Japan has been the world's major tropical timber hardwood importer. Total volume of tropical wood imports into Japan amounted to 29 per cent of the world total in 1986 (Nectoux and Kuroda 1990:5). The high level of consumption reflects an age of exuberance much like what the United States experienced in the postwar era (Devall 1993). In the paper products area, Japan has emerged as the world's largest importer of forest products, second largest producer of paper and paperboard, the third largest producer of pulp, and the second largest consumer of paper after the United States (Penna 1992:1). Total consumption of paper and paperboard has increased over 548 per cent during the last thirty years (Penna 1992:3).

Over the last decade, Japan has been importing unfinished logs from Southeast Asia on an average of 11 million cubic meters, or about 38 per cent of its total volume of log imports (Kato 1992:95). Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea were the main contributors (Mori no Koe, April/June 1993:8). By the end of the 1980s this slowed not because of a drop in consumption, but because of a diminishing resource and bans on the export of raw logs. Tadem (1990:23) has indicated that Japan has been labeled an economic imperialist by some of the Southeast Asian wood producers, for ii levies higher import taxes on finished wood products than on logs. For example, a 20 per cent import tax is levied on plywood imports against 0 per cent for unprocessed logs. It has been suggested that this measure protects Japan's labor intensive wood manufacturing industry (Tadem 1990:24). Attempts by Southeast Asian producers (Council of Southeast Asian Lumber Producers Association) to control supply has been met with Japan slashing prices of logs and lumber 'to break up any wood and forest product cartel in the region' (Tadem 1990:25). Such actions are hardly unique in the history of the world system.

Ecological crisis of the period

If we move forward to the late twentieth century, widi deforestation quickening as a result of improvement in timber harvesting technology, disastrous effects can be seen throughout the whole of North America, Latin America, and Asia (Devall 1994; Chew 1993; Mendez 1990). The consequences of this deforestation should be familiar to us: river siltation, soil erosion, flooding, and certain animal, insect, and plant species extinction. In the Pacific Northwest, several ecosystems are being threatened (Grumbine 1992). In Asia the most dramatic deforestation

[233]

occurred between 1950 to 1976 according to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (1980), when 4 million hectares were cleared per annum. Soil loss, erosion, and intermittent flooding of lowland areas during the monsoon season have been consequendy experienced by Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, India, and in the Himalayas. Soil loss is followed by sedimentation problems in harbors and rivers. This has often led to flooding as in West Malaysia, and harbor dredging in Sarawak in East Malaysia. Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand have also experienced these conditions. Concomitant are the effects on fish stocks either in die mangrove areas of Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines or in the Gulf of Thailand. The sedimentation issue has also affected the ph levels of the rivers, and in turn, this has affected aquaculture and fishery stocks in the coastal zones.

Besides erosion, another consequent threat to the environment is the loss of biodiversity. The tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia have one of the greatest diversity of plant and animal species on this planet. The loss to date has been drastic. In West Malaysia logging has placed almost sixty-one species of mammals and sixteen species of birds on the verge of extinction, with a further 130 species of mammals and 148 species of birds on the vulnerability threshold. Hurst (1990:121) indicates that some primate species like the Siamang, the White-Handed Gibbon, and the Dusky leaf-monkey suffered population losses of over 50 per cent between 1958 and 1975. No doubt these losses have increased. The threat to wildlife diversity also occurs in Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Some species like the Philippine Monkey-Eating Eagle have been reduced to only 600 pairs, and the elephant population in Thailand, and the orangutan and the Java rhino in Indonesia, are being threatened.

Conclusion

This historical journey has provided some suggestive accounts of the continuity and the self-defeating nature of the accumulation process. Ecological degradation has been a continuous process. With the rise and fall of centers of accumulation, environmental degradation shifts from one region to another. Some regions never fully recover.

The devastation of the environment is prompted further by core-periphery relations. Those states/kingdoms in more advantageous positions in the accumulation process can extract either through tribute, conquest or trading relations, the wood products to meet their socioeconomic transformative needs. Yet it is Nature which in the long run still defines the parameters of world system expansion and conditions of production and accumulation. Lack of access to natural resources such as wood has reduced the competitiveness of some centers of accumulation. Kingdoms and civilizations have collapsed due to their extreme degradation of the environment. Environmental degradation must be considered as one of a set of factors contributing to this demise. Nature, and the limits it sets for global transformations, should be recognized in materialist analyses.

As the accumulation process intensifies, environmental degradation increases

[234]

exponentially. The limited long-term data on environmental degradation in China (using flooding as an example) suggest that there might be 'long swings' in environmental degradation correlating with the long-trend logistic of population and economic growth over world history, and also with A/B phases of long economic cycles. Further investigation might help to clarify this relationship.

Environmental crisis-like conditions also spark societal ecological consciousness and conservation practices (Chew 1995). The current concern and debate over environmental crises reflect similar practices of prior historical periods. The question is whether our current environmental crisis is one which is qualitatively different from prior periods of world history. The answer cannot be easily provided due to the limited materials we currently possess. It does however appear that with the 'cumulation of accumulation' the global reach of capital has rendered the possibility of global environmental devastation more likely.

[235]

Back to Contents