Five hundred years ago, global warming helped create an economic down turn in West and Central Asia and facilitated the European economic rise. Today, might we have a case of reverse fortunes, allowing West and Central Asia to get back to where it was before? Andre Gunder Frank and many other economic historians have told us about “ReOrient”ing to China, and that while the Chinese economy has suffered 500 years of recession, it is only natural for it to make a come back and start dominating the world again. But can the same be said for the Near East?
Let me explain. Until roughly 1500 AD, Europe was an economic backwater. Low agricultural production, almost a complete lack of natural resources, and its geographical position - squeezed to the far west of the Eurasian landmass - meant that Europe was left out of the "World System" dominated by China and with major players in West, Central and South Asia. Worse yet, the trade that was creating and running this world system was also avoiding Europe, as there was nothing that the Europeans had that was valuable to the Asian world system.
On the other hand, agricultural prosperity, sufficient human capital, and a presence of wealth in West and Central Asia had allowed it to be a player in the same world system. Gold and Silver were mined in this region and were shipped to China to pay for the trade deficit these regions had with China -- the major industrial power. Other natural resources as well as some manufactures also helped balance the trade with China, and to a lesser extent India. The trade over the Indian Ocean was conducted by the traders from West and South Asia and so allowed these regions, which where often under the control of the Central and West Asian empires (Iran and the Ottoman Empire) to help the trade balance.
However, a series of incidents completely changed this world system and allowed for the emergence of what we know as "The Modern World System" (to quote Wallerstein's title). These were manifold. First of all, a general trend in global warming around 1200-1400 AD meant that the cold climate of Europe was made warmer, allowing for the utilization of more land to the east and north of Europe (hence European migrations to the east and Christianization of Slavic lands). This meant that the European agriculture was becoming efficient.
At the same time, a disaster like the Black Death killed 1/3 of the European population. As bad as that was, it meant that over-crowded Europe was now having a balance of population. Along with the agricultural prosperity, this meant that for the first time in its history, Europe could easily feed itself and even allow people to get away from agriculture (up to then, 90 per-cent of European population lived directly off the land). This then brought about the rise in other occupations, including scientific endeavours, exploration, and art.
At the same time, the same global climate changes caused drought, desertification, and a serious crash in the agricultural prosperity of West and Central Asia (where previously an agricultural revolution had ushered in a "golden age"). The Mongol Empire and its positive effects on the Asian economy (essentially eliminating trade taxes) had also been fragmented by this time, causing a break in the smooth trans-Asian trade (this might be too simplified, but in a way it follows Janet Abu Lughod’s idea about a pre-Modern world-system). As opposed to the case in Europe, West Asia was slowly losing its grip on trade and exchange and had to devote more human capital to the agricultural segment of its economy in order to be able to feed its population.
Simultaneously, the increased European activities resulted in an age of exploration. A major outcome of this age was the discovery of the Americas, particularly the silver mines of south America (remember Argentina?). This meant that the Europeans now had access to almost unlimited amounts of silver. Silver, at the same time, was the currency of China which had decided to replace its devalued paper and copper money with the valuable silver currency (see Kenneth Pomeranz' "The World that Trade Created"). This also meant that Europe now had access to something it previously did not have: the Asian World System. Whereas previously Europeans had nothing to fill their trade deficit with China (and thus could not get into the Chinese dominated Asian system), they now could pay for their deficit, not by manufactures or equal trade (as was the norm), but with cash: silver.
In this way, the fortunes of the West and Central Asia were changed. The empires ruling over these regions tried hard to create strategic alliances (with the Portuguese or the Dutch or eventually the British) in order to ensure their continued presence in the World System, but they were unsuccessful. There was nothing they could do to regain their lost position, and the system itself was being taken over by the Europeans who came in with pockets full of cash and bought everything. Hence the last 400-500 years, the story of development on Europe and the development of underdevelopment in the rest of the world.
Now, the global warming is back, this time causing "cooling" in West and Central Asia, as well as Europe. There is a little ice age on the horizon. The agricultural prosperity of the West and Central Asia can make a come back by increased rainfall, a halt to desertification, and a restoration of forests and plains. As soon as self sufficiency (in agriculture, which has been the wish of many for the past 200 years, even the Communist regime of the Soviet Union and its Kalkhuz system) is realised, there will be a chance to do exactly what the Europeans did 500 years ago.
There also is an added bonus. 500 years ago, being left out of the Asia World System meant that the economic pressures of this world system spared Europe. In case of a crash, which was actually happening in the Indian Ocean economy of the time, Europe was left clean and untainted. As a result, when it had enough cash to enter the world system, it was also fortunate enough not to have to deal with the economic pressures and could buy into the market afresh.
The same can be said for the present situation: the West and Central Asia has been out of the world economic loop for quite a while. These regions, at least for the last 200 years, have only produced natural resources and have been net consumers of the world economy, with minimal input to economic interactions, being left out of the economic wonder of the last two centuries: industrialisation.
So, if we assume that the prediction of their future agricultural prosperity is correct, West and Central Asian regions have also the added blessing of being out of the world economic pressures and the crash everyone predicts it will experience. So, it can also repeat what happened 500 years ago and buy its way into the coming world system using the new cash: petroleum.
Abu-Lughod, Janet. Before European Hegemony: The World System AD 1250-1350. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Frank, Andre Gunder. ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Pomeranz, Kenneth. World That Trade Created. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2006.
Brenner, Robert. The Economics of Global Turbulence: the Advanced Capitalist Economies from Long Boom to Long Downturn, 1945-2005, London: Verso, 2006.
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