Thursday, June 4, 2020

Danny Dorling's "Slowdown"

Danny Dorling is the Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford. His books include Inequality and the 1% and The Equality Effect. With others, he created the website, a digital collection of demographic maps.

Dorling applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Slowdown: The End of the Great Acceleration—and Why It’s Good for the Planet, the Economy, and Our Lives, and reported the following:
From page 99:

Thus the worldwide fossil fuel–powered Industrial Revolution could well have begun in China during the Song Dynasty in the eleventh century CE, but in the twelfth century production of iron and steel fell. The costs of transporting these metals had become higher when the canal trade was interrupted by war, and political upheaval led to a drop in demand from the capital city. Invaders from Manchuria disrupted production, and a century later Genghis Khan’s army swept over the most prolific iron producing region. Production was subsequently restricted largely to efforts to “equip the Mogul armies with armor and weapons” (not unlike William Armstrong’s main use of iron all those centuries later for the manufacture of armaments). Weapons of war often play a key role in the rise or fall in iron production. The previous mini-acceleration ended when the Yellow River broke through its dikes in 1194 and forged a new path to the sea, following on from previous extensive floods in 1034 and 1048. We humans have known great catastrophes many times in our history; we are just not that good at remembering them, especially when they happened in faraway places and times.

At any point in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, similar political and environmental fates could have destroyed the nascent Industrial Revolution in Europe, but they did not. The timeline depicted in figure 13 shows the annual additions to CO2 in the atmosphere each year from 1750 to 1910, but what mattered most for global warming was not that, but the cumulative total. Carbon tends to stay in the atmosphere indefinitely, until it is taken up by plants and trees or absorbed by ocean plant life. There are other sources of increased human-made emissions to consider as well, but carbon is by far the most important. Furthermore, the more that forests are cut down, the less CO2 is absorbed back from the air.

It is estimated that by 1807 there were 1 billion metric tonnes of CO2 in the atmosphere that were the product of human use of fossil fuels. That doubled to 2 billion by 1827, 4 billion by 1847, 8 billion by 1862, 16 billion by 1877, 32 billion by 1892, and 64 billion by 1908. The gaps between these years fell from twenty to fifteen, and then rose only slightly to doubling in sixteen years. That sixteen-year period included two of the great economic downturns of the U.S. economy (see table 2). Despite such recessions, however, overall industrial pollution did not slow down. It just rose less quickly than it otherwise would have.

The 1870s slump in production is but a mere dent in the timeline shown in figure 13. The effects of the economic depression of 1882–85 are...
Page 99 of Slowdown concludes a discussion about the proto industrial revolution in Song Dynasty China when iron production was recorded as having tripled in the century to 1064CE and then rose even faster in the next dozen years before being brought to an abrupt halt by war and invasion. This is part of a section on the book about the period before what I call “the great acceleration”. I am arguing that it could have happened at other times in other parts of the world, and that it was partly just by chance that it was the acceleration that began in Europe which is not curtailed.

Page 99 then goes to tell the story of how carbon pollution doubled repeatedly throughout the nineteenth century (at least as we can best estimate it today from historical records). I discuss when and why this accelerated the most and what slowed the acceleration down at all. This page ends in 1908 and is setting the scene for a discussion of the huge rise in production and consumption that followed. The book is very long, 400 pages long, and so this page is only a quarter of the way though. It also includes a description – the 13th of 67 illustrations in the book – showing the global rise of CO2 from 1950 to 1910. Two subsequent figures take this to present day. Our capacity to pollute hugely was one of the few things that was not slowing down in our economic and social worlds by January 2020 when the book was published. I end the book by suggesting that it would; but that as we cannot foresee the future we would not know what would cause this next slowdown.

Page 99 works well as a summary as it illustrates how the book does jump between a large number of disparate subjects and examples - some readers might like this approach, others will not.
Visit Danny Dorling's website.

--Marshal Zeringue