In his last week’s blog post, John Michael Greer talked about the reasons for China’s culture continuing more or less intact after repeated collapses, while so many other civilizations rose, fell, and vanished. I thought that the insights in the post were useful for looking at our Indian context. Here are some excerpts to encourage you to read the full post:
During its recorded history, China has been through four major dark ages: during the late Zhou dynasty, 770-226 BC, when the Zhou emperor became a powerless figurehead and warlords fought over the wreckage of the empire; during the long interval between the Han and Tang dynasties, 220-618 AD, another age of warlords when some sixty short-lived dynasties struggled for power; after the fall of the Tang dynasty, 960-1271, another brutal period of war and chaos; and finally the period after the fall of the Ming dynasty, 1644-1949, when China fell under foreign rule, first Manchu and then European, and plunged into poverty and misery as its wealth was stripped away by its foreign masters and its government disintegrated into another round of rule by local warlords.
The most important resource base for any nontechnic society—that is to say, any society that gets most of its energy from human and animal muscle—consists of food and water. . . . The heart of China’s traditional subsistence economy was wetland rice agriculture, which used human and animal manure, nitrogen-fixing water plants, and hundreds of varieties of rice specialized for local conditions to provide a relatively robust food supply come thick or thin. Supplement that with dryland millet and soybean agriculture and animal raising that focuses on small livestock such as pigs, chickens, and pond-raised fish, and you’ve got a means of subsistence that’s impressively resilient. It doesn’t depend on extracting nutrients from the soil, as less sophisticated systems of agriculture do; instead, it systematically puts nutrients back into the soil. This is why there are areas in China that have been producing rice crops regularly for five thousand years.
The old sustainable agriculture that made China so resilient for so long is a thing of the past. These days China uses more chemical fertilizer than any other nation on earth, by a significant margin. That’s not optional—more than a billion Chinese depend for their daily meals on the extravagant yields that only massive use of chemical fertilizers can provide—but it’s also not sustainable. On the one hand, chemical fertilizer feedstocks are mostly nonrenewable resources, and as those deplete, feeding China’s population is going to become more and more difficult; on the other, chemical fertilizers wreck the soil over time, so that an area that’s been farmed using chemical agriculture becomes more and more barren. That promises a very difficult future for China and the Chinese people.