Tag Archives: Europe

Coals to Newcastle

340-320 Mya

It seems like Gaia really went on a bender in the late Carboniferous, getting drunk on oxygen. By some estimates, the atmosphere was over 30% oxygen back then, compared to 21% today. Living things took advantage of the opportunity. Insects apparently face an upper limit in size because they rely on diffusion through tracheas instead of forced respiration through lungs to get oxygen into their bodies. With more oxygen in the air, this limit was raised. The Carboniferous saw dragonflies with a wingspan up to 70 centimeters, and body lengths up to 30 centimeters, comparable to a seagull.


This happened because plants were turning carbon dioxide into organic matter and free oxygen, and the organic matter was accumulating. With carbon dioxide being removed from the atmosphere, the late Carboniferous and subsequent early Permian saw a reduced greenhouse effect, and global cooling. This was another Ice Age, with ice caps around the southern pole.

A lot of organic carbon ended up being buried. Much of the world’s coal, especially high quality anthracite, has its origin in Carboniferous tropical forests. Western Europe and eastern North America lay in the tropics at the time, and got a particularly generous allotment of coal. Three hundred million years later this bounty would fuel the early Industrial Revolution. (Thanks partly to some of my Welsh ancestors, who helped dig it up back in the day.)

coal age

Europe of nations

The 1991 disintegration of the Soviet Union was not widely anticipated. Academic Sovietologists were probably less likely than knowledgeable non-academics to anticipate that the Union was not going to last. One of the small number of people who got it right was public intellectual (and long-time Senator from New York) Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He argued a decade earlier that the Soviet system faced serious economic problems and that ethnic divisions were likely to lead to a collapse of the Union, as they had to earlier colonial empires like the British.

Being Irish by ancestry helped Moynihan to appreciate the continuing importance of ethnicity and nationalism under the cover of universalist ideologies. As warfare diminished in importance over the later twentieth century, the earlier Orwellian nightmare of a world divided into a few warring super-states receded, and an older vision of a Europe of nations revived. In 1900, neither Ireland, nor Poland, nor the Czech Republic was an independent country; by 2000 they were all running their own affairs – not because they built unstoppable military machines, but because they mobilized feelings of imagined community.

However there was a dark side to the return to nationalism. The newly independent nations of Eastern Europe were successful in resolving older border conflicts partly owing to a wave of mass killing and mass expulsions during and after the Second World War that tidied up the ethnic map. In Yugoslavia, where different nationalities were still heavily intermingled, the return to nationalism resulted in a civil war that killed about 130,000 people, and introduced the phrase “ethnic cleansing” to the language.

On a scholarly note:

The theory of comparative advantage, in economics, and the theory of kin selection, in evolutionary biology, are two of the great theories in the social sciences. But both theories, in their usual elementary form, depend on some simplifying assumptions. You can get in trouble if you apply either theory carelessly without noticing if those assumptions are violated.

When it comes to winners and losers in international trade, I’ve already noted some complications. What’s of note where this post is concerned: some people have tried to apply the theory of kin selection to explain ethnicity and ethnocentrism as expressions of ethnic nepotism. But converting coefficients of inbreeding into coefficients of relatedness among kin is a dicey business. I’ve had more to say about the topic in a couple of articles, and a blogpost, and will have more to say in the future. Stay tuned!

When the Berlin Wall fell

9 November 1989

I’m not sure of the age range of readers here, but I’m old enough to have been in Berlin, and East Germany, just months after the Berlin Wall fell. I’ve still got an expired passport with a DDR (German Democratic Republic = East Germany) stamp in it. I visited with my wife, who knows Germany, East and West, better than I do. West and East Germans mingled throughout the streets of Berlin, but you could easily tell the latter by their shabby clothing. We ate in a Cuban restaurant in East Berlin – the tacky socialist bloc version of tacky Polynesian restaurants in the United States. Most of the people we talked to were still in a state of euphoria about the Wende (the change), – I still remember the beatific smile our waitress gave us when we asked her – although we also ran into those who had had modest security under communism, and who worried about how they would fare under capitalism.

According to one story, Schiller’s Ode to Joy, set by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony, was originally an Ode to Freedom; Prussian censors forced Schiller to change the words. Leonard Bernstein turned it back it an Ode to Freedom in a concert in Berlin in December, 1989.

Germans took a long time to go from writing music about freedom and cherishing their inner freedom, to being politically free. Here’s a student song going back to the nineteenth century


Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erraten,
sie fliegen vorbei wie nächtliche Schatten.
Kein Mensch kann sie wissen, kein Jäger erschießen
mit Pulver und Blei: Die Gedanken sind frei!


Ich denke was ich will und was mich beglücket,
doch alles in der Still’, und wie es sich schicket.
Mein Wunsch, mein Begehren kann niemand verwehren,
es bleibet dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!


Ich liebe den Wein, mein Mädchen vor allen,
sie tut mir allein am besten gefallen.
Ich sitz nicht alleine bei meinem Glas Weine,
mein Mädchen dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

Und sperrt man mich ein im finsteren Kerker,
das alles sind rein vergebliche Werke.
Denn meine Gedanken zerreißen die Schranken
und Mauern entzwei. Die Gedanken sind frei!

Thoughts are free, who can guess them?
They fly by like nocturnal shadows.
No man can know them, no hunter can shoot them
with powder and lead: Thoughts are free! 



I think what I want, and what pleases me,
all in silence, and as it should be.
My wish and desire, no one can deny me
and so it will always be: Thoughts are free!



I love wine, and my girl above all,
Only her I like best of all.
I’m not alone with my glass of wine,
my girl is with me: Thoughts are free!


And if I am thrown into the darkest dungeon,
all these are futile works,
because my thoughts tear all gates
and walls in two. Thoughts are free!

“The ballad of the soldier’s wife”

Here’s the song by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht,
performed by Marianne Faithfull (video) and by Amanda Palmer (video).

For the role of plunder in the Nazi political economy, there’s Götz Aly Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State.

Here are the lyrics:

Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the ancient city of Prague?
From Prague came a pair of high heeled shoes,
With a kiss or two
Came the high heeled shoes
From the ancient city of Prague.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From Oslo over the sound?
From Oslo there came a collar of fur,
How it pleases her
The little collar of fur
From Oslo over the sound.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the wealth of Amsterdam?
From Amsterdam he got her a hat,
She looked sweet in that,
In the little Dutch hat
From the wealth of Amsterdam.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From Brussels in Belgian land?
From Brussels he sent her the laces so rare
To have and to wear,
Those laces so rare
From Brussels in Belgian land.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From Paris city of light?
In Paris he got her a silken gown,
It was envied in town
That silken gown
From Paris city of light.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the south, from Bucharest?
From Bucharest he sent her a shirt
Embroidered and pert,
That Romanian shirt
From the south, from Bucharest.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the far-off Russian land?
From Russia there came just a widow’s veil
For her dead to bewail
In her widow’s veil
From the far-off Russian land,
From the far-off Russian land.

Debt and democracy

General rule: one can raise higher taxes, in proportion to the liberty of the subjects; and one is forced to moderate them to the degree that servitude increases. This has always been, and will always remain so. It is a rule drawn from nature, which does not vary at all; one finds it in all countries, in England, in Holland, and in all states in which liberty becomes degraded, right down to Turkey.


The Seven Years War (1756-1763) was a bunch of major powers (Austria, France, Russia) ganging up to cut Prussia down to size. The English joined in on the Prussian side, on the theory that an enemy of France was a friend of theirs. The war was also a world war, long before World War One, involving fighting as far afield as North America and India. On the international side, it was a win for England, and a loss for France, with the French losing Quebec and India.

The war brought home an important advantage of a constitutional state over an absolutist one. England was able to raise higher taxes on its subjects because they were voting for the taxes themselves, through Parliament. And England was able to borrow money for the war on easier terms than France, because English lenders were more confident that Parliament wouldn’t default on its debts: many of those who bought English war bonds either stood in Parliament, or voted for those who did. In spite of the “absolutist” label, French kings had a harder time squeezing money out of their subjects, and resorted to a lot of dubious expedients. For example, the government raised money by selling life annuities to investors: pay a lump sum for the annuity, and the government would pay back a fixed amount for every year the beneficiary was alive (sort of reverse life insurance). This led, among other things, to a syndicate of investors buying annuities on behalf of groups of young girls (such as The Thirty Geneva Maidens), judged the best bet, actuarially, for long life expectancies.

Generally they had to have reached the age of seven so as to be beyond the risk of smallpox. These maidens received the finest medical care, and Geneva’s wealthy bourgeoisie followed their health in the newspapers – not surprising given the huge investments that rested on their shoulders.

But the government was in such financial straits that it eventually started paying only a fraction of the promised annuities. The military weakness of the French state, stemming from its fiscal weakness, was the major cause of the French Revolution.

It would be nice to follow Montesquieu, and draw an improving moral lesson from this: constitutional liberty beats absolutism. But things played out differently in Eastern Europe, where there was less of a commercial sector to tap, and governments depended more on coercion – serfs serving their lords, lords serving the state – to keep up as great powers. There, the great constitutional state – the elective monarchy of Poland – was reduced to a second rank power, and eventually eliminated entirely. The most impressive military power, relative to its size, was Prussia, “not a country with an army, but an army with a country.” This was not the last time that military exigencies would push social evolution in very different directions in Western and Eastern Europe.

See A Free Nation Deep in Debt: The Financial Roots of Democracy

Back to the future with Renaissance Man


The Renaissance walked backward into the future, with eyes fixed on the past, scorning the Middle Ages for Antiquity. The Renaissance was not the first or last epoch to be blinded by “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome,” but the Renaissance, at the beginning of the modern age, caught a particularly bad case of nostalgia. This period is famous for recovering a sense of history. (Donald Brown argues that this has to do with Italians – and then urban Westerners in general – moving from a closed to an open class system; this in turn has to do with the decline of serfdom and the rise of cities in the West.) The Renaissance also coincided with the beginning of the modern scientific revolution. Not coincidentally, the pioneers of the scientific revolution, all the way up to Newton, considered that they were doing intellectual archaeology, recovering the Lost Wisdom of the Ancients.


Leonardo da Vinci – not quite a scientist, but equally fascinated by art and technology – is an early example, from the time when the Two Cultures were one. Lucio Russo, who argues that the Hellenistic age produced a Forgotten Revolution in science, puts it this way:

The oft-heard comment that Leonardo’s genius managed to transcend the culture of his time is amply justified. But his was not a science-fiction voyage into the future so much as a plunge into a distant past. Leonardo’s drawings often show objects that could not have been built in his time because the relevant technology did not exist. This is not due to a special genius for divining the future, but to the mundane fact that behind those drawings there were older drawings from a time when technology was far more advanced.

After the Plague


The establishment of the Mongol khanate resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people (40 million is a common guess). There was some recovery in population once the empire was in place, and new opportunities opened up for trade across the Eurasian steppe. But, just as with the earlier trade between Rome and China, there were also new opportunities for microbes to spread. The Black Death probably killed even more of the world’s population than the Mongols. Western Europe, spared Mongol invasion, lost perhaps a third of its population to the plague in the fifteenth century.

In China, the plague probably struck Mongols even worse than Chinese, and coincided with the overthrow of Mongol rule and establishment of a native dynasty. The new dynasty, the Ming, was more authoritarian than the native Sung dynasty that preceded Mongol rule. The Sung state got most of its revenues from taxes on trade, internal and external, and was solicitous of mercantile interests. The Ming returned to the more traditional practice of getting most of its revenues from taxing the peasantry; it returned as well to the traditional Confucian distrust of merchants. State patriarchy in China had earlier resisted the disruptive influence of ascetic religion; now it resisted the disruptive influence of mercantile wealth.

In Eastern Europe, two states did well during this period: the Ottoman sultanate and Poland. The Ottomans expanded into both Anatolia and the Balkans. And Poland, which had been defeated, but not subjugated, by the Mongols, mostly avoided the plague for some reason. It would go on to occupy a huge chunk of Eastern Europe. But below the level of states and empires, something else was going on. Aristocracies in Eastern Europe responded to the loss of population by intensifying serfdom, binding peasants ever more firmly to their estates. Eventually the “second serfdom” east of the Elbe would be far more intense than the first serfdom of the medieval West had ever been.

In Western Europe by contrast, the loss of population in the Black Death helped to end serfdom. At first, European aristocrats, like their eastern counterparts, tried to prevent workers from taking advantage of the law of supply and demand. The Statute of Laborers in England (1349-51) complained that

The servants, having no regard … but to their ease and singular covetousness, do withdraw themselves from serving great men and others, unless they have livery and wages double or treble of what they were wont to take … to the great damage of the great men and impoverishment of all the commonalty.

The Statute forbade servants and small-holders from taking higher wages. But these efforts largely collapsed by the end of the century, partly thanks to the economic and political clout of West European cities, which had no stake in seeing peasants tied to their lords. Aristocrats would continue to hang onto their lands and rents, but serfdom largely disappeared.