One of the biggest questions in studying modern (post 1600) global history is why it was Europe and not China or India that became the dominant world power. From a purely statistical standpoint, the best money was on China up until even as late as 1800; it simply had greater per capita income and a higher standard of living. Of course, by 1800 Europe, led by Britain, had begun its Industrial Revolution and the rest is, well, history.
The reasons for China’s failure to have an industrial revolution stem back to government decisions in the 16th century, but that’s too involved a topic for right now; it’s enough to know that historians understand this very well. It is interesting to think about what historians two hundred years from now will write about when it comes to the green energy revolution, the industrial revolution that is beginning in our time. History often appears to be cyclical; one region falls into decline while a previously declining region begins its ascent. The difference between decline and vitality has all too often been based on the vibrancy of a nation’s economy. The sinews of war and global influence have always been money.
That there will be a green energy revolution is a foregone conclusion; we’re simply running out of oil. Right now, projections indicate that the globe will run out of oil by mid century, perhaps by 2040. And as the developing world continues to improve its standards of living, the global demand for oil will only increase. This will be a great short-term windfall for the oil-producing states; Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, Russia – all countries that have the United States’ best interests at heart, right?
But what happens when the oil runs out? Well, there could be global wars over dwindling supplies; I don’t think anyone would be surprised by that. But even then, at some point, there will be no more oil. It comes from decaying organisms that lived millions of years ago; the Earth simply can’t produce enough to meet our demands by the end of the century.
The answer, of course, is the aptly named “alternative energy sources.” Solar, wind, geothermal, biofuels, nuclear. These are all technologies that are in their infancy; even nuclear power has a very long way to go. These are the technologies that will define the future of humanity. It would seem that the country that most vigorously pursues these technologies will become the dominant power in the world for the next few centuries, the next cycle of history. Those that don’t will be like China in the age of European imperialism: impotent and weak in the face of European military technologies and economic power.
So why did the Industrial Revolution begin in Britain? The simple answer is the Calico Acts. These were passed by Parliament in the early 18th century to protect the British wool industry; they were effectively a ban on cheap textile imports from India. In other words, the British government “put a price” on textiles. This had the unintended benefit of protecting the fledgling cotton textile industry in Britain, which is the relevant point.
History is clear about how you have an industrial revolution: government protection early on so that the new industry can gain the strength to compete with established technologies. This is exactly what China is doing today with green energy. In fact, the Chinese government is pouring money into alternative energy sources; they’ve studied their history and they can read the oil production projections.
Today, the United States Senate gave up on trying to pass a bill that would have implemented a cap and trade system, putting a price on carbon. It didn’t matter that cap and trade worked to reduce acid rain when it was invented by Republicans and implemented by the first President Bush. It didn’t matter that China, a country that will have a greater GDP that the United States by 2027, is investing heavily in green energy. It didn’t matter that a green energy policy would have led to a massive private-sector driven stimulus of our economy. It didn’t matter what the historical precedent is for those who fall behind during a period of industrial revolution. And it mattered least of all that tens of thousands of scientists from thousands of universities as well as the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world after 50 years of rigorous peer-reviewed research have proven beyond all reasonable doubt that climate change is being primarily driven by human activity.
The Senate only had a majority of 53 votes; not enough to pass a bill that the special interests oppose. And come November, the number of Democrats in the Senate will only decrease. In other words, we won’t be seeing a cap and trade bill for quite some time.
I wonder what those historians 200 years from now will write about us.