How the East Grew Poor.

Author:Birdzell Jr., L. E.

Imperial weather and the poverty of nations

The "development gap" that divides advanced nations from the Third World in income, wealth, and many other measures of human welfare is a scandal of both politics and economics. The present magnitude of this gap is indicated succinctly, though incompletely, by comparisons of per capita gross national product: $450 for India, $780 for China, and $22,640 for the United Kingdom, according to 1999 World Bank figures.

Mike Davis' new book, Late Victorian Holocausts, is one of several recent attempts by sensitive Westerners, among them David S. Landes and Jared Diamond, to demonstrate that this gap is no fault of the Third World countries, nor due to any superiority of the West except in the arts of war and oppression. Davis became widely known for his contrarian views of urban growth and planning in Los Angeles, expressed in City of Quartz (1990) and Ecology of Fear(1998). In his preface, Davis offers a "key thesis" that "income and wealth inequalities" between the Third World and the rich economies "were shaped decisively in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the great non-European peasantries were initially integrated into the world economy."

Davis claims that the difference in living standards in 1789 between a French sans culotte and an Indian farmer of the Deccan plain were "insignificant" compared to the difference between them and their respective "ruling classes." In contrast, by the end of Victoria's reign (1901), "the inequality' of nations was as profound as the inequality of classes." In a surprising triumph of pessimism over the widely known achievements of several former Third World countries such as Japan and South Korea, Davis informs us that by the start of the 20th century, "Humanity had been irrevocably divided."

In support of this thesis, Davis devotes six chapters to late-19th-century famines in India, China, Egypt, Africa, and Brazil. Most of these were caused by drought. For reasons not easy to follow, Davis keeps referring in these chapters to the possible connection of El Nino to the droughts. (Davis defines El Nino not as the familiar Christmastime warm currents off the coast of Ecuador and Peru, but as the warm extreme of a Pacific Basin--wide oscillation in air mass and ocean temperature known as ENSO, for El Nino Southern Oscillation.) Davis finally offers a more focused discussion of the El Nino literature in two subsequent chapters.

But the connection between 19th-century weather and El Nino's oscillations back and forth in the Pacific suffers from lack of records and uncertainties about El Nino's chronology, which Davis candidly outlines in the concluding pages of Chapter 8. Such lack of proof might have led a skeptic to leave the subject to further necessary research.

Davis quite rightly argues that by the 1870s, advances in transportation had made the death toll from famines mainly a function of the adequacy of government and private relief, not...

To continue reading