China, India and nearby countries have been the most important drivers of world GDP from the dawn of agriculture until the industrial revolution when Europe finally boomed along with some European offshoots like the USA. Asia has always been the center of humanity because of a resource that they have had in abundance since the beginning of agriculture. Consider the center of world GDP. If every dollar of income in the world were tugging upon the surface of the world equally, the center of the world economy would shift around on the surface of the globe to follow GDP at different points of time.
The word ‘China’ in Chinese means ‘the center country’ because China saw itself as the center of the globe during most of the 20th century. Although the center of global GDP was a bit west of China, it was pretty close to the center of the world’s economy until the industrial revolution around 1800.
The graph above shows that Asia had 60% of world GDP until around 1800 and most of Asia was pretty empty. It was really only the SE corner of Asia where most of economic activity was concentrated due to a particular abundance of their special resource.
But people aren’t a special resource that doesn’t exist elsewhere. The red parts of Asia have an enormously high population density because of another technology.
Notice how closely the population density map mirrors a map of modern rice production. Even the high-population areas of west Africa are rice-cultivating areas.
Rice production caused high population density. Rice was even more important before 1800 when scientific and industrial revolutions (along with high-productivity new crops from the American conquest: corn and potatoes) boosted agricultural production and population in Europe and northern America.
Rice-growing areas have had high population density because one harvest of rice produces more calories per acre than most other crops, and also because rice can produce three harvests per year rather than one or two for most crops. Rice caused a population boom because of a combination of the productivity of rice and locations in Asia that are blessed with some of the most productive agriculture in the world due to excellent soil and climate:
Somehow the secrets of intensive rice cultivation didn’t make it out of Asia until modern times. Rice seeds made it to the Roman empire, but they had little impact on the diet and population density because nobody figured out how to grow rice as intensively as the Asians. Only the SE quadrant of Asia mastered intense rice cultivation. Why no other major civilization could master it is a mystery to me, but I suspect part of the answer lies in the fact that some kinds of information (technology) can be very difficult to transmit.
Corn has a similar story of bad technological adoption. Corn is a similarly miraculous grain with amazing productivity per acre. Its productivity was the basis for Native American empires which boasted some of the largest cities in the world during their heyday. They constructed the largest pyramid in the world in Mexico (which was destroyed by the Spaniards and converted into the base for a church).
Corn is truly a miracle plant. The picture below shows how much more productive a domesticated ear of corn is than the tiny ear of the wild corn (teosinte) was. The low-productivity ancestor of corn is nearly unrecognizable next to the pocket knife. If Monsanto invented corn today, they would have undoubtedly patented it and could sell seeds for a very high price because it is so productive. (As it stands, Monsanto controls 60% of the corn and soybean seeds sold in the US because of patented seeds that offer marginally higher productivity.) If Monsanto introduced corn as a new food today, people would take one look at the monstrous grass (yes, it is a crazy big grass plant) and reject it as a frankenfood.
After the Americas were colonized, the conquistadors brought corn back to the old world where it dramatically increased agricultural productivity, but it did not become the basis for high population density like in Mesoamerica partly because the Eurasians did not learn to soak it with baked limestone before eating it, a process known as nixtamalization.
It probably seemed barbaric to put baked limestone into food, but this process makes corn much more nutritious and eliminates problems with pellagra, a nutritional deficiency disease that was unknown in the corn-based Native American societies. Pellagra became endemic among impoverished Eurasian and African peoples who depended on eating corn because they didn’t know about nixtamalization. Pellagra victims look pretty bad:
Because corn has such high productivity, more corn is produced today than any other grain in the world, but partly because of its reputation for nutritional diseases like pellagra, it is mostly fed to lifestock rather than eaten by humans.
So ideas don’t always travel across continents as easily as physical goods even though ideas are weightless. Ideas like nixtamalization and intensive rice cultivation could have transformed the rest of the world, but only the physical corn and rice seeds successfully made the journey. Today some ideas rapidly spread around the globe, but many of the most important ideas are still more difficult to spread than heavy goods. That is why education is so expensive. The knowledge itself is ubiquitous in libraries and on the internet, but it is still expensive to figure out how to use knowledge in a life-changing way.
Intensive rice production requires a lot of informal education. It requires flooded fields which means that they must be perfectly level and surrounded by dikes and a canal system for pumping water in or out of the rice paddies to keep the water at the right level throughout the growing season and the ability to completely drain the fields before harvest. The flooded fields eliminates weeds and many pests and keeps the soil fertility high.
Rice is commonly grown in small nursery plots in 5% of the field for a month or two before transplanting out into the rest of the field for the final months of growth. By transplanting the rice seedlings, farmers can grow three full crops per year in tropical regions. Transplanting rice isn’t an obvious technology to copy and intensive rice production requires many more techniques that are difficult to copy (like using humanure for fertilizer). Without all the techniques that are part of the Asian rice toolkit, rice did not revolutionize the rest of the world like it transformed Asia. Modern communication and transportation has made it much easier to replicate technologies and the most productive rice producers (per acre) are now in places like the US and Australia that are outside of the traditional rice zone, but despite having higher productivity than in Asia, there is still relatively little area devoted to rice outside of the ancestral region.
Over the past century, Western nations finally succeeded at copying and even surpassing Asian rice production methods. Since the 1980s, the Asians in the rice zone also finally succeeded at copying the West’s industrial revolution and catching up. That is why the center of world GDP is inexorably shifting back to where it was for most of history.
Economic growth is increasing because new information technologies has been helping knowledge spread faster. In the 1500s the printing press opened up the age of discovery and the industrial revolution for European nations which led them to grow much faster than nations that were slower to adopt printing. Now the spread of the internet is helping poor nations catch up with rich nations because ideas are spreading much more easily to every corner of the globe.
- 1:30 → China and India were already a LOT bigger than the Roman empire at its peak.
- 3:00 → By the year 1,000, China and India make Europe look like a miniscule backwater.
- 3:20 → The Mongol invasion kills 40million-70million people across Asia just after 1200 and you can see the lights going out in China. This is by far the deadliest war in human history as measured as a percentage of the total population killed. So many people died that much of Asia reforested. The new trees sucked so much carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere that it is visible in the carbon record.
- 3:30 → The bubonic plague kills about 1/3 of Europe.
- 4:15 → European population explodes around 1800 due to the industrial revolution and finally starts to rival India and China in population density, but European population growth slows in the 20th century whereas it takes off again in India and China due to medical advances that caused the demographic transition first in Europe and later in China and India.