Published by EH.NET (August 2011)

Edward B. Barbier, Scarcity and Frontiers: How Economies Have Developed through Natural Resource Exploitation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xviii + 747 pp. $48 (paperback), ISBN 978-0-521-70165-5

Reviewed for EH.Net by John R. Hanson II, Department of Economics, Texas A&M University.

The title of Edward Barbier?s magnum opus on natural resources, Scarcity and Frontiers, mystified me until I came across the following headline in the business section of the July 18 Houston Chronicle: ?UT and MIT hope to study oil?s frontier.? The article describes a joint project between the two universities envisaged to study ways of producing fossil fuels in challenging or high-cost areas — that is, ?frontiers? — such as deep offshore regions, the Arctic, and dense shale formations. The import of Barbier?s stated mission, to remind us that this engagement with the natural resource frontier and its consequences is a critical but underappreciated feature of economic history, then became transparent. The publisher?s teaser to the volume elaborates: ?… a critical driving force behind global economic development [for thousands of years] has been the response of society to the scarcity of key natural resources. Increasing scarcity … creates incentives to innovate and conserve [traditional natural resources]. … [E]conomies have also responded by obtaining more of these resources.? What better contemporary illustration of this historical principle could there be than the joint project announced in the Chronicle? And how much more timely could Barbier be? Not much, I?d wager.
Economic historians already are aware of many historical examples — not necessarily mentioned by Barbier — of this fundamental reality. The Medieval invasions of Eastern Europe and Russia by the Teutonic Knights to acquire land to feed growing populations on manors at home bring out the point well. The booming market for Peruvian guano in early-nineteenth century England was part of the pre-scientific process of switching from extensive to intensive agriculture (a new frontier) by improving the fertility of land and an element in averting the population trap predicted for England by the Reverend Malthus. As I write in my book (one of Barbier?s statistical sources) on nineteenth-century trade, Trade in Transition, Britain ?began to exhaust its domestic supplies of several resources, including copper and fertile land, in the 1830s, with the result that demand [for resources] … was felt by a wider range of LDCs than previously? (p. 130). So I must say ?amen? to Barbier?s assertions that economic globalization is deeply rooted in the quest by developing countries for substitutes for traditional sources of supply of natural resources.

Barbier proposes to elaborate this general theme of challenge/response or necessity-breeds-invention over ten long chapters altogether covering 748 dense pages. He begins in 10,000 BC and ends with today, omitting no era. He covers virtually the entire known world in all of the epochs he demarcates or identifies, such as what he calls the ?Golden Age of Natural Resource Development,? the celebrated 1870-1914 period.? Other chapters address ?The Rise of Cities (from 3000 BC to 1000 AD),? ?The Age of Dislocation (from 1914 to 1950)? and so on. Barbier?s ambition is huge and the amount of material he presents, vast. It would be hard to find a greater quantity of information on natural resources and primary products presented from a point of view in any other single place. It is unfortunate that so much of this information is included in copious, lengthy quotations from various notable scholars. Barbier loves the argument-from-luminary. Most of this extensive material fortunately is relegated to end notes to the chapters.

Despite his frankly-admitted dedication to the environmentalist cause, the author?s prose, though sluggish, is not particularly didactic or hortatory. I was relieved not to feel hectored.? Barbier adheres closely to the professional canons of the field of economic history. He does mention some contentious political issues from time to time, and his stance on many of these is un-apologetically Green. But overall he pursues no other agenda than attempting to call attention to an area of economics which he feels — incorrectly, in my opinion — has not been given its just due as a factor in economic history. It is laudable that he tries to derive some lessons of history for our time. All in all, a nice job of establishing relevance while escaping ideological temptations which, un-avoided, might have cast doubt on the value of his principled and strenuous labors.
These admirable features to the contrary notwithstanding, this book ultimately is a case of bait-and-switch. It is promised in the opening that the exciting interplay of the natural world and human needs will be the book?s theme. Could we imagine an unsuspected link between natural resource scarcity and the rise of the market? What might be the link between the Magna Carta and problems of resource utilization? These are fantasies of mine prompted by the publisher?s advertising, but there is currently a serious hypothesis circulating from Alberto Alesina?s team to the effect that modern gender roles in societies throughout the world are linked to the ancient invention of the plough. Plough-oriented primitive agriculture put a premium on physical strength, it is conjectured, giving males an upper hand over females which previously had not existed. Yet engaging hypotheses of this sort are, if present at all, buried in data and reportage of conventional wisdom often only tangentially related to the product Barbier and Cambridge University Press pledged.
We are offered, in other words, a compendium of the familiar. Which resources mattered in which stages of history? Who used them? For what were they used? Where were they located? What consequences likely ensued? Relying on a plethora of secondary sources, Barbier provides answers to all of these questions in impressive detail. He successfully demonstrates awareness of the number and complexity of the issues involved in the relation of natural resources and economic development. He notes correctly but perhaps reluctantly that the presence or exploitation of natural resources does not guarantee economic success for a nation because of possible institutional deficiencies, weak culture, and the like. But his comprehensiveness defeats the purpose of making natural resources exciting. The challenge-of-necessity thesis gradually sinks in discursive quicksand. The case for natural resources as, in themselves, an active developmental force or an ingredient in profound Hegelian economic processes is not systematically prosecuted. The volume mutates into something like an unconventional history textbook on natural resource usage. But if textbook this be, why is it advertised as a monograph?

The book I wish Barbier had written would have consisted of several crisp, Alesina-like historical case studies, all illustrating in arresting ways the thesis he promised. Lytton Strachey?s classic Eminent Victorians or Paul Johnson?s sparkling Intellectuals are works from opposite philosophical perspectives which both use this method to make big points elegantly. The surfeit of second-hand academic orthodoxy in the lumbering of Barbier about natural resources, their uses, locations, and properties, the theories developed to illuminate their effects on history, the exceptions and modifications to these theories, the sweeping historical generalizations and conjectures, the cross-epoch comparisons, the profuse statistical data, and so on would have been junked or at least kept to a minimum in order to fix attention on the fascinating and weighty assertion with which he starts. The concluding summary in this alternate volume would have left the reader refreshed rather than exhausted by a mind-numbing slog through the present one.

John R. Hanson II is Professor of Economics, Texas A&M University. He is the author of Trade in Transition: Exports from the Third World, 1840-1900 (Academic Press, 1980).???

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