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Energy and the Enlightenment

Image: Tom Coates

With Steven Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now currently making the headlines, it is worth, perhaps, visiting two of the least asked questions about the European Enlightenment – why did it happen where and when it did?

The mainstream answer – one that underlay the European racism and nationalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – is an evolutionary progression of unfolding ideas linking modern western thought, via the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the Reformation, all the way back through  the Roman Empire to the philosophers of Ancient Greece.  That is, there is something distinct and special about Western European culture that enabled its people to rise up and conquer (both ideologically and culturally) the entire world.

The problem is that each of the societies that supposedly progressed these ideas rose and fell in its turn (a pattern that modern America shows every sign of following); the ideas themselves neither seeming to cause the rise of empire nor to explain its collapse.  If ancient Greece, Rome, the Spaniards, French or English were so advanced and so enlightened, how come their empires crumbled into the dust of history?

A more persuasive view of the rise of Western Europe is offered by archaeologist and historian Ian Morris in Why the West Rules for now.  The rise of the west had very little to do with its culture and a great deal to do with accidents of geography.  The wealth of the civilisations of the Americas – peoples who have been largely expunged from a mainstream history written by Europeans and their descendants – provided the economic boost that propelled a soporific Europe into the modern age.  But the reason it was Europeans and not Chinese planters who came to exploit and colonise the Americas was down to two non-human factors – distance and trade winds.  China, a more advanced civilisation than Western Europe in the 1490s, had large ocean-going ships equal to any Spanish galleon.  However, whereas favourable trade winds in the Atlantic allowed European sailors to traverse the 3,000 miles between the continents with some regularity, Chinese mariners faced an 8,000 mile journey propelled by winds that that took them along the frigid coasts of Siberia and Alaska.  So, while it is likely that Chinese sailors visited American civilisations, colonisation was beyond them.

Although oft forgotten, the motive behind the European voyages of discovery was economic.  In 1500, Asia and the Middle East were more advanced; and the goods they produced highly valued.  However, located at the western end of the very long Eurasian trade routes, treasured spices and silks passed through the hands of so many merchants and middlemen that few Western Europeans could afford to buy them.  If, however, a convenient sea route could be found, only the shipping company would stand between the producer and the Western European consumers.  This is why Portuguese sailors navigated the Cape of Good Hope, and why Spaniards made their way around Cape Horn.  The Americas, when first discovered, were regarded as an inconvenient obstacle preventing a clear passage to China.

What the Americas did have was a climate conducive to the production of Asian and Middle Eastern luxuries like tea, coffee and sugar; together with a new narcotic of their own – tobacco.  These, along with cotton (far superior to the woollen cloth common in Europe) quickly formed the basis of the Triangular Trade in which slaves were transported from Africa to the Americas to work the plantations.  Raw goods were then transported back to Europe for manufacture into finished goods for sale in domestic markets and for re-export to growing colonial empires.

Importantly, this massive economic expansion occurred before the Enlightenment.  It is not unreasonable, therefore, to argue that the body of ideas that include democracy, freedom of speech and the scientific method were in some way the product of the economic revolution that was occurring rather than its cause.

It is very likely that time played a large role in the revolution of ideas that followed the onset of economic revolution.  Put simply, the additional wealth flowing into Western Europe provided those with an aptitude for philosophy with the spare time needed to simply sit and contemplate life, the universe and everything.  And, as Joseph Tainter has pointed out, the early breakthroughs were the easy ones that could be revealed by a reasonably competent thinker with time to spare (Tainer contrasts this with the teams of people needed to make twentieth century discoveries, and the globalised, internet-connected multinational university research that is necessary today.  Had an apple not landed on Newton’s head, someone else would have figured out gravity.  Immunisation was there for anyone with Jenner’s eye for a pretty milkmaid to notice, and if not Wallace or Darwin, sooner or later someone was going to notice evolution.  The idea, however, that some lone individual might stumble upon a Higgs Boson particle or pluck a molten salt nuclear reactor out of nothing is fanciful to say the least.  As with everything else humans have done, we picked the low-hanging fruit first.

Noticing that the divine right of kings to rule was a dumb idea became inevitable once Western civilisation developed a level of complexity that exceeded the ability of a small cabal to control it (which is also why small cabals running socialist societies, multinational corporations and political parties fail with regularity today).  It did not take much for a thinker with time on his or her hands to observe that things like free trade – by which they meant freedom from cartels and monopolies rather than governments – produced better results than either bureaucratic states or oligarchic companies.  Noticing that sometimes ideas that went against the grain – like suggesting the earth orbits the sun – while hugely offensive to many people, actually turn out to be both correct and beneficial.  It is but a short step to freedom (and reasoned interrogation) of speech as the best means of separating truth from falsehood.

The relative simplicity of the ideas and the time available to think are important.  However, hiding in plain sight is another factor that most liberal thinkers would prefer to ignore.  Consider this description of pre-colonial Western Europe by Angela Jansz & Tracey Taylor:

“Prior to Spanish exploration of the Americas, Europe of the old world had a very limited repertoire of psychoactive substances. There was no opium, caffeine (in the form of tea or coffee), no tobacco or cannabis and the native European solenaceous hallucinogens and other herbs used in healing were enmeshed in superstition or dispensed with limited understanding by apothecaries.

“There really was only one psychoactive drug, alcohol. It had to fulfil a wide range of social, medicinal and intoxicating functions.”

Or this description by Stephen Hicks:

“The impact of the introduction of coffee into Europe during the seventeenth century was particularly noticeable since the most common beverages of the time, even at breakfast, were weak ‘small beer’ and wine. … Those who drank coffee instead of alcohol began the day alert and stimulated, rather than relaxed and mildly inebriated, and the quality and quantity of their work improved. … Western Europe began to emerge from an alcoholic haze that had lasted for centuries.”

Western Europe, starved of calories and permanently half-cut on alcohol had languished for 200 years after the initial revival following the Black Death.  As Jonathan Hersh and Hans-Joachim Voth (in Sweet Diversity: Colonial Goods and the Rise of European Living Standards after 1492) note:

“Englishmen saw their living standards surge by almost 200% after the Black Death in the middle of the fourteenth century. After 1500, a long period of decline set in. By 1600, much of the gain in living standards from the plague had disappeared. The 17th and 18th centuries then saw a recovery. Nonetheless, by 1800, living standards were still 25%-50% lower than they had been in 1450.”

It was, however, a change in the pattern of consumption that made the difference:

“The discoveries made life better by offering access to sugar, tea, chocolate, tobacco, and coffee. Aggregate consumption of these colonial luxuries grew rapidly during the early modern period. Starting either from zero (for tea, tobacco, and coffee) or from very low levels of consumption (sugar), English imports per head surged to 23 pounds of sugar, almost 2 pounds of tea, 1 pound of tobacco, and 0.1 pound of coffee by 1804-06.”

The growth in the availability of these goods was exponential and resulted in a fall in price that made them staples for even the lowest classes.  For example:

“While medieval Cyprus produced no more than an estimated 50-100 tons of sugar per year, Santo Domingo in the 18th century alone produced 3,500 tons. England in 1700 imported approximately 10,000 tons; a century later, this figure had risen to 150,000 tons, according to some estimates.

“As the price of sugar declined, consumption spread to the lower classes. It was frequently used as a substitute for a protein source, consumed in the absence of meat when and where meat was too expensive. Though the simple carbohydrates from sugar do not have all the nutritional qualities of a protein source, its consumption offered calories at a time where energy availability may have severely constrained labor input. In addition, sugar was used to add sweetness and calories to food and drink, especially to tea or coffee, or added in liquid or powdered form to a whole range of foods.”

At a time when sugar, tobacco and caffeine are seen as dangerous and unhealthy, it is easy to underestimate the beneficial impacts of these substances on a previously stultified European population.  There is a large body of psychological and clinical research into the effect of caffeine, nicotine and sugar on cognitive function and memory formation.  Clinical trials show that consumption of sucrose (sugar) has a beneficial impact on performance compared to a placebo (sweetener).  Dan Hurley writing in Scientific American is moved to ask if wearing a nicotine patch will make you smarter:

“I read through dozens of human and animal studies published over the past five years showing that nicotine—freed of its noxious host, tobacco, and delivered instead by chewing gum or transdermal patch—may prove to be a weirdly, improbably effective cognitive enhancer and treatment for relieving or preventing a variety of neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s, mild cognitive impairment, ADHD, Tourette’s, and schizophrenia…”

Meanwhile, Joon Yun posits the cognitive benefits of caffeine for the Enlightenment:

“To trace the introduction of psycho-stimulants such as coffee, tea, cocoa, and sugar into Europeans is to trace the history of colonialism and imperialism. I don’t remember this being mentioned in history class.

“Without the six pots of coffee a day that filled his mental tank, would the world today still remember Voltaire (1694–1778), a key figure of the French Enlightenment who anchored the greater European Enlightenment?”

Certainly French salons and English coffee houses are widely seen as the locations of the intellectual discussions and debates whose outcome, taken collectively, we think of today as the European Enlightenment.  Coffee and tobacco – often consumed as snuff – would no doubt have had a psychoactive effect upon those thinkers engaged in those debates.  But one cannot help thinking – having witnessed so many modern hyperactive young corn syrup consumers – whether we might be overlooking the sheer energy boost that all of that sugar consumption provided.  As Hersh and Voth remind us:

“For the poor, a cup of sugary tea could reduce feelings of hunger, and give energy for a short time. Tea could serve as a substitute for a hot meal, especially where heating fuel was in scarce supply.”

If sugar consumed in tea could provide a poor labourer with the energy to carry out his manual work, how much additional energy was available to the intellectual consumers of sweetened coffee and chocolate in the salons of Europe?  If wealth was what gave these intellectuals the time needed to sit and think, surely it was sugar that gave them the intellectual energy.  It is not unreasonable to suggest that sugar was the fuel that powered the Enlightenment.

As you made it to the end…

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