Monbiot’s Scrutiny In Perspective

Illustration by Eva Bee

The first I heard of him, nearly a decade ago, I was immediately hooked on his writing, and the ideas he was offering were surprising to read in a mainstream, if progressive, publication. He introduced me to rewilding. If you have not been reading or perhaps listening to George Monbiot during this decade you may not have noticed how his radicalism has evolved. In this editorial ostensibly about the Pandora Papers I learned something about Madeira that I want to read more about:

…A few decades after the Portuguese colonised Madeira in 1420, they developed a system that differed in some respects from anything that had gone before. By felling the forests after which they named the island (madeira is Portuguese for wood), they created, in this uninhabited sphere, a blank slate – a terra nullius – in which a new economy could be built. Financed by bankers in Genoa and Flanders, they transported enslaved people from Africa to plant and process sugar. They developed an economy in which land, labour and money lost their previous social meaning and became tradable commodities.

As the geographer Jason Moore points out in the journal Review, a small amount of capital could be used, in these circumstances, to grab a vast amount of natural wealth. On Madeira’s rich soil, using the abundant wood as fuel, slave labour achieved a previously unimaginable productivity. In the 1470s, this tiny island became the world’s biggest producer of sugar.

Madeira’s economy also had another characteristic that distinguished it from what had gone before: the astonishing speed at which it worked through the island’s natural wealth. Sugar production peaked in 1506. By 1525 it had fallen by almost 80%. The major reason, Moore believes, was the exhaustion of accessible supplies of wood: Madeira ran out of madeira.

It took 60kg of wood to refine 1kg of sugar. As wood had to be cut from ever steeper and more remote parts of the island, more slave labour was needed to produce the same amount of sugar. In other words, the productivity of labour collapsed, falling roughly fourfold in 20 years. At about the same time, the forest clearing drove several endemic species to extinction.

Read the whole editorial here.

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