Cultural Evolution of China

PlowChina is one of five locations in the world of “pristine state” formation.  Five thousand years of Chinese history are commonly recounted as one dynasty following another, in a continuous, expanding trend to the present.  However, pulsing in space and time are a better characterization.  Theories of pulsing or cycling dynamics in human ecosystems have generated increasing interest in recent years as a central component of the study of complex systems.  Particularly Holling’s “adaptive cycle” and Odum’s “pulsing” are two examples of specific studies of ecosystem dynamics, as related to human use of ecosystem resources.  It is argued by Odum and others that pulsing is a result of ecosystem self-organization for maximum empower (i.e., maximized power intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and efficiency).

China PopulationThe history of China is indeed a history of almost countless rise and fall.  The growth of Chinese states “pulsed” in both space and time.  Within one “dynasty”, a capital might move 6 or 8 times.  Dynasties expanded into great empires, only to dissolve into regional states or even city states.  There have been many meticulously reconstructed historical explanations of this history of rise and fall.  But a far simpler explanation has not been offered, one that could be called an environmental “null hypothesis”.  That is, can this pulsing history be explained with a model that accounts for the pulsed usage of natural resources by ancient farmers as they cut and cleared and farmed the ancient forests of China?

PulsingA general model of pulsing human-environmental dynamics focuses on (1) the capture of renewable resources by humans and (2) the consumption of stores of slow-renewable resources.  Slow-renewable resources for early agriculture-based states include especially topsoil loss in farming, and forest timber loss for cleared fields and to feed the furnaces of bronze and then iron making.  Both of these resources are slow-renewable since, in relation to human time-scales, each requires a lifetime or more to fully recover after they have been consumed by human use.

Related Publications:

Abel T. 2007 “Pulsing and Cultural Evolution in China”. In: Brown M, ed. Proceedings of the 4th Biennial Emergy Research Conference. Gainesville: Center for Environmental Policy, University of Florida.