Wednesday, November 21, 2018

A Partly Technological Appendix to Postblogging Technology, September, 1948: Peanuts and People

Jute stalks, drying. By Auyon - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
We have a bunch of things going on this month on the technology, science, science and technology related politics, and "culture surrounding technology and stuff that influences technology policy" areas of topical interest. (That last probably needs to be punched up into academese.) First, there's straight science and technology, including alternative heating arrangements, a real whole Earth Catalog kind of field about which we've heard ever so much for our entire lives; and artificial fibres from the pre-petroleum age that seem hopelessly old-fashioned and retro. I grew up in a cellulose pulp mill town, so this makes me sad. 

In politics, we have the ongoing "grand schemes of human improvement" thing, which has fixed itself on Africa and focussed on the global shortage of edible fats, to be addressed by a government-sponsored project to erect a commercial peanut agriculture in the inland highlands of what is now Tanzania; and related to this but reaching far beyond it, plans to improve commercial access to those highlands through rail lines running down to the coast in southern Tanzania and the port towns of the former Italian colony of Eritrea.

In science, we have a seemingly coordinated blitz by "Malthusians"/environmentalists at the British and American annual meetings of the Associations for the Advancement of Science. 

Finally, as always in the fall of an American presidential year, we have a great accretion of cruft related to the campaigns, which is sometimes not always recognisable as cruft, and can have serious consequences. Insofar as we recognise them today, the focus is always on anti-communism and the spy scare.Not to spoil future installments, but this Senator McCarthy fellow is going places. However! One of the problems with politically-crafted stories is that we may fail to recognise them in a way that renders them invisible. America is still coming to terms with race and the '48 campaign, which includes not only the Dixiecrat presidential run, but Palestine. And, by "coming to terms with," I apparently mean, "Ignoring real hard." 

This brief meditation on the politics of 70 years ago brings my attention back around to the question of the allocation of the former Italian colonies. This clearly was a political story, because Dewey made a campaign issue of it. It is also related to the "grand schemes" theme. The question is, is there more to it than that? Joseph Philips, of Newsweek, thought so, pointed to what seemed to him a very clear link between the colony question and the Malthusian blitz. As much as I like to make fun of Newsweek's bylined columnists (except Hazlitt, whom I just staight out  hate), this is solid and interesting reporting, and I am going to follow up below.  

I know I promised peanuts, but jute has come up, with a last minute export credit fix to get the jute crop out of "Pakistan," modern Bangladesh. I'm going with jute rather than peanuts in my thumbnail because whenever the subject turns to population, I am reminded of P. J. O'Rourke's 1995 take on overpopulation. The gist of it is that Bangladesh has the same population density as Fresno, California, but is deemed to be overpopulated because it is full of brown people. (Yes, typhoons threaten Bangladesh due to its low relief; but, then, forest fires, Fresno.) O'Rourke makes a hilarious visit to the Ministry of Jute and comes away thinking that Golden Bengal's problems started when bureaucracy was invented. On the other hand, he's at least fair and honest enough to note that jute doesn't sell the way that it did.

The Wikipedia article is a long and somewhat sad sales pitch for jute fibre. A bast fabric like flax linen, jute is made of long cellulose fibres that form in the outer rind of the stems shown drying into straw, above. Because, unlike cotton, no nitrogenated plant matter is removed from the land, jute has a low demand for fertiliser and it grows on flooding land, making good use of the sacrificial zones that protect the delta's dry ground and paddies. In 1948, vast quantities of jute were delivered to mills in Dundee, Scotland, to be woven mostly into carpet and sackcloth. As the BBC article from which I filched this image says, "tastes have changed," and many of those Dundee mills have closed. It was a problem for Bangladesh in 1995, and it is a problem for it now. Tastes have changed, yes; but, also, plastic.

Alongside traditional jute and ultra-modern "Terylene," we have Ardil, the "forgotten peanut fibre," set for largescale production alongside jute in Dumfries, as of 1948. Peanuts have come up as an item in the somewhat overpopulated-related story of the Indian invasion and conquest of Hyderabad, since a peanut embargo at the frontier played some part in the rising tensions that culminated in the invasion and final reversal of the verdict of Golconda. (I'm not entirely clear as to how the siege of Golconda in 1687 led to the rise of the Nizam of Hyderabad. Maybe it didn't! Maybe I'm misreading things. Point is, it's always living history for someone.) Peanuts are like jute, a virtuous plant, since they are a legume, adding both nitrogen and manure to the soil while producing plenty of oil and protein rich food for people and animals. As of the fall of 1948, the idea that the "food surplus" of the 1930s might be roaring its way back hasn't quite taken hold.

I can't resist reproducing the banner from the Peanut Company of Australia web page that is one of the few relevant search hits for Ardil. That's a lot of peanuts! Of slightly more relevance is this entry from a conservation resource which describes Ardil as a fibre made by dissolving plant protein in urea, then solution-extruded through spinnerets into a coagulating bath. A protein fibre, like wool, Ardil used the byproduct from peanut oil production, so there would be plenty of Groundnuts Scheme peanut cake for treatment in Dumfries. Ironically, the Peanut Company of Australia is alert to this not because the Ardil industry is good for peanut farmers, but because Ardil was seen in the 1950s as a wool competitor. In 1948, with the wartime shortages still winding down, it was seen as a substitute. I'm not sure just how much of a substitute, given that it is "degraded by alkalis," but substitute. 

In the event, there ended up being too much wool, too little peanut, and the Ardil mill was shut down in 1957. Although the definitive history of the Groundnuts Scheme has yet to be written, the overarching story here is the historic success of global agriculture in overcoming the shortages of 1948 and producing our modern and slightly embarrassing surplus of food. The reason that Ardil failed was not shortage of raw materials but rather that the petrochemical industry undercut the market.
Polyethylene terephthalate, known as mylar to the grocery industry, which relies on it as a structural material,* polyester in the textiles industry, and PET to bottlers, is what ICI had the temerity to dub "Terylene."  This silly English name, used by ICI for no better reason than that it was invented in Britain, ignores America's manifest high technology destiny and right to name all modern chemical industry products and byproducts. 

Excuse me. You'd think I'd be over arguing with Correlli Barnett by now. As the Wiki article says, Mylar/Polyester/Dacron/PET was discovered in 1941, when John Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dickson discovered how to condense terepthalic acid into a polymerised strand. The 1941 work was an elaborate synthesis aimed at getting an artificial fabric, but the potential to simply blast oil refinery farts through a reactor and directly precipitate fibre must have been gasped early, because ICI announced an economical process in 1955, which was promptly sold to Amoco, leading, eventually, to our modern age of mylar mountains and jokes about polyester fabrics. "Refinery farts" is the technical term for the final product in the flow of heated, vapourised POL blown through the catalytic reforming process, by the way. Accept no IUPAC substitutes.

Among the many uses of polyester is in a wool/polyester blend that stretches the global supply of the natural, protein-based fibre, and which makes it less vulnerable to detergents and wash water. Goodbye, Ardil and its happy families.

So I guess the theme I've hit on here is something along the lines of petrol for people, wells for field, rampant carbonisation for conservative topsoil building. 

Topsoil erosion? You can either put in a peanut crop (canola might be better on the northern plains) or go with diesel! 

The overpopulation/Malthusian issue comes up three times in September of 1948. We have noted it being sold as a specifically Italian issue. As a theme at both the British and American Association for the Advancement of Science conventions, at the latter of which Fairfield Osborn gave a preview of Our Plundered Planet. an interesting connection here is the apparent calculated insult was delivered to the Ethiopian ambassador. The Daughters of the American Revolution (again, apparently) sending an usher to expel a Black ambassador from the audience of the AAS' inaugural session at Constitution Hall.

Because the modern literature on the history of the environmental movement makes such a big deal of the pioneering Osborne and William Vaughn (actually Vogt) books, it is worth noting that Henry Tizard's presidential address hits many of the same themes, albeit with interesting differences.  (Apropos of anything else, who else was gobsmacked that the calculated life expectancy in 1948 was still 48?) In Enginering's commentary on the British AAS,  "novelist A. G. Street" is invoked. Street could hardly be further from Vogt and Osborne if he tried. Whereas the American writers are obsessed with what American farming is doing wrong, Street is a champion of the English farmer.

Finally, there is Joseph Philips connecting Italy, overpopulation, and the election. Setting aside the ridiculous numbers coming out of Rome, we have the connection here being drawn in red pen between election and my "apparently coordinated Malthusian blitz." "Overpopulation" is the story of the day this September, from explicit stories to The Economist's sly rebuke, quoting The Economist of 1848 as quite rightly pointing out that the swingeing rate of emigration that was actually happening in Britain in 1848 did nothing, or worse than nothing, for its social problems.

So much, then, for me summarising what we've already seen reported. The Ethiopian angle here isn't that anyone seriously wants to chase the Conquering Lion of Judah out of Addis Ababa. I just think it's some kind of commentary on the mid-century that the Malan government could float that and not get bombed, never mind economic sanctions. It's about rather, Libya, Eritrea and Somaliland, the former hilariously described in this otherwise useful, contemporary backgrounder as a lightly populated desert with no useful resources, specifically including oil. Ethiopia does come up, but it is because it understandably wants at least the Red Sea ports of Eritrea. Claims of ethnic kinship were ultimately decisive, trumping the religious divide that we now see as somewhat important.

So what I cynically suggested is that the Italian restitution issue is working the civil rights angle as well as the Italian-American vote, which Dewey did, indeed, win by a healthy margin in the end. Maybe it is all too obtuse for the American voter, but the Ras Imru incident did make it into the press as a major scandal, says Newsweek, and if recent events have taught me anything, it is that you cannot underestimate the power of the colour card in American electoral politics. I'm not sure that a calculated insult to Haile Selassie and assorted Afronationalists was specifically on Dewey's agenda, but it's of a piece with the GOP's handling of the civil rights hot potato. (Potatoes are another low-fertiliser, high manure crop,perfect for building topsoil.)

So what is the role of racism here? The revisionist take on overpopulation is that it is pretty much just a scientific veneer on racism. P. J. O'Rourke gets to the heart of that aspect of it with his "Way too many of them" observation. We have to go back to 1948 to see virtually the last gasp of the assisted emigration aspect of it, the settler colonies of the African highlands that will alleviate European "overpopulation," and incidentally help feed the ever-increasing population of a hungry world --and a distinctly disturbing subtext that, if the colonists practice a bit of the old-fashioned genocide, it will be good for a world already struggling at the limits of its "carrying capacity," a concept apparently requiring neither definition nor defence.  Incidentally, the Earth's land surface area is 35 billion acres, which means that if we deem it to have 2 billion acres of arable, we are arguing that arable land makes up just under 6% of its surface. 

So I turn to Matthew Connolly's Fatal Misconceptions, because it has been sitting in my "to read" pile for years although hopefully not since its 2008 publication date. Connolly's reconstruction of the train of events in 1948 begins with John Boyd Orr's plan for a World Food Board to stabilise agricultural production and prices globally, which was decisively rejected by American delegates to the United Nations, unlike the World Health Organisation, approved at the same time. This elicited a letter from T. H. Huxley to the effect that better health would lead to more Africans, Black Americans and Russians, with obvious dysgenic effects including a lowering of "innate ability." Connolly announces this discovery because Huxley is one of the great men of British science, but he is invisible behind Tizard in September of 1948, and finding racism in 1948 is like playing "I Spy" in Vancouver in November and announcing that you see something gray. Certainly, both Vogt and Osborne take time out from describing desertification, deforestation and mass extinctions to notice that rising population portended a "decline," because, really, what do else do you expect? Thomas Robertson heroically struggles to absolve Vogt of racism at least with regard to Latin Americans. The actual buried lede here is the equation of African Americans with assorted over-breeding lesser kinds without the law in the rest of the world. 

By Source (WP:NFCC#4),
Fair use,
Both Vogt and Osborne (the son of a prominent eugenicist) come out of the American agrarian tradition. As far as this blog is concerned, those are the guys who live on model farms and popped up in spring numbers of Fortune during the war years predicting that this year, for sure, "we are not going to have enough to eat." As far as the mainstream of intellectual history goes, we are talking about the Southern Agrarians, a bunch of real Lost Causers, but Lost Causers with a difference, as they elide racism and classism with their talk of erosion and dust bowls, always associated with Appalachian and Oklahoman populations that, I argue, are implicitly coded as mixed race. 

Where we haven't arrived is at an explanation for why this is blowing up in the English-speaking press in the fall of 1948. This is not the arrival of the first prophets with a new awareness of Malthus/ecological crisis/eugenics. It is some canny writers catching the Zeitgeist. Given the timing, I am still saying that it is the American election and civil rights, rapidly developing into one of the central issues of the campaign. Vogt even had a slightly earlier incarnation as a critic of the European Relief Programme when it looked like opposition to it might have traction as an election issue, although Vogt was anything but a Taftite conservative otherwise. 

So what Britain? Engineering's evocation of a national disaster in which all of Britain has to turn out to dig for survival, as in a novel by A. G. Street seems to have nothing to do with anything Street actually wrote. Holdfast (1946), sounds like it comes closest to those themes, and that not very close, although if someone would do me a kindness and publish short summaries in a single location, that would be a kindness. What's happening here is that Engineering is a fan of A. G. Street, and very intrigued by this notion of an apocalyptic food import stop. Which might be relevant, given the current to-do over "hard Brexit." Engineering reports the consensus that Britain can feed about 20 million of its 46 millions, and can increase its productivity by another 20%; and that the only way to accommodate the world's additional 20 millions a year is to raise the rest of the world's agricultural productivity to British levels. 

Twenty percent, as it turns out, is well short of the mark. (Source.)

 These figures may hide the reality of crisis behind apparent success. That is the Osborne/Vogt thesis, which visualises a rapid collapse in agricultural productivity due to ecological degradation. One can argue that artificial fertilisers, pesticides, and the Green Revolution put off our reckoning temporarily, and that the crisis is just around the corner. A more responsible, but still utopian agronomist might talk about a more sustainable and soil-building agriculture based on nitrogen-fixing, high manure crops like peanuts, which is where we came in. There is not, in fact, a similar graph of British peanut, or, rather, canola production, because the British field legumes of choice have always been clover and vetch, which lead to butter, cheese and ice cream, which are nicer than canola oil, but that just takes us back to the good old days of British Nineteenth Century High Farming.

So, about that. This is Maria Telkes' Dover Solar Home, given a nice writeup by the MIT Technology Review. The key to an effective solar heating installation is heat storage to last through low light flux periods. Telkes' system used bins containing 21 tons of sodium acetate decahydrate, which melts at 90 degrees Fahrenheit and has a specific latent heat seven times higher than water. Hot air from the solar panels is ducted across the bins, melting the crystalline solid within, which then freezes, releasing heat, during cooler days.

As better living through chemistry goes, this is, of course, insane. Sodium acetate isn't a particularly obnoxious chemical, as these things go, but it's not exactly benign, either. The tanks needed constant maintenance because of corrosion issues, and the battery solution separated in the middle of the third winter. As a proof of concept it is defensible, but as a house heating technology, it is just weirdly impractical. Fortune begins its long article on home heating alternatives with the observation that insulation is the homeowner's single best value for money, and this remains true today. After that, anyone worried about ecological or Malthusian catastrophe, even in 1948, ought to be worried about decarbonisation. I'm not going to go back in time and lecture a brilliant scientist like Dr. Telkes about global warming. I'm thinking here more of "end of coal"/ "end of oil" worries. After all, it is the oil and coal shortages of the winter of 1947 that inspired these concerns in the fall of 1948 to begin with. It might not be obvious in 1948 how one was to get current/steam/fuel delivered to one's doorstep that wasn't implicated in fossil fuel use, but as long as solar heating does not provide for cooking, hot water, or lighting, it is not a solution to much of anything.

I won't trouble you with a review of the heat pump articles. Put your hand around the back of your refrigerator, and you should be able to feel the heat. That's pretty much the principle. It would be a lovely technology if it didn't involve regular air, with its distressing range of water vapour content, and pumping fluids back and forth in closed circuits while they expand and contract. As it is, any superintendent of a complex HVAC system (for example, grocery store evening manager) will tell you that they are, like electronic gift cards, things of the devil. I'm sure that the modern ones are awesomely reliable and last nearly forever, but still . . . Insulation, I tells ya.

As to what's driving the boomlet for Whole Earth Catalog technologies in the fall of 1948? Fear and anxiety bred by American electoral politics. It's mostly coming out as xenophobia, but there's plenty of social withdrawal in there, too. Power grids involve you with other people!

It's a theory, anyway. 

*Sufficient layers of mylar will hold any load up  in a trailer, so go right ahead and pile the water on top of the tissue paper, and the olive oil on top of both.

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