The Industrial Revolution to Timbuktu  

Posted by Wayne Bretski in , ,

Dr. Gregory Clark of the University of Cal.-Davis has an intriguing-looking new book coming out, called "A Farewell to Alms", which analyzes the means by which mankind managed to escape continual poverty and jump-start the Industrial Revolution. Econ bloggers have been all over this one, preemptively debating some of the more provocative points.

In his thesis, Dr. Clark describes the Malthusian trap, whereby a geometric marginal productivity increase through technology ushered in exponential population growth. He believes that throughout history, man has struggled on the cusp of this line: untenably rapid population growth when compared to cultivation methodologies, and that only through natural disasters (e.g., the Black Plague - caused by these very same factors of "too many people, not enough [fill in basic need]") was the number of humans reduced enough such that subsequent generations, inheriting the technological know-how, were able to provide for themselves. Of course, these evolutionary winners celebrated by copulating prodigiously, falling back into the same trap as before.

Nicholas Wade's review in the Times
To read a chapter from the book on social consequences of the I.R., visit Mark Thoma's
Economist's View. With comments.

Of course, in a rural agrarian society, children double as labor. So it made infinitely more sense to pop out as many kids as you could afford to feed for, say, ten years, at which point their labor productivity outstrips their consumption. But what causes a modern family - especially an urban, economically disadvantaged family - to continue to procreate so rapidly? Cost of contraception vs. Cost of raising a child? Hmm..

Speaking of rural-agrarian societies, Timbuktu has long been associated with "the middle of nowhere". It's just one of those proper nouns - like Walla Walla, Washington - that rolls off the tongue so nicely that you don't even realize where it is, anything about it, or whether it really exists. Apparently at one time, this Malian city in the middle of the Sahara was a bustling academic center, featuring the University of Sankore which boasted 25,000 scholars. Due to a confluence of agricultural and religious factors, traffic - and scholarship - declined in the late middle ages. Today the Libyan government is pouring money back into Timbuktu, with the intention of transforming it into "the Alexandria of Black Africa" by collecting ancient manuscripts in storage throughout the streets and nomad camps of Mali.

Lydia Polgreen has more.

I'll use this opportunity to post some traditional, and not so traditional, music of Mali - a nation of nomads for hundreds of years. Tribal songsmith, known as a griots (jeli, in Manding), served as a mouthpiece for the past and present of the Tuareg people. Carrying on this tradition today include great artists like Toumani Diabate, the recently deceased Ali Farka Toure, and Tinariwen, the latter riding a wave of international popularity today. While rooted in Saharan Africa, many of these artists have collaborated with Western artists and musicologists such as Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, Taj Mahal, and Ry Cooder.

The tunes:
Toumani Diabate, maestro of the 21-string West African harp known as the kora, from his debut album Kaira: Jarabi

Ali Farka Toure, known as the African John Lee Hooker, with a bluesy solo off Niafunke: Instrumental

Diabate and Farka Toure together on 2005's In the Heart of the Moon: Kala

Farka Toure with Ry Cooder in 1994, from Talking Timbuktu: Gomni

Internet sensation of the moment Tinariwen, from Ammasakoul: Chet Boghassa

Finally, there's Salif Keita. From

Born to royal lineage, with ancestral roots going back to Soundjata Keita, the founder of the Malian Empire in 1240, Keita was disowned by his father after announcing his plans to play music.

Here's Yamoke, off his album Moffou.

And speaking of ethnomusicologist rock musicians, I just found out that David Byrne composed the score for the second season of Big Love on HBO. Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo, Wes Anderson films) did a great job in the first season, and I'm excited about this development. Now I just need a TV...

Also, have you seen the new iMacs?

*Update: I forgot a song I wanted to post, that refers to the capital of Mali, Bamako. Amadou and Mariam met at an Institute for the Blind in Bamako in the '80s. Both blind, they have three kids and have toured together for the last 20 years.

Amadou et Mariam, from 2006's Dimanche a Bamako - Taxi Bamako


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