Thursday, July 3, 2014

Review of Seeds of Wealth: Five Plants That Made Men Rich by Henry Hobhouse

Seeds of Wealth: Five Plants That Made Men Rich by Henry Hobhouse is about four wealth generating plants: timber, wine, rubber, and tobacco.

Obviously, these are and have been very important plants, and just as obviously you could argue that a more important plant should have been one of the four, and hence the list is arbitrary. Hobhouse's book written 20 years earlier was about sugar, tea, cotton, the potato, quinine, and the cocoa. Who cares which plants were "most important"; these books are good for adding to one's store of general knowledge.

Here is an interesting passage about wine:

"Wine symbolized stable husbandry. Vines are medium-term investments, not as far-sighted as olive trees but much more is implied by the planting of vines than the clearance of land for cereal production. A vineyard has an economic horizon of at least forty years, as much as a lifetime in ancient times. There was a wait of five years before full production. This meant that an adult man planted a vineyard for his successors, not necessarily for himself, and the sense of stability this involved made vines and wine an essential indicator of a certain level of civilization, of a certain belief in security, of a certain degree of faith in the future."
No one is planting vineyards in Zimbabwe right now. Wine was obviously a dense store of value for trade, and although the lead time for production was high as described above, the value of output per acre of land was ~2 orders of magnitude higher than cereal crops. And vines grow (better!) on marginal, hilly land than on good cereal growing soil!

About 25% of the GDP of the colonies was tobacco production. And the British had to invent the steam engine because they needed a way to pump water out of coal mines, since they had no wood.

The Great Fire in London in 1666 happened right as the country was running short on wood and led to a 10x price increase over earlier levels. Already in 1600 most of London heat was coal, so there was plenty of time to get in on timber before the Great Fire caused the price to spike for rebuilding.

4/5, but worth the penny (!) that a used copy costs on Amazon

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