Aug 20, 2010|
Why we speak English and not Chinese?
Why do we speak English and not Chinese? The short answer is because the British colonised much of the world for centuries. That helped spread the use of English in countries like India. The question then becomes, what made Britain and not some other country the dominant power for centuries? After all, a few centuries ago, China and India together accounted for more than half the world economy.
The fire power of human civilization
So why Britain? To answer this question, we must ask an even more basic question. Why did human beings emerge as the dominant species? For two reasons - the evolution of their bodies (hardware) and the application of their minds (software). Among the most important physical changes in early humans was when they stood up on two feet instead of using all four limbs. That freed their hands and expanded their vision. Among the most important behavioral changes was the making of tools. So, tool making was the first real catalyst for human dominance.
Human beings began by making basic tools using stones. But soon they moved on to metals. In order to shape metals, humans had to master the use of fire. The earliest source of fuel was wood. Fires fuelled by wood reach temperatures of about 700 degrees Celsius. To cross the 1000 degree Celsius mark, charcoal was used instead of wood. Charcoal is derived by burning wood under controlled conditions. The carbon content is higher in charcoal. And charcoal remained the fuel for choice for centuries.
Eventually, the demand for charcoal far exceeded the availability of wood coming out of forests. This was perhaps the first ever energy crisis the world had known. It led to the search of a better source of carbon. Coal. The country which would excel at coal mining was destined to become the pre-eminent world power.
When preparation meets opportunity
Unfortunately mother nature is fickle in distributing coal reserves. Coal was abundant in a tiny North European island nation - Britain. When the British started mining their abundant coal reserves, they very quickly hit a problem. The mines would flood as soon as they reached the depth of the water table. The water could not be pumped out manually. The British applied their minds and the steam engine was invented. It was designed specifically to pump out water but found many uses. Including that of the locomotive. This unleashed the industrial revolution.
There was another country with abundant known coal reserves. China. But it was located in the heartland, away from the main markets - the cities on the Chinese coast. Hence, it had to be transported hundreds of kilometers. The yellow river, which connected the coal to the cities, was difficult to navigate. Carrying the coal by land was prohibitively expensive. Unfortunately, the Chinese never got around to solving this problem. They were too obsessed with building their empire.
History repeats itself
The lesson in all this is clear. Britain attained world dominance because it was blessed with critical resources (coal) and developed the most relevant technology (steam engine). China was equally blessed with resources but was found lacking innovation. Come to think of it, the US took over the mantle of superpower from Britain for similar reasons. The next major superpower will need both the resources and the drive to apply itself. In this digital age, the most critical resource could well be skilled human resources. And India may well turn out to be lucky on that count. The question is - as a nation, do we have the drive to apply ourselves?
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