Niall Ferguson's ignorant defence of British rule in India

Oddly for a historian, Ferguson doesn't appear to have taken much notice of history.

There were extensive power cuts across India in late July and early August. This created the opportunity for celebrity historian and recent Reith lecturer Professor Niall Ferguson to go on the attack. Ferguson opens his article in Newsweek with a reminder of how India used to be:

The British—slightly less than a thousand of them—used to govern India. Without air-conditioning....There was a reason the British moved their capital to the cool Himalayan hill station of Simla every summer. Maybe today’s Indian government should consider following their example.

He quotes Kipling approvingly, before going on to argue that it's all socialism's fault anyway:

India’s electricity grid has missed every capacity addition target since 1951. The system is so dilapidated that 27 percent of the power it carries is lost as a result of leakage and theft. Even today, 300 million people—a quarter of the population—don’t have access to the grid. That’s one reason the blackout didn’t spark more public ire.
The root of the problem is one of many leftovers of India’s post-independence experiment with socialism. Half of India’s power stations are coal-fired. Indian coal is produced by a state monopoly (Coal India). The price is controlled by the state, as is the price of electricity itself. The private firms running power stations are trapped between a lump of coal and a hard place. They cannot even trust the regional distributors to order the right amount of power.

Ah yes, if only Britain were still in charge, everyone in India would have aircon and iced tea on tap....
Oddly for a historian, though, Ferguson doesn't appear to have taken much notice of history. Britain governed India for 50 years beyond the first electricity supplies in the 1890s. In that 50 years to independence in 1947, a total of 1,500 of India's 640,000 villages were connected to the grid. During that time, pretty well all of Britain was electrified, along with the rest of Europe and America. After independence, this is what happened:

In other words, under the seven five year plans from 1947 to 1991, the Indian government brought electricity to roughly 320 times as many villages as British colonialism managed in a similar time span.
This is not to say that India does not face major challenges in ensuring secure power supplies in face of its burgeoning demand from its cities, and the ongoing need of the rural areas not yet reached. But for Ferguson to insinuate that Indians are in some way less capable than their colonial masters betrays a startling ignorance of what colonialism did to India in the first place.
Put simply, the British colonial powers had no interest in the Indian people. India was what Acemoglu and Robinson refer to in Why Nations Fail as an "extractive colony". As a result, the formation of the Indian state and its institutions was so severly stunted that, even today, India can no longer be seen as anything like a 'complete state' of the type that developed organically, over several centuries, in Europe and then America (see here for a fuller analysis of the case of India, based on Charles Tilly's groundbreaking work).
For Ferguson simply to set the long term consequences of colonialism to one side, in favour of a simplistic view of why India is where it is now - a paradox not of its own making - confirms his fall from decent historian to celebrity charlatan, interested more in soundbite opportunity than in real economics and history.

Historian Niall Ferguson with his wife, the Dutch writer and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Photograph: Getty Images.

Paul Cotterill is a blogger for Liberal Conspiracy and Though Cowards Flinch.

Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder