International Sociological Association's Research Committee on Economy & Society

Energy, resilience and the Chinese world-system

Uwe Christian Plachetka

Universität für Bodenkultur,
Institut für Sicherheits und Risikowissenschaften, Wien

How resilient (Gotts 2007) is the emerging sinocentric world-system? Mackinder’s (1904) seminal theory on geopolitics is usually summed up by the catchphrase: whoever controls continental Eurasia will master the rest of the world. Mackinder was not too explicit about the infrastructure for doing so: A highperformance terrestrial transport system connecting Germany to China is the necessary technical provision which means investment in complex solutions, requiring a depletable resource: energy (Tainter 1988). Pop (2016) portrays the system requirements of China’s re-establishing the Silk Road including people-to-people bonds, conceptualizing the world-system lifeline expected to increase the efficiency of a world-system. H The special world-system theory is the core-periphery model justified by transnational commodity chains in the capitalist world-system. Chase-Dunn’s (2014) Institute for Research on World-Systems, heading towards a general world-system theory, defines a world-system, e.g. the “Chinese World,” as an ecumene integrated by interaction networks operating on the levels of (i) information exchange (ii) political and military interaction, (iii) prestige good exchange, (iv) bulk good exchange, explicit in the Andean world-system (La Lone 2000). The Incas brought the Andean world-system under their aegis, transforming it into their empire. world-systems don’t have persistent system boundaries (Hall et al. 2011) and these networks are not necessarily overlapping. world-system networks such as highways or railroads, are subject to specific system properties (Barthélemy 2011) as are social networks of information exchange.

Material and methodology

The Andean world-system’s highland empires, the Wari and the Incas (La Lone 2000), were network empires whose backbones were their road system, and not direct control over their entire territory. The diameter of the Inca empire exceeded the range of llama caravans in terms of energy demand for transport (D’Altroy 1992: 86-88), so Covey et al (2013) elaborated a gradient of imperial agency around an imperial stronghold, as a node of the of the imperial highway network, in their case, the Wari settlement of Piquillaqta. A gradient is a graph that connects figures in a scalar field, turned into a graphic with an x-axis, a distance scale and a y-axis which is the frequency of imperial presence at a given place indicated by proxy data provided by the percentage of imperial ceramics of the total excavated ceramics at a given site in a given stratum, whereas the local ceramics is of domestic production in the same stratum: Stratigraphy provides the (relative) time intervals at a given place. The scale on the x-axis is the length the walking distance i.e. the length of the footpath from the stronghold to the regional sites situated in its surroundings where imperial ceramics are found. The percentage of imperial ceramic plotted on the gradient’s diagram establishes the gradient of imperial presence. This method portrays the Inca empire as an information-based world-system due to the social organization of crop exchange and crop improvement in an active agricultural area of original crop diversity and crop evolution, aka Vavilov centre, in fact a Vavilov culture. As propelled by crop exchange, the relevant information is the DNA in the process of outcrossing and crop adaptation requiring specific human knowledge (Plachetka 2011). Specific knowledge is enacted by regional agricultural development centres of the Incas (Plachetka 2014). Elite management of bioresources is therefore a unfifying act, a specific from of interaction defining the information system, whereas now the act of payment defines the economic system based on commodities (Luhmann 1988). Self-reproducing systems are autopoietic systems by definition. Consequently, the interaction levels (i-iv) of a world-system are interaction subsystems. The geographical frontier of a world-system is to be defined as a region with a slump in the frequency of unifying acts, indicated by the above-mentioned gradient.

Results: The world-system Interaction Volume for scaling

The world-system Interaction Volume (Q) is the total number of interaction events during a period of time and may indicate the might of a world-system (Q is the symbol for stored thermodynamic energy). But it is the proportion of each specified interaction event (i-iv): a world-system whose lion’s share is information exchange, e.g. seed exchange in a Vavilov culture, is an information-based world-system. The relevant set of information is the DNA of cultivars exchanged for crop crossbreeding. On the other end of the spectrum modern container shipping constitutes a commodity-based world-system, producing wellknown forms of exclusion. Transport caravans perform physical work, and their range is a proxy for the work the system can perform. European deep-sea vessels have been machinery as they did considerable physical work. Imperial agency in a given region (Covey et al. 2013) depends on other sources of imperial power than overt military force (always expensive in terms of energy). The ideological factor, as stated by Conrad, Demarest (1984) including knowledge as mean of production (Plachetka 2014) is therefore reducing the system’s need for physical energy.


Abu Lughood (1989) portrays the pre-European Asian world-system as an unintended result of the Mongol empire. Malkov (2014) shows by means of a mathematical model of the terrestrial Silk Road that an extended hegemonic polity (the Mongol empire) improves the velocity of travel and hence trade on the silk road, now confirmed by Barisitz (2017). Zhèng Hè’s governmental expeditions (Kong [2000] 2015, Stuart-Fox 2003) of early Ming China clearly showed that “thick” ideology cannot maintain a large-scale thalassocracy at reasonable costs. Ming China banned maritime trade afterwards.


As prestige-good exchange did not provide sufficient cohesion power to the Eurasian world-system, its cohesion is provided by world-system lifelines i.e. overlapping interaction networks including governmental institutions. In the absence of a universal government the terrestrial Silk Road was slow and expensive, requiring a myriad of middlemen (bucket-chain trade). Nowadays, since container vessels sail with full cargo holds only, container shipping means bucket-chain trade. Since the Neolithic Revolution any knowledge-intensive production reduces the demand for energy. The Silk Road may become an interélite network at the high-end of the production chain. The entangled questions of resources, energy and social inequality requires monitoring world-systems’ resilience.


This approach had been developed in the course of an EC-funded project Socio-Economic Foresight on Nuclear Fusion realized at the Institute of Risk and Safety Research at the University of life sciences, Vienna (Lead: Prof. W. Kromp) and elaborated further in the course of a speech delivered to the International Nuclear Risk Assessment Group on the Chinese New Silk Road.


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