The inadvertent curse of abundant natural resources (II)

Philip Kobina Baidoo Jnr

The major point I raised in the first article of this series might sound a bit abstract and may not strike a chord with a lot of people. However, nothing stirs the frustration of Ghanaians like the mention of abundant gold, respectable diamond, copious manganese and bauxite deposits. So I will now turn to the real tangible stuff, which makes our head spin.

About two millennia and five centuries ago, a revolution in commerce took place in the heart of Europe, when Croesus minted gold coins as a medium of exchange in his kingdom of Lydia. As the revolution caught on in the whole of Europe and Asia Minor, gold became the backbone of all European currencies until it was decoupled by President Nixon in the early 70s.

Comparatively, the scanty deposits of the metal in the European geographical territory became a problem, as it did not yield enough to serve the purpose of commerce. In due course, as most of the city states economy became more sophisticated, there were perennial shortages of the metal to meet their interstate trade.

Obviously, to have abundant supply of the metal was a timeless security because with gold all needs, including military, security could be purchased from abroad. So, the desire for the metal to solve every problem became hardwired into the psychic of the European mind.

With time, the extreme desire for it became neurotic, as everyone, especially the monarchs, wanted to be as fabulously rich as the originator of the golden monetary system. The long lasting craving for the metal led to enduring romantic and mythological stories such as King Midas and the golden touch, and Jason and the Golden Fleece.

So with the realisation that their land could not yield enough of the precious metal, they had to become innovative to ensure an abundant supply of it. As a result, their romanticism also spawned a practical dimension.

Within the shadows of the Dark Ages, a fierce race began in makeshift laboratories across Europe to turn base metals into gold. This process, infamously known as Alchemy, was, perhaps, once and for all, to solve the perennial shortage of the metal.

However, damage the reputation of that branch of science, and irrespective of the fact that they never realised their dream, on the other hand, it invariably led to modern chemistry, which has produced great chemical industries, including medical laboratories like GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson etc., and broadening the scope of human knowledge beyond measure.

The quest did not stop at alchemy, it brought them to Africa to find the real El Dorado – the legendary land paved and flowing with rivers of gold. Not only did they find an abundant supply of the metal, they also found a vulnerable race that they plundered for centuries.

Though the use of gold as a medium of exchange at that epoch was sophisticated enough, however, without the scarcity of the metal in Europe, there wouldn’t have been the need for alchemy.

And with alchemy, according to Will Durant, the American philosopher, Europe was told they had a treasure hidden in a vineyard. Though, they didn’t find the treasure upon turning the mould about, the roots of the vine procured a plentiful fine vintage, and that vintage was chemistry.

On the other hand, our then rudimentary monetary system, based on the use of cowry shells, which was also overwhelmingly dominated by barter trade, did not foster an advanced form of monetary system. Obviously, the relative abundance of land encouraged people to move outward from main population centres to form new settlements. It was in a way a death knell to the development of a sophisticated monetary system.

Because, without a large population there is no need for administrators and bureaucrats who will not work on the land, but depend on the people through the payment of their taxes to survive. Conversely, when you have such a complex arrangement, the need for an advanced form of monetary system becomes inevitable.

Thirdly, written language is an important ingredient in the flourishing of a culture, and we didn’t have it until the arrival of the Europeans. Having said that, I will caution that nobody should harbour any negative thoughts about the fact that we didn’t have a written language before the advent of the White Man. The Brits did not have a written language before they came into contact with the Romans.

After learning how to read and write, it took them more than a millennia for the English language to take shape. Now English is the premier language in the world, and Latin is dead. But at the height of the Roman power, it seemed rather uncivilised not to speak Latin.

The word barbarian was first used by the Romans to describe someone who does not speak Latin, literally saying that the person makes a ‘bar bar’ sound like a goat. Hence the English the Germans and the rest were once labelled as barbarians.

Newton’s famous treatise on motion, the principia was written in Latin, and so were the works of most European non-Italian intellectuals of the renaissance like Nicolas Copernicus.

It took them 16 centuries to produce Shakespeare. Shakespeare, himself the personification of the English language, studied Latin and was seasoned in it. I am not suggesting that we take the same period of time to produce our Shakespeare, but just to emphasise that it takes time.

The repository of our history and knowledge was based on oral tradition. It is a system that stifled our development because it was fraught with omissions and exaggerations. And especially, when the knowledge is not in the main stream it is completely neglected.

One classic example of the way knowledge is lost, is by the untimely death of a traditional healer who for lack of literacy, even to the present day, dies without passing on the precious knowledge acquired through careful observation.

With such mishaps is the lack of continuity to build and improve on the existing knowledge. For example, when Nana Drobo, of blessed memory, claimed to have discovered a cure for AIDS, many people laughed at him, especially the Ghanaian medical establishment.

Whether his claim was legitimate was immaterial, but the most important thing is whatever cocktail he was administering to his patients was having a positive effect on them.

Though up to the present time there is no cure for that deadly disease, however, from what we know now, it is fair to conclude that he was able to replicate the retroviral drug that is being produced and sold expensively by the American drug giants and other medical laboratories around the world.

The sages of the renaissance did not discover any fresh knowledge. They improved and polished those of the Greeks, which were brought down to them by the Moors, the Jews, and later the original copies secured by the crusaders. And this was made possible because the knowledge of the Greeks were preserved through writing and then translated to the various European languages.

Evolution was a theory first postulated by Anaximander more than two thousand years before Darwin used his step by step near logical evidence gleaned on the Galapagos Island to buttress the theory.

Even before he published his Origin of Species, a contemporary of his, Herbert Spencer, had written about it two years earlier. It would have been near to impossibility, if the thought had not festered in the mind of the Greek Philosophers and his fellow compatriot, for Darwin to come up with it completely.

So without a written language, our knowledge could not be standardised, because maxims, proverbs, laws etc., could not be analysed for the flaws to be weeded out and polished. In effect, our laws kept shifting like pebbles at the seashore, based on the whims and caprice of any adjudicator to the detriment of justice.

For example, the psychology used by King Solomon to find out the real mother of the living child in the book of I Kings, could have been lost to time if it was not written down. Now, anybody who reads the book of I Kings can have access to that piece of historical knowledge to apply it in his or her own life.

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