Tuesday, May 9, 2017

If the Industrial Revolution Hadn't Occured In Britain, Would It Have Happened Elsewhere?

From Marginal Revolution:

How long until another Industrial Revolution would have taken place?
Let’s say that somehow Britain had let its opportunity pass by (lost the wrong war?), or perhaps never had been in the right position at all (no Gulf Stream?).  When would the world have seen an Industrial Revolution?  Keep in mind Song China came relatively close to having a break through of some kind, but still did not pull it off; some commentators suggest the same about the Roman Empire.

My initial presumption is that “industrial revolutions,” if we can even make the term plural in that way, are remarkably difficult to see through.  I offer a few points:
1. Mankind spent about a hundred thousand years before making enough progress to attain the civilizations of Sumeria and Mesopotamia.  Along the way, people discovered how to tame fire and use various stones and metals, but still it was a long, tough slog to a point that still was almost 6000 years short of an industrial revolution.

2. I see, in world history, only two regional units being in a position at all to make a run at an industrial revolution, namely Rome and its offshoots, and China.  That is discouraging, especially because each of those required a fairly large, semi-unified territorial area.  (As an aside, I view “how did China get so big so quickly?” as one of the most under-discussed questions of world history.  Try it sometime, it’s better than arguing about Trump or ACA.)

2b. Were the Roman Empire and China actually independent events?

3. I fear what I call “the James C. Scott dead end,” namely that many territories will develop strong enough “state capacity-resistant” units that further Chinas and Romes will be difficult to achieve in terms of the size of the political unit.  Imagine a world like Laos or northern Thailand.  You may think that is a “mountains effect,” but neither the Great Plains nor Africa developed a China or Rome equivalent in earlier times, or much in the way of a very large or effective political unit.  By the way, when is the next James C. Scott book coming out?

4. I also fear the “energy dead end.”  The Aztec empire and its precursors created an amazing time, most of all for biotechnology — they bred corn out of a crummy weed, one of mankind’s greatest achievements, and without external grants.  Tenochitlan may have been larger and more impressive than any European city, and the residents probably ate better too.  Yet they used the wheel only for children’s toys and, more importantly, they stuck with direct uses of solar power.  There is no evidence of them coming remotely close to a major deployment of fossil fuels.  They did burn coal for fuel, and to make ornaments, but seemed to have no idea of how to put the pieces together to make it an energy source for powerful machines...MORE, including the usual erudite comments