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. For most of their purposes, solar energy seemed to work remarkably well, and Mexico had plenty of it. It nourished their food and kept them warm.
5. The economic historian R.C. Allen overrated the role of coal in the British Industrial Revolution, and this has kept many people away from seeing #4. Don’t assign coal a dominant monocausal role in the Industrial Revolution, just have an n-factor model where fossil fuels are one of the binding constraints; circa 2017 we still need them! By the way, here is an Allen essay on the Britishness of the Industrial Revolution, closely related to this blog post. I agree with most of his sentences as stand-alone claims, though he vastly underrates the role of non-energy factors in the bigger picture.
6. The Incas also had a remarkably advanced civilization, in select areas ahead of Europeans and spanning a fairly large geographic area at its peak with plenty of state capacity. They too seemed to be in a cul-de-sac with respect to an industrial revolution, energy again being one factor as best we can tell.
7. Many people fear internecine warfare as preventing an industrial revolution in alternative locales, and while that is a factor, I worry more about “the James C. Scott dead end” and “the energy dead end.” What other possible dead ends are there?
8. At what point was a European/British industrial revolution “in the bag”? 1740? 1600? 1050? If the Brits had failed us, at what point would Japan or Bohemia have picked up the ball and run with it? Seventy years later? Three hundred years? Never?
9. The optimistic perspective is gained from studying the history of the arts. Then one sees European culture as having a series of mini-industrial revolutions, starting in late medieval times and rapidly accelerating progress in painting, sculpture, perspective, bookmaking, goldsmithing, musical instruments, musical notation, paper-making, and many other areas, most of all in northern Italy and also Franco-Flemish territory and a bit later Germany. Bach came before the British “Industrial Revolution” and his genius had a lot of preconditions too! The “special” thing about the British IR is that it overturned Malthusian assumptions, but from the point of view of understanding how the inputs related to the outputs, and how so many new, complex innovations were possible all at once, that is arguably of secondary import. Study Monteverdi, not coal!
For this post I am thankful to a recent lunch conversation with John Nye, Bryan Caplan, and Robin Hanson, of course implicating none of them in these views, though can you guess who disagreed the most?