The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   133

The Great Divergence

China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy

by Kenneth Pomeranz

"Princeton Economic History of the Western World" series, vol. 4

Princeton University Press, 2000

King Cotton and King Coal Raise the West

One of the central questions in world history is, to put it a bit leadingly, "Why Europe, of all places?" That is, why did the Industrial Revolution begin there, leading Europe to a level of power, wealth, and global domination quite without precedent in human experience? This is inevitably a comparative question: why nineteenth century Europe, rather than one of the other centers of civilization? Why not Song-dynasty China? And also: why anyplace at all?

Pomeranz's book is one of the most interesting, and in large measure convincing, attempts to answer this question, by focusing very specifically on north-west Europe, especially Great Britain, and comparing it intensively and symmetrically with other, comparably-developed parts of the Old World. The key claim, and perhaps the most controversial, is that it is very hard indeed to identify any internal, socio-economic causes of or dispositions towards exponential growth in the Britain, the Dutch Republic, etc. of 1750, or even 1800, which did not equally apply to comparably-sized and -developed parts of China (like the Yangzi Delta) or Japan; India, he thinks, really was further behind. In particular, Pomeranz very carefully reviews the evidence in support of claims that north-west Europeans were richer, healthier, etc., than their south-east Chinese contemporaries, either in aggregate or among the upper classes, and finds it thoroughly lacking. It simply isn't the case that Britain started out ahead; the Industrial Revolution was indeed a revolution, over-turning the established order of the world. (The one place I find this argument unacceptably weak is when it comes to science, as opposed to technology, but it's not clear how much that mattered before, let us say, 1850.)

On the other hand, Pomeranz also doesn't think that it was an accident that the Industrial Revolution began where it did. East Asia was locked into a developmental path of ecologically-efficient but highly labor-intensive agriculture and "proto-industrial" handicrafts, which offered very limited room for per capita growth, and would have made it very hard to shift labor into fully industrial manufacturing. There were signs that Europe would have headed down the same path (his prime witness here is Denmark), were it not for coal and the New World.

By a lucky geographical accident, Britain — including its economic centers — had ready access to coal, first as an alternative fuel to wood, and then as something which far surpassed wood as a potential source of free energy. The Yangzi was very far indeed from China's (quite large) coal reserves, too far for that to be economical. (This is one of the nicer examples of his point about the dis-utility of generalizing about whole subcontinents, like Europe or China.) Thus, an energy-intensive ecological strategy like industrialism was available to Britain in a way it wasn't in any of the comparably-developed parts of East Asia.

As for the New World, a massive global "conjuncture" gave the European imperial countries the ability to grow sugar (for calories), cotton (for cloth) in the Americas, and import them at very favorable terms. (Pomeranz gives some astonishing, but if anything low-balled, figures on the "ghost acres" of Britain, the amount of land it would have taken British agriculture to supply the resources obtained from the colonies.) This conjuncture in turn rested in part on disease having more-than-decimated the native Americans, and in part on one of the areas where the Europeans really did lead the world in technology, long-range trade backed by highly-organized violence. (This is the endeavor which nurtured the limited-liability public corporation, not that important in industry until, again, the latter half of the 19th century.) Here again Britain was especially well-placed, because it could raise grain in North America to feed cash-crop-growing slaves in the Caribbean, the whole trade carried by ships made from North American timber.

Obviously, all of this rests on a lot of counterfactual premises, not all of them made very explicit. In particular, there are some about paths of technological development which I wonder about. Pomeranz remarks that, apparently, British coal mines tended to flood, hence the initial use of the steam engine was to pump them dry. Chinese coal mines, however, tended to fill up with gas — but would steam-powered ventilation not have served, if someone had thought of it? I suppose it's implausible that an electric motor and generator could both have been developed before some kind of industrial take-off had begun, but if they had, you could do a lot with wind or water power without fossil fuels; etc. So I am not sure I completely buy the counterfactual scenario which seems implicit in Pomeranz's arguments, about what the world would have looked like with a modest redistribution of coal and immunological competence, which is to have Qing-dynasty China, and Tokugawa-era Japan, as examples of humanity's climax ecology. But I can't say that's wrong, either. Even if there are quibbles on these remoter implications, though, this is really important stuff for anyone with a serious interest in world history, prepared to slog through a few hundred pages of eco-socio-politico-economic historical detail.

392 pp. Bibliography and index
Economics / Geography / Modern History
Currently in print as a paperback, ISBN 0-691-09010-6, US$24.95 [buy from Powell's], and out of print as a hardback, ISBN 0-691-00543-5 [buy from Powell's]
16 July 2006