A partial book review I wrote this year. Basically, more filler while I wrap up the semester:
The study of civilizations has been a favorite among “big history” historians. Examining the rise, decline, and fall of civilizations, teasing out their similarities and differences, and explaining why certain ones have evolved at a more rapid pace than others are all a part of the scrutiny historians have applied to this area of inquiry. Gibbon, Ranke, Spengler, and Toynbee are just a few of the classic names who have taken up this endeavor with gusto and with varying, indeed often conflicting, results. More recently, scholars such as William H. Mcneill have with equal enthusiasm continued this popular trend; the latter’s works, especially The Rise of the West, having influenced a number of historians such as Jared Diamond and Janet Abu-Lughod who’s much praised Before European Hegemony, at least judging by the author’s fulsome praise of Mcneill in the introduction and the abundant citations of his works in the book, owes much.
Kenneth Pomeranz of UC-Irvine is another modern scholar who practices the study of civilizations. But Pomeranz’s goals are less “global” than the works of the previously mentioned historians. Specifically, Pomeranz aims to better understand why Europe vis a vis China (read: Asia) “became uniquely wealthy by the mid-nineteenth century” (31). And so it was without the slightest exaggeration that Pomeranz titled his book The Great Divergence since that phrase accurately captures the relative position of the two regions to one another by the middle of the nineteenth century. Pomeranz following another scholar (Eric Jones’ European Miracle) states that simply citing the Industrial Revolution is not an adequate explanation for the “great divergence” since it merely represents “the full flowering of differences that had been more subtly building for centuries” (Ibid).
Pomeranz first examines some of the other theories that have been put forward to explain such a state of events only to knock most of them down. For example, the abundance of livestock is often used to explain the gulf between Europe and China, but Pomeranz notes that in Asia the lack of a plethora of livestock, particularly large beasts of burden, made little difference since “rice farming simply does not require as much animal power” (33). Likewise, Pomeranz dismisses a possible European advantage in transportation noting that “the remarkable development of water transport in China and Japan surely offset this and represented at least an equally valuable form of capital in transport” (34). Pomeranz does the same with birthrates claiming that “it appears that various groups of Asians were at least as able and determined as any Europeans to keep birthrates down” (41). Technological innovation is treated as well with Pomeranz showing that even here the differences were not initially so vast with Asia actually being ahead of Europe in many areas such as irrigation, textile weaving and dyeing, the manufacturing of porcelain, public health, etc. (45, 46). Pomeranz also tackles other theories such as the place of higher wages (52-54) in the debate and at least here does give some value to the innovations made by Europe in spinning that certainly played a part in widening the gap between the two civilizations.
Pomeranz’s own theory and explanation is partly ecological. He thinks the European achievement was due in large part to its ability to achieve “self-sustaining growth” (57) to which the adoption of certain New World crops such as the potato (because of its excellent calorie yield to acre usage ratio) was vital. Furthermore, Europeans began to apply scientific principles to land conversation and began to achieve a better understanding of how essential forests are to the ecosystem much of which was learned from tropical European colonies (58). Thus, “empire” in Pomeranz’s thinking assumes a crucial role here.
The second part of Pomeranz’s theory is geographical: the location of rich coal deposits in Europe, specifically northern England played a crucial role in fostering the great divergence. On this score Pomeranz is blunt stating that “Europe’s advantage rested…on geographic accident” (62). (Related to this was the perfection of the steam engine which was of the utmost importance in the extraction of coal.) And while Northern China did have a major source of coal Pomeranz asserts that invasions by foreign groups such as the Mongols, civil wars, enormous floods, and other series of catastrophes all resulted in the Chinese never being able to fully exploit this major resource.
So then Pomeranz believes that “the great divergence” between Europe and Asia was due to the former’s advantage being gained from its imperial adventures and its fortuitous geographical position in an area of rich resources, namely, coal.
Pomeranz’s emphasis on empire and geography is similar to that which can be found in Jared Diamond’s overly praised Guns, Germs, and Steel. I myself wasn’t particularly sold on the thrust of that book’s argument, and though Pomeranz makes a similar one here he does so in a more persuasive fashion than did Diamond. I have no doubt that empire and geography played an important role in creating a divergence between the West and other areas of civilizations. My problem with Pomeranz isn’t that his analysis his faulty since I think he was right about much of what he said only that it is incomplete. Missing from Pomeranz’s discussion is the place ideas might have had in helping to create such a divergence. Examples of revolutionary ideas in the West that I think played a significant part in vaulting that region ahead of others include vital developments in political theory such as the Lockean notion of property and in economic theory such as that propounded by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations to give just two possible examples.
Now, I completely understand why some might not want to focus on the role of ideas or “intellectual capital” since in the past this tended to be the sole focus made by other scholars that often was abused to suggest that the West was superior to other cultures, an implication many today rightly dismiss. (Niall Ferguson might possibly be a modern voice of such a view.) Because of this fear it seems to me that the discussion has tipped completely to the other side in favor of examining other factors that would seem to, at least initially, give civilizations an ontological value equal to one another so that potentially uncomfortable implications might be avoided. While understandable I think such a position is egregious since it appears to me to rule out at the very beginning of the discussion any part that ideas might have had in helping to create this “divergence”. Historical study demands a certain kind of exactitude that is being ignored when we focus on only some factors and completely rule out others.
Perhaps this is simply the nature of “big history”, i.e., because the study of civilizations is such a vast enterprise one is tempted to be less comprehensive than one ought to be. Nevertheless, comprehensiveness should be the goal. How ironic it is then that so many “big historians” tend to suffer from an acute case of myopia