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Valuable yet overambitious
on 10 March 2014
The Great Divergence contains two arguments in one book: first, that at the end of the eighteenth century, parts of China and East Asia were economically as advanced as Britain and therefore as likely to enjoy an industrial revolution, and second, that what caused Europe to diverge and break through was access to land and natural resources from America. The first argument, largely descriptive, is the more interesting: it depicts a very different China and Japan from the prevailing stereotypes of backward Oriental nations. In terms of life expectancy, access to consumer goods, or infrastructure, much of eighteen-century Asia seems to have had nothing to envy Europe. This is a surprising, intriguing observation, and on its own it makes the book worth reading.
The second argument is more problematic. Few non-specialist readers probably realise how much of the industrial revolution remains unwritten, uncertain, or plain unknown. Even for Britain, the most advanced and for obvious reasons the most important country, the eighteenth-century demographics were only established based on the work of the Cambridge Group of historians a mere twenty-five years ago. Nick Craft managed to establish ballpark growth numbers for the key period that was 1770 to 1820 only recently, and these remain subject to many caveats… Pomeranz bases his analysis on secondary sources. The problem is that many of these are dated, speculative, or outright dubious. Some of his data goes as far back as Fernand Braudel. On the British agricultural revolution, his basis is the discredited Allen: Overton has showed that, contrary to what Pomeranz writes, British agricultural productivity continued to rise very sharply in the 1700-1850 period. Pomeranz seems to set much store by the ‘industrious revolution’ theory of De Vries: but it is no more than a theory, and indeed it relies on the obsolete and gravely off Phelps, Brown, & Hopkins wage series. Then Pomeranz himself tends to brush past the issue of coal. We are told most Chinese coal is in the wrong places. But was there substantial coal nevertheless in the right places, and was it surface coal? Most significantly, finally, he leaves the whole question of technology aside, or almost so. What were the relative technological levels and, even more fundamentally, scientific levels of Western Europe and China in 1750? Pomeranz’s answer is that this does not matter, due to insuperable land constraints. This seems to me to fall short substantially. The Great Divergence is worth reading, but it is to be read with a pinch of salt.