“Gunpowder Empire”: Should We Generalize Mark Elvins High-Level Equilibrium Trap?: Hoisted from the Archives
Hoisted from the Archives: “Gunpowder Empire”: Should We Generalize Mark Elvin’s High-Level Equilibrium Trap?: OK. Popping the distraction stack again. A chance remark by the extremely sharp Cosma Shalizi when he came through Berkeley has caused me to spend a lot of time meditating upon a passage written by Bob Allen:
Robert Allen (2006): The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective: “The different trajectories of the wage-rental ratio created different incentives to mechanize production…. It was not Newtonian science that inclined British inventors and entrepreneurs to seek machines that raised labour productivity but the rising cost of labour… due to… Britain’s success in the global economy… in part the result of state policy… Britain[‘s] vast and readily worked coal deposits…
…Cost reductions were greatest at British factor prices, so the new technologies were adopted in Britain and not on the continent…. British technology was not cost-effective at continental input prices…. The necessary R&D was profitable in Britain (under British conditions) but unprofitable elsewhere…. Why did the industrial revolution lead to modern economic growth? I have argued that the famous inventions of the British industrial revolution were responses to Britain’s unique economic environment and would not have been developed anywhere else. This is one reason that the Industrial Revolution was British. But why did those inventions matter?… Wouldn’t the French, or the Germans, or the Italians, have produced an industrial revolution by another route? Weren’t there alternative paths to the twentieth century?… In previous occasions when important inventions were made… a one-shot rise in productivity…. The nineteenth century was different–the First Industrial Revolution turned into Modern Economic Growth. Why? Mokyr’s answer is that scientific knowledge increased enough to allow continuous invention. Technological improvement was certainly at the heart of the matter, but… the nineteenth century engineering industry was a spin-off of the coal industry. All three of the developments that raised productivity in the nineteenth century depended on… the steam engine and cheap iron… closely related to coal…. There is no reason to believe that French technology would have led to the engineering industry, the general mechanization of industrial processes, the railway, the steam ship, or the global economy. In other words, there was only one route to the twentieth century–and it went through northern Britain…
But what if not?
Let as start between 1500 and 1750, in the age of the Gunpowder Empires…
That world is, by and large, Malthusian. There are exceptional region-eras in which there is a considerable margin above bare biological subsistence. And the ruling classes are rich, both much richer than the peasants upon whom they rest, and much richer, comparing half-millennium to half-millennium, than their predecessor ruling classes. For their slaves and peasants, not so much, but Cicero lived much better in terms of accessible technology and material comfort than Patroklos, Aaron the Just than Cicero, John of Gaunt than Aaron the Just, Thomas Jefferson than John of Gaunt.
Thus for the bulk of the population, or so it appears to me, for two millennia–at least since the founding of the Han and the Roman Empires–increasing numbers and resource depletion ate up all of the benefits from slowly-advancing technologies. When I try to assess economic growth in the very longest run, I come up with global rates of growth of total factor productivity on the order of 0.02%/year. That is 1%/century. That is enough to support a population growth rate of 7%/century–the doubling of human populations every millennium that we appear to see since 4000 BC.
Looking forward from even as late as 1750, therefore, it is not insane to project that the Gunpowder Empire is in the natural course of events the climax socioecological state of the Sociable Language-Using East African Plains Ape. The notional quartering of farm sizes worldwide from 500 BC to 1500 had been offset by the development of maize, of double-crop wet rice, of the combination of the iron axe and the moldboard plow that could turn northern temperate forests into farms, the domestication of cotton, and the breeding of the merino sheep. People in 1500 were as well fed and clothed as they had been in 500 BC.
But what would have been the next agricultural miracle technologies–besides the potato? You would have needed a number of them to attain continued total factor productivity growth at 0.02%/year to compensate for the further quartering of farm sizes that would have been inevitable had population growth continued and human numbers topped 2 billion in 3500.
And where would the breakthrough to steampower–or even to enough fodder to feed enough draft animals for oxen and horses to replace or even supplement human backs and thighs–to interrupt this Gunpowder-Empire climax socioecology of the Sociable Language-Using East African Plains Ape come from? Heron of Alexandria’s aeolipile was 1500 years old. If the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Abbasid, Tang, Sung, and Ming Eras could not show any signs of a breakthrough to steam, what were the odds some other civilization would have done it had eighteenth-century Britain not been there?
Important questions. Unanswerable questions–at least by me. Not, mind you, that I want to positively and definitively assert that the Gunpowder-Empire is the climax socioecology of the Sociable Language-Using East African Plains Ape in the natural course of events. But I do wonder.