Beating History: Why Today's Rising Powers Can't Copy the West

If BRICs want to grow as rich as today's powers, they'll have to find a new model, because the Industrial Revolution could only happen once.

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A Chinese steel worker at a mill in Changzhi / Reuters

In 2006, China Central Television aired a 12-part documentary called "Rise of the Great Powers." The great powers in question were Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, and the U.S. The pedagogical undertones did not go unnoticed in the Western media. "China, Shy Giant, Shows Signs of Shedding Its False Modesty," wrote The New York Times, noting that the state now seemed to be making its ambition explicit.

For the BRIC rising economies -- Brazil, Russia, India, and China -- what can be learned by looking at the rise of powers throughout history? Obviously it depends on which historical example you look at.

But there is one particular historical shift that, arguably more than most other factors, set the foundations for the current geopolitical order, and put the BRICs in the global back seat out of which they're now attempting to climb. The loose, catch-all term for this even is the Industrial Revolution. And it offers a potent lesson for what the BRICs can do, and what they cannot do, if they intend to fulfill the more optimistic predictions and become undisputed world leaders.

Whole books -- many of them -- have been written about why the Industrial Revolution happened in the West, why it happened in Europe, and why it happened in Britain in particular. These books have also tried to explain why it happened in Britain rather than China, or rather than India -- two of the more obvious candidates for a counterfactual.

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The rise of the BRICs is a very different kind of global power shift than when, for example, France, Britain, and Germany competed throughout the last couple centuries, or when dominance shifted from quasi-hegemonic Britain to the U.S. and U.S.S.R., and finally to the U.S. These Western powers didn't profit equally from the changes of the Industrial Revolution, but all of them and their progenitors were more or less winners in the economic upheavals of the 18th and 19th centuries. They emerged from the period politically independent and unified, as well as industrially way ahead of vast swaths of the world. What the rise of the BRICs symbolizes to both panicked individuals in the West and optimistic ones elsewhere is a radical shift in the geography of power -- a catch-up or reversal of the Western global dominance that was established with the Industrial Revolution.

Here's what makes that easy: the Industrial Revolution is over. Now, the hard part: that means all of us -- not just the BRICs -- have to find a new way out.

Not just the Industrial Revolution itself, but the global power shifts it created, appear to have played themselves out. Historians still debate the nature and causes of the Industrial Revolution, but one thing they seem to agree on is that the it wasn't just industrial -- it was demographic and agricultural as well. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, populations all over the globe had non-negotiable checks on their growth: too many people and you get ecological crises and famines to push the number back down. In the 18th and 19th centuries, England managed to solve this problem, with tremendous leaps in population and urbanization as a result.

The way former Cambridge economic history professor Tony Wrigley puts it in his 2010 book Energy and the English Industrial Revolution is this: production in "all organic economies was set by the annual cycle of plant growth" -- it limits food, fuel, fiber, and building materials. Coal changed all that. By digging into the earth to get minerals instead of growing fuel on the earth, you get a vastly more efficient source of fuel and completely change the rules of the game. You've shifted from an organic economy, as he calls it, to an energy-rich economy.

But the economic reprieve the fossil fuels offered could be nearing an end, as global supply becomes more competitive. Other factors that enabled Britain's and the West's giant leap forward, such as empire and slavery, can't really be reproduced in the 21st century. Some of the work-arounds that rising countries have used to fuel growth -- shifting food production farther and farther away from the industrial core, trading manufactured goods for more raw materials -- only work for so long.

Tony Wrigley isn't the only scholar, though, to argue that developing countries won't be able to follow the West's path to becoming rich, because that path required certain things that were largely particular to that one period in history. Kenneth Pomeranz, author of The Great Divergence, is one prominent historian among many to point out the importance of the New World and its exploitation to the West's growth.

The challenge ahead for the BRICs, then, is to figure out how to maintain growth in a world where the vast new frontier opened up by the Industrial Revolution appears to be closing. The BRICs can play the West's game better than the West, both through technological innovation and population growth, but only for so long. The whole world has to figure out a way of dealing with energy and agriculture.

If the BRICs can forestall ecological crisis the way Britain did -- and ecological crisis was very close at one point, new scholarship suggests -- then they might succeed. If the new powers can come up with a new model for economic growth, as Europe did with coal, then even the old powers might be thankful.