|Coal is obviously superior to firewood as an energy source. That’s why industrializing societies turned to it in the first place, right? Wrong. Industries shifted to coal because firewood grew too scarce. In some industries–but not all–the transition was easy to make, and in some industries coal ultimately proved superior in some ways; but the shift originally was prompted not by coal’s superiority, but by firewood’s scarcity (Wilkinson 1973).Rural life was harder than urban life. That’s why most people gladly took advantage when industrialization gave them opportunities to leave the farm, right? Wrong again, it would seem. The British historian Joan Thirsk showed that the earliest industrial centers in England took root in regions in which agricultural populations had grown so dense that families no longer could survive on their meager acreages (Thirsk 1961). As centuries passed, people grew accustomed to having to hold a job to earn a living, and generally accepted it as a fact of life (with occasional objectors, including the young Karl Marx). But the “opportunity” to become paid workers rather than self-sufficient farmers appears to have been, in the first place, a matter not of preference but of survival.Poverty in the countryside, however, was only part of the story. The other side was capitalists who could employ those needing work, and make other investments of resources, without fear of being taxed or “plundered” to death by authoritarian governments as soon as big profits began rolling in–as seems to have happened in the states and empires of antiquity, such as China, as Marx and others have suggested.
Ancient civilizations also had had a plentiful supply of both poor people and profit-seekers. Why had industrialization not occurred? Possibly because most governments, by controlling the huge irrigation systems on which everyone’s survival depended, had nearly absolute power; and they could not resist using this power to limit commerce whenever doing so was in their short-term interest. In Western Europe, however, agriculture was based not on irrigation but on rainfall, which no government could control. There, commerce could flourish (Wittfogel 1957; Harris 1977).
In any case, it appears that industrialization had important roots in population pressure. Pressure on firewood caused the turn to fossil fuel, pressure on land, the turn from farm to factory. Industrialization has transformed how humans live–our culture. This cultural-evolutionary transformation, in its dependence on population pressure, resembles earlier key transformations: agricultural origins, agricultural intensification, and political evolution.
1977 Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures. New York: Random House.
1961 Industries in the Countryside. In Essays in the Economic and Social History of Tudor and Stuart England. F. J. Fisher, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
1973 Povery and Progress: An Ecological Perspective on Economic Development. New York: Praeger.
1957 Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. New Haven: Yale University Press.