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Efflorescences and Economic Growth in World History: Rethinking the "Rise of the West" and the Industrial Revolution

The "Rise of the West" has been treated by economic historians as stemming from the onset of rapid economic growth, driven by technological advances. In contrast, all premodern and non-Western economies have been treated as showing only slow or no growth, interrupted by periodic crises. This is an error. Examined closely, many premodern and non-Western economies show spurts or efflorescences of economic growth, including sustained increases in both population and living standards, in urbanization, and in underlying technological change. Medieval Europe, Golden Age Holland, and Qing China, among other cases, show such remarkable efflorescences of impressive economic growth.Yet these did not lead to modern industrialized societies. The distinctive feature of Western economies since 1800 has not been growth per se, but growth based on a specific set of elements: engines to extract motive power from fossil fuels, to a degree hitherto rarely appreciated by historians; the application of empirical science to understanding both nature and practical problems of production; and the marriage of empirically oriented science to a national culture of educated craftsmen and entrepreneurs broadly educated in basic principles of mechanics and experimental approaches to knowledge. This combination developed from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries only in Britain, and was unlikely to have developed anywhere else in world history.