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Journal of World History 12.2 (2001) 495-498

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Book Review

The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy

The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. By KENNETH POMERANZ. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. Pp. x + 382. $ 39.95 (cloth).

Ken Pomeranz successfully undertakes the Herculean labors of explaining the myriad and complex reasons underlying Western Europe's Industrial Revolution, while debunking two centuries of Occidental myth-making in his book The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Exhaustively researched and brilliantly argued, Pomeranz describes a polycentric world economy wherein each core (Western Europe, China, Japan, and India), facing the shared Malthusian paradox of rising populations and ecological limitations, was headed toward a "proto-industrial cul-de-sac" between 1750 and 1800. What enabled Western Europe (that is, Britain) to escape in Houdini-like fashion the straight jacket of labor-intensive, resource constrained economic growth cannot be attributed to technological or cultural superiority, but a complicated and fortunate convergence of disparate factors: coercion (armed trading and slavery), disease, luck (global conjunctures, favorable coal deposits, Atlantic trade winds), a bounty of resources from colonization of the New World, slack resources, feudal institutions, and the partnership between state and entrepreneur in Europe. Thus, with these aforementioned tumblers already having fallen into place when machines began replacing human and animal labor around 1800, they unlocked an economic trajectory that was noticeably divergent from those of the Asian cores by 1830.

There are several novel elements in Pomeranz's methodology. By [End Page 495] focusing on smaller regions of comparable size, population, and economic vitality in Eurasia, Pomeranz avoids the distortions of scale that inevitably result from using the nation-state as the standard unit. Another refreshing and thought-provoking analytical tool is the "counter-factual" approach pioneered by U. C.-Irvine colleague R. Bin Wong. Postulating "what if" scenarios and employing reciprocal comparisons masterfully, Pomeranz is able to develop a more detailed picture of the manifold components and how they modified each other through the worldwide network of trade. The Great Divergence, therefore, is more than comparative history--it is also gestalt history. And where Andre Gunder Frank's ReORIENT at times reads like the diary of a kamikaze pilot, Pomeranz's calculated, multi-faceted strategy ultimately proves more decisive in the battle for interpreting the past.

The two most important resources tipping the scales in Western Europe's favor, Pomeranz contends, were coal and colonies. Large coal deposits conveniently located near Britain's primary markets rescued the country from deforestation, higher-priced arboreal fuel and building materials after 1800. Moreover, the "ghost acreage" conjured up from colonies in North America and the Caribbean provided unparalleled ecological relief unobtainable in the Asian cores. Since the latter areas grew virtually all of their own cash crops alongside foodstuffs, the amount of land accessible for cultivation was non-expandable while soil fertility was threatened by rising populations and consumption. Conversely, Britain was spared similar environmental stress through overseas trade with the circum-Caribbean zone that yielded cheap guano, wood, sugar, tobacco, cotton, and other land-saving products. The unique relationship between Western Europe and its unfree labor peripheries of the New World and Eastern Europe, compared to China's cores and their free-labor domestic and Southeast Asian peripheries (where disease and state support for colonization were non-factors), was yet another crucial advantage for the West.

Pomeranz systematically undermines much of the extant Eurocentric literature that extols the virtues of European family systems, lifestyles, political institutions, markets, technology, and finance as reasons for the Great Divergence. Another myth convincingly subverted is the notion of internally generated economic growth in Europe prior to 1800. Pomeranz reveals how luxury demand, consumerism, and the "industrious revolution" were heavily dependent upon external forces for their expansion and sustenance. Furthermore, he describes a sudden, unanticipated shift in the economic paradigm that places the Industrial Revolution in more of a Toynbeean framework long ago...


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