The question of confrontation between the Western and the Eastern worlds has been in the focus of historical studies for a long time. Comparing those civilizations in terms of technology, life expectancy, agriculture and land management, one may state that the traditional belief about Europe’s higher level of economic development is not relevant. Being the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, Europe was not the only place in the world where social and economic development was rapid and progressive. As Pomeranz notes, the phenomenon of industrialization is Europe “represents the full flowering of differences that had been more subtly building for centuries” (31).
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It was not a regularity deriving from Europe’s uniqueness, exceptional approaches to economic development and sweeping spiritual greatness. For many centuries, Eastern countries to a great extent had had significant superiority over Europe.
Agriculture was the defining indicator of the countries’ economic welfare in the pre-industrial era. Speaking about agricultural development in the XVII-XIX centuries, it can be seen that Europe conceded much to Asia. The XVIII century China used much more efficient land cultivation techniques, placed more qualitative manure in the soil and knew how to get the most of relatively limited amounts of livestock. Moreover, Chinese rural transport was no less highly developed as in Europe even with the lower availability of agricultural animals. The Chinese considered animals a capital good while for Europeans animals were “an item of consumption” (Pomeranz 35).
If to look at the level of urbanization, which is considered one of the main indicators of the progressive economic development of the society, China and Japan had larger cities than Europe yet before the XIX century. Over 22% of Japanese population lived in the cities while only 15% did in Europe (Pomeranz 35). The same relatively positive trends could be seen in the issues of life expectancy and life quality. Asian people in rural and city areas lived longer than Europeans did. The core difference in demographic patterns of the two civilizations can be seen in Eastern countries’ strict family planning and birth control policies. European population was much more exposed to epidemics, wars, and harvest failures while the main problems for the people in Asia came from earthquakes and floods (Pomeranz 42).
While Asian societies remained leaders in the agricultural sector, Europe was forced to search for other ways to ensure its economic development. Europe had to refer to technology. European focus on technology does not mean that Eastern countries did not establish them at all; it means only that technology was not used there as a tool to modernize the economy. With relatively high costs spent on agriculture, Europeans had no other choice and started to develop the technology. Pomeranz emphasizes that Europeans were “not necessarily more creative, but high wage costs steered their efforts in the one direction that lead to a real transformation” (49).
Lack of land, failure to establish land-intensive technologies, deforestation and soil erosion in the first part of the XIX century lead Europe to the discovery of energy-intensive industries, with iron and coal among the crucial ones. Industrial Revolution, therefore, was made possible by the Europe’s failures in the agricultural field which led it to the exploration of its technological advantage and invention of the steam engine. The rise of European economies was initially caused by the crisis of agriculture societies. However, to my opinion, Industrial Revolution would not bring much profit for the Europeans if there were no countries to conduct trade with; among those countries China had remained the most important one for centuries.
Pomeranz, Kenneth. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001. Print.