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Humanities LibreTexts

2.1: Big Changes

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  • One of the most vexing questions for historians is how to identify the causes of nineteenth-century European dominance: how does one explain the simple fact that Europe controlled a staggering amount of territory all around the globe by 1900? The old Eurocentric viewpoint was that there was something unique about European culture that gave it a competitive edge in the world. The even older version, popular among Europeans themselves in the late nineteenth century, was openly racist and chauvinistic: it claimed that European civilization was the bearer of critical thought itself, of technological know-how, of piercing insight and practical sense. All other civilizations were, in this model, regarded as either hopelessly backward or stuck in a previous stage of cultural or even biological evolution.

    That explanation was, obviously, not just self-serving but inaccurate. Nineteenth-century Europeans rarely lived up to their own inflated view of themselves, and more to the point, their dominance was extremely short-lived. Europe had a technological lead on most other world regions for less than a century. The Industrial Revolution began in England in about 1750, took almost a century to spread to other parts of western Europe (a process that began in earnest around 1830), and reached maturity by the 1850s and 1860s. In turn, European industrial power was overwhelming in comparison to the rest of the world, except the United States starting in the last decades of the nineteenth century, from about 1860 - 1914. After that, Europe’s competitive edge began a steady decline, one that coincided with the collapse of its global empires after World War II.

    A more satisfying explanation for the explosion of European power than one that claims that Europeans had some kind of inherent cultural advantage has to do with energy. For about a century, Europe and, eventually, the United States, had almost exclusive access to what amounted to unlimited energy in the form of fossil fuels. The iconic battles toward the end of the century between rifle-wielding European soldiers and the people they conquered in Africa and parts of Asia were not just about the rifles; they were about the factories that made those rifles, the calories that fed the soldiers, the steamships that transported them there, the telegraph lines that conveyed orders for thousands of miles away, the medicines that kept them healthy, and so on, all of which represented an epochal shift from the economic and technological reality of the people trying to resist European imperialism. All of those inventions could be produced in gigantic quantities thanks to the use of coal and, later, oil power.

    While many historians have taken issue with the term “revolution” in describing what was much more of a slow evolution at the time, there is no question that the changes industrial technology brought about really were revolutionary. Few things have mattered as much as the Industrial Revolution, because it fundamentally transformed almost everything about how human beings live, perhaps most strikingly including humankind’s relationship with nature. Whole landscapes can be transformed, cities constructed, species exterminated, and the entire natural ecosystem fundamentally changed in a relatively short amount of time.

    Likewise, “the” Industrial Revolution was really a linking together of distinct “revolutions” – technology started it, but the effects of those technological changes were economic and social. All of society was eventually transformed, leading to the phrase “industrial society,” one in which everything is in large part based on the availability of a huge amount of cheap energy and an equally huge number of mass-produced commodities (including people, insofar as workers can be replaced). To sum up, the Industrial Revolution was as momentous in human history as was the agricultural revolution that began civilization back in about 10,000 BCE. Even if it was a revolution that took over a century to come to fruition, from a long-term world-historical perspective, it still qualifies as revolutionary.

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