Tuesday, July 24, 2018

"Geography, Technology and the Flux of Opportunity": Thoughts

Having spent some years and some hundreds of pages on the question of Britain's economic rise and decline (you can check it out here), and gone through a good deal of the controversy about the process, I find myself with something to say not just about the subject, but about the debate.

On the whole, my explanation is that it was mostly a matter of the ways in which the changing technical state of the art interacted with the physical geography of Britain (size, location, natural resources) within the context of a complex international economic and political system to favor and disfavor it in various ways over the century.

However, a good many people prefer to simply say "culture." By which they mean that once upon a time the British people, or at any rate their elite, were practical and tough-minded, and then they stopped being that. After three decades and four volumes, this is what Correlli Barnett's celebrated study of the issue has to say. Apparently the public schools and the churches made Britain's rulers just too "gentlemanly" for their own good!

There is no point in denying that I, for one, am extremely suspicious of explaining large historical events in terms of nebulous cultural forces.

There is also no point in denying that such explanations are basically a matter of political axe-grinding, and especially where the Barnett version is concerned, right-wing axe-grinding.

It was those damned uppity workers and their labor unions! The lazy college kids who studied the humanities instead of engineering or business! Those nouveau riche businessmen who turned their backs on trade in favor of the country estate! The soft-headed aristocrats who went in for welfare states and socialism and appeasement and all the rest! Oh, would that we had a bit of Prussian iron in us! (And indeed, many a Thatcherite did read Barnett, or claim to have done so, like climate change denier Nigel Lawson.)

Still, at this point in working through the material (one can literally make a lifetime of this, and many have), I can say that it is also a matter of the simplicity of such explanations, compared with the sheer intricacy of the more material explanations that seem to me so much more persuasive.

After all, it wasn't simply that Britain had coal. It was that Britain had an abundance of easily exploitable coal--vast amounts of bituminous coal rather than, for example, lignite, and in surface deposits that were easy to mine, and the more attractive because Britain was so poor in wood, while the abundant water transport Britain's mix of rivers and coastline conferred on it made it, with a little work, feasible to move large amounts of bulk mineral around the island. And it wasn't just the value of coal as a fuel. It was also the fact that the need to transport all that fuel encouraged canal-building, and port development, and shipping, and ship-building, all of which had vast implications by integrating the British economy, while the ports and the ship-building and the rest also helped integrate its economy into the world economy. It was, too, the fact that, just as the flood control problem had factored into the Dutch development of inanimate power sources (windmills to power the pumps), digging deeper and coping with flooding gave Britain a greater incentive than any other country to refine the steam engine . . .

Meanwhile, coal and steam are bound up with the expansion of Britain's iron output in the critical period, which is hard to understand without some reference to metallurgy. Indeed, many histories do mention something called "puddling" and another thing called "rolling," and offer some description of them, along with the assertion that they made a difference, but the descriptions tend to be fragmentary, missing the key details, while in general they give little sense of why they made such a difference.

Getting a fuller description of the process takes some doing--in my experience, going to much more specialized books dealing with metallurgy and its history. (I certainly did--as the footnotes in the paper testify.) One has to concern themselves with the ways in which carbon and sulfur and phosphorous affect ironmaking; the differences between Baltic and British ores, and between charcoal and coal and coke in themselves and their uses as fuels. They also have to spend some time figuring out how prior methods of smelting and processing iron worked, and didn't work--get to the bottom of the differences between blast furnaces and puddling furnaces and finery forges and a whole host of other technologies no one uses today . . .

It helps to have some geology, some physics, some chemistry. (In fact, there were formulas to explain just what limestone is doing in the middle of all this.)

Even as someone who is not a physical scientist, it seems to me that a high school education is enough to get a handle on the basics here.

But then, as Sinclair Lewis wrote, those things everyone is supposed to know, no one knows. And I get the impression that even a good many of the more talented and diligent historians can't cope with it, or can't be bothered to try, or if they do get a handle on it, feel they don't have such a firm handle on it as to be able to explain it concisely to a general reader.

Rather than dig into all that it is far, far easier to just say "culture," the more so because a substantial part of the population responds to such "Big Thinks" by grunting like Tim Allen at the remarks of neighbor Wilson. Especially that part of the population which hates labor unions and college kids and all the rest.

Which, apparently, also includes Tim Allen.

"Geography, Technology and the Flux of Opportunity"
7/19/18
Empire, Spies and the Twentieth Century
7/16/18
Writing on the Post-1945 History of the Royal Navy: A Few Thoughts
7/15/18
Review: Vanguard to Trident: British Naval Policy Since World War II, by Eric J. Grove
3/8/16
Review: Trigger Mortis, by Anthony Horowitz
2/7/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15

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