It must be fall semester. I know because Jonathan Dresner burdens his students with my writing. Actually, it’s a great syllabus that seeks to include students in conversations about history that are current on the blogosphere. Perhaps in the future his classes will be live-blogged?

Over at the group blog that Jonathan started, Frog in a Well, an interesting discussion has broken out over Brad DeLong’s long post on Chinese economic history. It’s a fascinating discussion about how Chinese development is understood and explained–entering into areas I am not qualified to discuss. However, the notion of “late industrialization” pops up in the comments there and at Grasping at Reality with Both Hands. Intellectual milieu of Confucian bureaucracy, strong hand of the center, hyper-efficiency of agricultural production–usual suspects make their appearance.

What’s interesting is that the trope of late industrialization appears in the historiographical writing of a number of countries. It’s used to explain the rise of anti-democratic traditions, especially in Germany, Italy and Russia. (Never mind that more democratically minded countries, like France and Netherlands, took longer to industrialize.) Give the wide application of this trope, it would seem that (proper) industrialization was a one man race only Britain could win. In the case of Germany (among the second wave of industrialization), this has become a hard sell. The work of Geoff Eley, David Blackbourn, George Mosse, and Modris Eksteins has shown that rather than being “peculiar”, Germans grasped modernity better than Brits. The timing of economic development does not explain as much, especially since it occurred after many of the Bismarckian compromises between Prussian and dynasties and between Junkers and manufacturers were still to come. Perhaps what was more important was how the nationalist movement was co-opted from the Wirtschaftsbuergertum and handed over to the Junkers.

I don’t want to dismiss theories of political economy. Economic backwardness and the timing of industrialization have their place, but they do not provide automatic explanations. China is an interesting case because its ascendancy as a modern economic powerhouse occurs as ideas about energy and environment have changed. Chinese industrialization had been critiqued as an albatross, burdening the global supply of oil and taxing the limits of environment. Perhaps there is no room for an industrialized China: natural resources won’t tolerate it.

If this is the case, should the notion of late industrialization stand? Energy and environment put more emphasis on material factors; will to modernize seems less important. Indeed empire may be a more important factor in industrialization. What would the global economy have looked like if China were competitive when England, United States, Germany and Belgium were at the height of their industrial production?

I’m not sure that I am articulating this problem well. Under the weight of environmental history, the timeliness of industrialization ought to be reconsidered. Projecting power, either by force or commerce, may play a greater role.