If BRICs want to grow as rich as today’s powers, they’ll have to find a new model, because the Industrial Revolution could only happen once.

By Heather Horn

An employee works at the Changning steel and iron factory in Changzhi, Shanxi province February 9, 2010. Climbing import prices for iron ore will put upward pressure on domestic ore prices, a trend not favourable for Chinese steel mills facing oversupply of steel products, China Iron and Steel Association said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Stringer

In 2006, China Central Television aireda 12-part documentary called “Rise of the Great Powers.” The great powers in question were Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, and the U.S. The pedagogical undertones did not go unnoticed in the Western media. “China, Shy Giant, Shows Signs of Shedding Its False Modesty,” wrote The New York Times, noting that the state now seemed to be making its ambition explicit.

For the BRIC rising economies — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — what can be learned by looking at the rise of powers throughout history? Obviously it depends on which historical example you look at. But there is one particular historical shift that, arguably more than most other factors, set the foundations for the current geopolitical order, and put the BRICs in the global back seat out of which they’re now attempting to climb. The loose, catch-all term for this even is the Industrial Revolution. And it offers a potent lesson for what the BRICs can do, and what they cannot do, if they intend to fulfill the more optimistic predictions and become undisputed world leaders.

Whole books — many of them — have been written about why the Industrial Revolution happened in the West, why it happened in Europe, and why it happened in Britain in particular. These books have also tried to explain why it happened in Britain rather than China, or rather than India — two of the more obvious candidates for a counterfactual.

The rise of the BRICs is a very different kind of global power shift than when, for example, France, Britain, and Germany competed throughout the last couple centuries, or when dominance shifted from quasi-hegemonic Britain to the U.S. and U.S.S.R., and finally to the U.S. These Western powers didn’t profit equally from the changes of the Industrial Revolution, but all of them and their progenitors were more or less winners in the economic upheavals of the 18th and 19th centuries. They emerged from the period politically independent and unified, as well as industrially way ahead of vast swaths of the world. What the rise of the BRICs symbolizes to both panicked individuals in the West and optimistic ones elsewhere is a radical shift in the geography of power — a catch-up or reversal of the Western global dominance that was established with the Industrial Revolution.

Here’s what makes that easy: the Industrial Revolution is over. Now, the hard part: that means all of us — not just the BRICs — have to find a new way out. Read more…

Heather Horn is a writer based in Chicago. She is a former features editor and staff writer for The Atlantic Wire, and was previously a research assistant at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

As published in www.theatlantic.com on February 15, 2012.


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