Revolutions and Revolutions

When we talk about revolutions, we usually think of political revolutions – French, Russian, American, possibly English. Propaganda, warfare, rebellion, those all come to mind. Or perhaps some think of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, with the development of steam power leading to mass production leading to either the rise of modern living standards and prosperity, or the ills of sweat shops and Blake’s “dark satanic mills.” But before all these came another revolution. The first revolution many historians talk about, if we go all the way back to about 12,000 years ago in Eurasia, is the neolithic revolution. This was a change in how humans obtained food, which led to (perhaps) changes in social organization. I say perhaps because recent archaeological finds in the Levant and Turkey suggest that in some places, hunter-gatherers had already established permanent settlements before starting to practice agriculture. The idea is still being cussed and discussed. The neolithic revolution included domestication of cattle, sheep, and goats, and of certain wild grains, notably the early forms of einkorn and emmer wheat, and barley. Selective harvest and breeding led to the development of new kinds of wheats and barley, and led to the development of sedentary populations and greater social specialization. From that, according to anthropologists, came hierarchical societies that developed into kingdoms, and perhaps, the diminished role of women in governance. The latter is hotly debated for all sorts of reasons.

But before the neolithic revolution came pottery, and weaving, and certain other technologies that helped make parts of the revolution possible. And the Neolithic revolution was not rapid. We have no idea how long it took for ideas and techniques to diffuse across Eurasia, or how often local groups discovered/developed domestication on their own. We do know that by 10,000 years ago, towns and cities and pottery could be found across a wide area, as could hunting and gathering and nomadism.

Some writers talk about an energy revolution of the medieval, or even Roman period. This would be when humans managed to use non-animal energy to do work, notably wind and water power. the Romans actually used water power more than earlier scholars had thought, but not to the extent that Early Modern Europeans did, with windmills and gearing, staged water mills, and all sorts of applications for rotary motion. Wind power permitted the draining that opened up large areas of northwestern Europe for cultivation, literally creating the Netherlands.

Then came the agricultural revolution in England. There had been one in the Early Medieval in all of Europe, when the three-field system of crop rotation and manuring, the heavy steel-tipped plow, and the processes of fallow increased food production greatly, at east until the onset of the Little Ice Age. But in England in the 1600s, or 1700s, or early 1800s, something kicked off a process that allowed the small island to feed 20 million people, which in turn supported the Industrial Revolution. What happened? Historians are still arguing about it, but a combination of land ownership changes and new techniques and crops, including potatoes and rutabegas (swedes) and domesticated clover enhanced soil fertility while providing high calorie-per-acre yields. Fallow faded into a four or five-fold crop rotation system. Better breeds of livestock provided more hair and meat more quickly, or more milk, and their manure also increased soil fertility.

That surplus of food allowed a surplus of people, who were available to work in the new industries. James Watt and his associates developed steam power into usable machines, notably pumps. Coal and coke began to replace wood, albeit slowly and never completely, as the fuel source. Steam power made machinery portable, allowing factories to spread away from water sources and into places with other resources, The first Industrial Revolution was the steam revolution, bringing heavy industry, trains, and textiles. The second Industrial Revolution of the 1850s was a chemical revolution, and an electrical one. The book The Industrious Revolution points out that England had a social and economic flexibility that Europe lacked and that set some of the “preconditions” that made the Industrial Revolution more probably in England than in the German states or France.

Some historians have theorized that the agricultural and Industrial revolutions helped stabilize Britain so that the conditions that triggered the French Revolution never occurred. While there was occasional hunger, and local unrest, famine did not stalk England after the 1600s. I’m not so certain – Britain had been different for a long time before 1789. It suffered civil war in the 1640s, almost one in 1688, spasmed in the late 1700s, and could have erupted in the 1820s except for a grand compromise that opened the franchise and prevented a 1848 from occurring.

None of these happened instantly. All of these great changes took time, and worked out in different ways in different places. All likely met resistance from someone, not necessarily as poetically as Blake’s dreams of England’s earlier “green and pleasant land.” And all eventually led to higher standards of living and more freedom for the individual, although not without conflict and slips backwards – Five Year Plan, anyone?

What will be next? Perhaps a genetic revolution, with GMO crops such as golden rice that eliminate certain diseases of malnutrition and some human diseases. And the silicon revolution of computers and data storage (and collection, and abuse).