Une citation de mon livre Le Secret de l'Occident (édition 1997) publiée en mars 2019 par David LePoire des Laboratoires d'Argonne, dans l'Illinois (USA), dans le cadre d'une analyse des grandes transitions de l'histoire de l'humanité. Dans cet article, paru dans la revue de l'Association Internationale pour la Grande Histoire (IBHA), D. LePoire établit des analogies entre les grandes transitions historiques et des phénomènes bien connus en physique, tels que changements de phase, réactions en chaîne, décollage de fusées, etc.

La "International Big History Association" (IBHA) a son siège à l'université de la ville de Villanova, en Pennsylvanie (USA). La IBHA a été fondée par le (ou en référence au) savant écossais Charles Lyell (1797-1875). À la fois avocat et brillant géologue, Lyell fut l'une des sources d'inspiration de Charles Darwin, à travers son ouvrage Les Principes de la géologie (1830-33).

David J. LePoire, "Exploration of Historical Transitions with Simple Analogies and Empirical Event Rates", Journal of Big History, III(2), 1 - 16, 17 March 2019.

Copie de sûreté de la version internet: février 2020. PDF. Source 1 (html). Source 2 (pdf).


Exploration of Historical Transitions with Simple Analogies and Empirical Event Rates

David J. LePoire
Environmental Science Division, Argonne National Laboratory
17 mars 2019

Journal of Big History, III(2); 1 - 16.
DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.22339/jbh.v3i2.3210


     Various qualitative models have been suggested for major historical social and technological transitions. Many of these transitions still have puzzling aspects such as the early transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculturally-based society which required dramatically increased effort.
     Another puzzle is the emergence of the scientific and industrial revolution in Europe despite many previous similar discoveries in other regions. Explorations of simple models with aggregate, dynamic, and nonlinear processes might lead to insights of the unique aspects of each transition.
     Topics include the transitions between hunter-gatherers, agricultural societies, early civilizations, market development, capitalism, industrialization, and sustainable societies with factors of land-pressures, economies of scale, suppressed growth, and chain reactions.
     Many types of models could be applied to these transitions. First, basic characteristics, such as width and midpoint of the transitions, are determined by analyzing historical events contributing to the transition. However, this does give much insight into the dynamics or parameters of the transition. For more understanding, each of six transitions is explored with a simple phenomenological model. These simplified models do not attempt to quantitatively address the details of the actual historical mechanisms Instead analogies to more natural systems are invoked to gain insights.


Transition to Industrial

As population, trade, and demand for goods increased, energy in the form of water, wood, and wind were limited. This was felt early in England as the forests were depleted, however, this led to exploration of the use of coal which required greater transportation and technology to keep the mines dry. The resulting use of iron and steam engines led to a positive feedback loop in which the technologies used to develop coal resources led to increased coal demand. This system first emerged in the Severn River valley in the mid 1700’s. However, many of these technologies had been tried before: blast furnaces were used for iron working in Han China; coke from coal was used for metallurgy in Song China; and Hero of Alexandria constructed a steam powered device and an early windwheel in the 1st century (although not very efficient).

The puzzle why Europe led the scientific and industrial revolution has been discussed quite thoroughly in the past with many explanations [Goldstone 2009, Stark 2005]. Diamond [2005] suggested that geography played an important role in that China had few natural hindrances enabling the establishment of a centralized government whereas Europe had many mountain ranges and a complicated coastline. The Chinese Han dynasty has been likened to the Roman Empire, however, after its collapse, only a few generations passed before the reestablishment of a centralized government which was able to manage the introduction of technologies and innovations. Others have explored this theory more quantitatively in looking at the fractal dimension of the coastlines in enabling trade and reducing the chance of a centralized government [Cosandey 1997].

Why did these earlier inventions not start a similar industrial age? Perhaps combinations of the technologies must occur in a short period under conditions that could sustain growth and continual development. These incentives include the ability of the entrepreneur to profit from capital investments, and the workers the ability to leave the land and work instead in factories. However, if the cultural environment is not able to sustain growth with accompanying complementary innovations, then the momentum is lost.

The industrial revolution had many phases including an early agricultural phase (mid 18th century) with the introduction of mechanization and advanced crop rotation leading to higher productivities. The other phases in Schumpeter’s waves of innovation include the textiles and iron (mid 19th century), steam-rail-and steel, electricity-chemicals and internal combustion engine (late 19th century), and petrochemical-electronics and aviation (mid 20th century) [Ayres 1989]. Another wave in the sequence might be the information age with digital networks and software. The rate of innovation can be seen in the number of innovations throughout the era. Analysis of a different set of data show the peak in innovation per capita in the late 19th century [Heubner 2005]. This can be viewed as the highest qualitative (i.e., change in life-style) acceleration, while the current acceleration is more quantitative with a larger population contributing to innovation.

The analogy of a chain reaction models the positive feedback of introducing new innovations and the loss of momentum as the innovations age. The new innovations might come from outside (diffusion through trade) or from internal discoveries. A couple of positive feedbacks occurred: 1) as more people worked in the industrial sector evaluating and implementing new technologies, workers in traditional setting, e.g., agriculture, were no longer needed because of the labor saving devices such as tractors; and 2) new innovations result in a greater number of potential innovations based on increased combinations. However, if the rate of innovations is too slow, they might be forgotten or taken for granted before the next innovation. This leads to a rather slower linear progression compared to the exponential growth with the positive feedbacks at higher innovation rates. Physical and social technologies such as coal, steel, steam power, democracy, capital markets, and communication were brought together in a system ab

le to sustain the transition through their continuous need for innovation. A key factor is the ability to recognize and monitor the feedback to grow or abandon decisions based on market conditions and financial incentives.

Figure 9. Critical innovation rate model of transition to industrialization. The top shows a society with early innovations but are isolated and do not influence each other. The bottom case is a society that has innovations quickly introduced but each with a longer duration impact. The innovations create a chain reaction.

Current Transition

The current transition is towards a sustainable civilization where energy, population, and technology are balanced. The transition is complicated by the need to solve the current problems without creating overwhelming new ones within the context of rapidly changing technology [Homer-Dixon 2006, Ausubel 1996]. For example, raising education and health of many people, especially women in developing countries, temporarily increases resource use through improved quality of life before the population growth rates stabilize. If the transition progresses too slow, the resources will not be concentrated enough and the solutions will not be found. If the transition goes too fast, the unresolved unintended problems will accumulate.

The “burnout” or sustainability model is known within many communities including ecology. Transitions in predator-prey models sometimes exhibit the “J-Curve” where the transition starts going through the characteristic S-Curve but does not stabilize at the higher level but instead collapses to a lower level. This is indicative of fueling the initial growth on some unsustainable resource.

An analogy is made between the transition to a sustainable society to launching a rocket into orbit [LePoire 2018]. A rocket, once launched, needs to reach a critical velocity and height before obtaining a sustainable orbit. Once a stable orbit is attained, there are many further beneficial options such as space observations or facilitating further space exploration. The basis for the analogy is that there are two stationary states for the rocket- the ground and a stable orbit. The ground is analogous to the historical situation of a society based on traditional solar energy for crop growth, warmth, wind, and water. The stable orbit is analogous to an improved situation of an advanced society with more freedom, comforts and fulfillment, which is also stable through technologically capturing a larger fraction of the solar energy (or supplementing it with nuclear fission or fusion).

It is not clear if society’s transition to energy sustainability (the metaphorical stable orbit) will be completed successfully. In this analogy, it is not at all clear which plan we should follow towards sustainability since we really do not know the fundamentals that any rocket engineer would know. Such information would include the weight of the rocket, the efficiency of the engines, the amount of fuel, the speed necessary to get into orbit, and the height of the orbit such that the atmosphere is negligible.

Figure 10. The analogy of a rocket launching into orbit with the launching of civilization into an industrial society based on the use of fossil fuel. Both start at a lower stable state (ground and agrarian society) but use the limit energy resources to reach a stable state at a higher level (orbit and advanced sustainable society).

A rocket launch can crash from loss of stability, fuel tank explosion, too little acceleration leading to inefficient use of fuel, too much acceleration damaging engines. The rocket might also heat up too much when going through the atmosphere or if the orbit is too low. The rocket might not orient correctly for a stable orbit. Another failure would be for the rocket to enter a stable orbit but lose the capability to support humans, e.g., buildup of carbon dioxide as started on the ill-fated Apollo 13. For each of these there are corresponding analogies in the transition to an advanced sustainable society. For example, the incentives might not be correct to guide us towards stability, the transition might be too slow (burning fossil fuels but making too little progress) or too fast (using technology that eventually is inappropriate or inefficient).

Table 1. Summary of the six transitions and their analogies presented in this paper.


A topic of current discussion concerns the rate of technological progress, energy usage, and social change. One contribution to this discussion is historical analysis of important historical transitions. These transitions include development from hunter-gathers, to farmers, to civilizations, to market development, and capitalism. The rate of important events within these transitions indicate potential logistic trends. This trend throughout historical civilizations continues the accelerating rate of biological and human evolution, which seems to be leading to a nearing inflection period (as some have called the singularity). This growth trend might also be viewed as a behavior exhibited by a complex adaptive system. As these systems develop further from equilibrium towards critical states, the systems spontaneously may bifurcate into two potential discrete states. The growth between the bifurcations might exhibit recursive logistic growth. The formation of a larger logistic trend by embedded nested transitions might be interpreted as a form of punctuated equilibrium. It has been suggested that energy usage might be the driving parameter for this generalized evolution.

Acknowledgement: This work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy under Contract No. DE-AC02-06CH11357


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Une citation de mon livre Le Secret de l'Occident (édition 1997) en octobre 2010 par le physicien David LePoire des laboratoires Argonne (Illinois, USA) dans une analyse des changements de nations dominantes au sein du monde capitaliste avancé.

(David J. LePoire: "Long-term Population, Productivity, and Energy Use Trends in the Sequence of Leading Capitalist Nations", Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 77(8):1303-1310, xx Oct 2010.

Copie de sûreté de la version internet: mai 2020. PDF. Source.

Long-term Population, Productivity, and Energy Use Trends in the Sequence of Leading Capitalist Nations

David J. LePoire, Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne IL, 60439, dlepoire@anl.gov
October 2010


There are many theories on why sustainable science, technology, and commerce emerged first in Western Europe rather than elsewhere. A general theory is that the geography of Europe facilitated the development of and diverse and independent states and resultant competition among them. Over the past 500 years, the sequence of leading states began with Portugal and the Netherlands on the edge of continental Western Europe, then moved to the British Isles, and finally moved across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. The transitions of leadership from one state to another occurred about every 100 years. This sequence suggests that leadership moves from smaller states to larger states (although not to the largest existing state at the time), perhaps because larger states have the flexibility to develop more complex organizational processes and adapt new technology.

To explore this theory further, this paper analyzes state population data at the beginning and end of each leadership period. The data reveal an accelerating initial population sequence. Further understanding is gained from comparing the populations of the preceding and succeeding states at the time of each transition: The succeeding state’s population is usually about two times larger than that of the preceding state.

It is also seen that over time, the new organizational processes and technologies developed by the leading state are diffused and adapted by other states. Evidence of the effects of this diffusion should be seen in the dynamics of relative productivity and energy use (since the relative advantage of new ideas and technology can be maintained for a short period of about 100 years). This paper investigates these trends in population, trade, and resources to provide insight on possible future transitions.

There are many theories on why sustainable science, technology, and commerce emerged first in Western Europe. Stravrianos (1976, page 91) suggested factors related to internal weaknesses and fractiousness, which allowed innovations in trade, commerce, and finance to flourish instead of being curtailed by a conservative but unified centralized empire, such as that found in China at the time.

“The central fact of modern world history is that capitalism emerged first in Western Europe, which explains that region’s rise from obscurity to global hegemony. Western Europe’s pioneering role is taken for granted today. Yet how surprising that role actually was, given the fact that Western Europe had been the most backward area in all of Eurasia during the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ following the Fall of Rome. Only now can we see how that retardation later made it possible for Europe to take the lead in social and technological innovation.... The Fall of Rome was not a unique event in the annals of world history. Similar ‘falls’ had occurred repeatedly across the globe. What made the case of Western Europe unique was that a new imperial ‘rise’ did not follow the ‘fall.’... In Europe, however, repeated attempts at an imperial restoration failed, partly from certain internal weaknesses specific to the area, and partly from the chaos and destruction caused by a ceaseless succession of nomadic invasions.... The repeated demolition of embryonic succession empires in the West cleared the ground for something new to take root. A new Western civilization gradually took shape in which several potentially competing institutions … replaced the monolithic imperial structure that had been so inhospitable to technological progress.”

The organization of this study includes a brief summary of both the geographic factors in Europe and the sequence of leading states. Leadership is identified on the basis of economic, political, and military innovations and power. It is not the intent of this paper to further develop theories about these factors but instead to investigate aggregate characteristics (i.e., population, productivity, and energy use) that might influence leadership transitions and the diffusion of innovations. The sequence of leading states suggests that there are periodic transitions of leadership from smaller to larger states (although not to the largest existing state at the time), perhaps partly because the larger states’ resources, economies of scale, and flexibility helps them to develop more complex organizational processes and adapt new technologies and energy sources. These trends in population, trade, and resources are investigated to gain insight into possible future transitions (e.g., states that are potential candidates for future transitions, along with the relative rate of diffusion of the innovations).

As Stavrianos (1976) points out in the quote, there was a lengthy process of slow development in Western Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Ideas and innovations from one area were introduced to other areas through trade, crusades, invasions, and plagues. In Western Europe, these ideas and innovations were further developed and integrated to form labor-saving devices (Bernstein 2004). The loss of Constantinople in 1453 motivated countries such as Portugal to explore and find alternative routes to the profitable Eastern spice routes. The Dutch, having inherited much of the capital and banking activity after the decline of Antwerp and Italy during the 80 Years War, were able to develop financial tools to support capital investments in ships for profitable sea and river trade, especially trade in two bulk goods: timber and herring (Bunker and Ciccantell 2005). The Dutch also wrested control of some of the Portuguese Eastern colonies. This combination of innovations (in shipping, commerce, and capital) led to almost a century of leadership by the Netherlands during its Golden Age (about 1585–1685) (Schama 1987).

Some factors such as religion (Stark 2005), language, and specific technological inventions have been indentified as potential contributors to the emergence of the modern era in Europe (Mokyr 2002). The factor of geography, however, offers a high-level explanation that is not associated with any bias or value judgment. A recent hypothesis (Diamond 2005) suggests that in Europe, especially in locations where the terrain includes mountains, peninsulas, islands, or water bodies, the geographic factor has been an important contributor to the division of power, leading to the relative independence of the decisions made by states. This situation is unlike what occurred in (Ming) China, which was able to halt the exploration mission of Cheng He in 1433 because there was no option for him to find alternative support. Further analysis that supports the geographic factor concerns the characterization of coastlines by a fractal dimension (Cosandey 1997). The fractal dimension indicates how the coastline length changes when measured with different length rulers. For a smooth coastline, the fractal dimension would be around one; however, for a coastline with many peninsulas, islands, and bays, the fractal dimension would be larger but not quite two dimensional. Western Europe has a larger fractal dimension from its indented coastline than does the Indian Subcontinent, China, or either of the Americas.

Kennedy (1987) suggested that there was a sequence of countries with great power in the West that started with the Dutch and was followed by England and the United States. These countries’ leadership roles were based on organizational and technological innovations that advanced capitalist societies. To explore systemic transitions on a quantitative scale, the relative naval power in the Western European states was studied in Modelski (1987) and Modelski and Thompson (1996). They found periodic cycles of sea dominance that moved from Portugal, to Holland, to England, and then to the United States. This sequence of naval power transitions indicates the transitions were associated with the protection of major trade that fueled each successive country’s economic development. This European leadership is a part of a wider economic trend that had begun in Sung China by the year 1000 AD (Modelski and Thompson 1996). The move to Europe began when first Genoa and then Venice led with their development of banking and insurance. Portugal’s subsequent role with regard to innovations in commerce, trade, and political organization is described in Devezas and Modelski (2006). However, the analysis presented here focuses on sustained capital formation as detailed in Bunker and Ciccantell (2005), which requires the basis of trade to be the more mundane bulk goods (e.g., herring and wood) rather than the mostly luxury goods of the Portuguese.

There has been much discussion about future transitions of power and leadership (Zakaria 2008). Various nations and alliances, such as China and the European Union, continue to evolve. Some have argued that the era of nation-state dominance is ending, as posited in Van Creveld’s (1996) “The Fate of the State”: “The State, which during the three and a half centuries since the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) has been the most important and the most characteristic of all modern institutions, appears to be declining or dying. In many places, existing states are either combining into larger communities or falling apart; in many places, organizations that are not states are challenging them by means fair or foul.



Ausubel, J.H., 2004, “Will the Rest of the World Live Like America?” Technology in Society 26(2/3):343–360. Available at http://phe.rockefeller.edu/PDF_FILES/LiveLikeAmerica.pdf.

Bernstein, W.J., 2004, The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World Was Created, McGraw-Hill.

Bunker, S.G., and P.S. Ciccantell, 2005, Globalization and the Race for Resources, John Hopkins University Press.

Cosandey, D., 1997, Le Secret de l'Occident, Arléa, Paris. Also see a summary in English, The Rich States System Theory. Available at http://www.riseofthewest.net/dc/dc105summ.htm.


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