I am thinking of a planet (I suppose one would call it a parallel earth) where the industrial revolution never happens, and people live with 1700s technology forever. What differences in resources/weather/environment/available land area could ensure that it doesn't happen, and what impact would these changes have on other aspects of society?
Limit the availability of raw materials, in particular fossil fuels and iron. Without fossil fuels you are limited to wood burning as a power source which is far less energy dense and a much more finite supply. Without iron it's much harder to make much of the earlier engineering feats.
This means you don't get useful steam engines or railways which were two of the largest factors in industrialization. This would also extend out to mining which becomes harder, etc.
The life of most people would not be impacted as much (iron, steel and in particular steel weapons would be extremely rare and valuable) but would continue as normal.
Eventually you can expect people to find a way around these limitations so there would still be technological advancement but it would be much slower. So you can't achieve "for ever" but you could conceivably have centuries of millennia of very slow advancement before enough breakthroughs are made to unlock alternative technologies.
That is far too advanced to expect technology to remain static for long. Technology advances without new resources - new resources certainly shape how technology advances, but better methods and processes develop using the same resource constraints.
Coal is not the cause of industrialization, so eliminating it will not prevent advancement. This may be suggested as people misunderstand the industrial revolution and think it was caused by steam-power, but the industrial revolution was already well underway before that became widespread (causality runs the other way - it is the industrial revolution which leads to the development of steam power as innovators sought ways to feed the rapidly growing power needs). Charcoal is nearly as good for most purposes anyway, so you would see all the effort that went into coal mining go into tree farms and kilns, and likely transport of charcoal from areas with plentiful forests.
Water power was extensively used for industrial purposes but was supplanted because conditions made coal-fired steam engines cheaper. Canals were being built at a rapid place to facilitate trade before railroads became cheaper. Windmills were used where water was either scarce or slow-moving (I've been fascinated by the Dutch sawmills). While certainly more expensive and more constrained than steam engines, these still power development.
Imposing sufficient constraints to prevent people developing beyond the 18th century standards would be sufficient constraints that they would be unable to attain even that level of development.
Developments like capitalism, assembly-line production, standardized replaceable parts, cargo containerization, and most of the truly innovative changes which allowed the amazing economic development we enjoy today do not rely upon any resources beyond the human mind.
The constraint will need to be societal in nature, like a strong religious prohibition on any changes, but that will not last forever as there will always be those who question.
The (misconception here, there's been many industrial revolutions in major & minor countries over quite some time - even Switzerland had some) Industrial Revolutions have not just been about technology, but also about society.
The change from homeworking and small manufacturing to central factories and exporting goods had to go hand-in-hand with changes in how society worked and accepted these paradigm shifts.
- People had to have reasons to work in these new factories powering new industries.
- Laws had to be accommodating these new structures and allow for them - many medieval laws actively prevented any advances that destroyed working places, this changed with the renaissance..
Instead of removing resources, prevent changes in law - thus prevent reformation of societies. This will prevent any advances in industrialization and technology much longer than removing some resources.
TL;DR You can't prevent industrialization by getting rid of resources, but you can delay any huge technological advances by keeping society static.
You might not need a reason. We assume that just because something has happened to us it seems natural but consider that in Australia they never invented bow and arrow.
There might also be fewer political or economic forces to make such inventions attractive. Given good farmland humans might be able to live on very few hours of work a day and be perfectly happy. I think Harari's Sapiens was discussing this.
I'm also not sure if you would still consider this industrial revolution but it is not (immediately) obvious (to me, at least) that many of the achievements of the steam engine could not have been done without it. Wind energy was already popular.
Here are a number of ideas, some are more speculative and handwaving than others.
- No Coal Deposits
Have some kind of bacteria that rapidly decomposes dead wood develope when trees come around. They would need to be quite resilient and have some extremophile cousins to decompose wood in anaerobic environments.
- No Colonialism
This is really speculative but could work story wise. Have a ghost plage-ship reach the America 200 years before Columbus or have the Norse colonies on Vinland and Markland succeed. Both events would allow the Americans to develop immunities to European diseases, which killed 95% of the population before the Europeans came to colonize. The technological advantage would not have been sufficient to conquer native superpowers during that time. No American colonial nations would hamper European economies, because there would be fewer export markets. Without the colonial successes in the Americas the tedious adventures in Africa, South-East-Asia and India wouldn´t have a base. Especially the case of India is interesting, as the looting of India by the British and it's use as a resource mine and market might have been crucial for the industrial revolution to happen.
Brasil isn´t a world power. That´s really odd as it is a huge, resource and manpower-rich country. The reason for that is that they didn´t industrialized, as their economy was slave-based. European economies weren´t slave-based because the Pope prohibited the enslavement of the recently baptized in 1435. Never let this happen and you got slave economies in Europe.
All that said I don´t feel that option two and three will be permanent. Option one with no coal means no industry or the rapid collapse of it when the forests are all cut down. An example of this would be the Mioan copper industry on Crete. This would hit all the countries equally. Options two and three would only hamper Europe. In that case, my money would be on one of the Mughal Empires Indian successor states or Japan starting the spiral of technological development. India had been one of the most industrialized regions of the world for millennia until the British came plundering. Japan had already developed high-sea ships, but they were shocked into isolationism upon contact with the more advanced Europeans. Keep the Europeans primitive and a Japanese colonial Empire could be the first step in and eastern technology arms race with Korea and Qing. But both the latter options would give you a few centuries longer of pre-industrial Europe to play around with.
Don't change the planet, change the animals living on it.
Do you remember the story of John Henry? As the story goes, he was the best railroad track layer in the country and he challenged a steam hammer to a track laying competition. If he could beat the steam hammer, then the railroad company would use manual labor instead. He was fast enough to win, but he died of exhaustion, and the railroad company used steam hammers anyway. But... what John Henry was just an average railroad track layer, and there where other guys much stronger and faster than he was who could leave a steamhammer in the dust?
Now imagine a world where biology is just better across the board. Horses that haul several ton carts at interstate speeds, people who are dexterous enough to weave clothing at the pace of a loom or carve furniture at the speed of power tools, and Oxen that can plow and reap fields with all the speed of a tractor.
You don't need to make animals Marvel action hero better, just better enough that creating a technology good enough to beat good-ol-fashioned elbow grease would require too many individual improvements to get from point A to point B for people to ever get there. After all: if steam engines and water mills are never needed, no one would have come up with all of the hundreds of incremental advancements in modern metallurgy and mechanics necessary to finally make people obsolete.
The effect that this would have on society is that tools powered by man or animals would just be seen as better. After enough steam powered contraptions come and go, they would begin to be regarded with so much skepticism that even when someone does have a good enough idea to improve things, most people would laugh it off, IE: "A turbine engine? Haha, that's just a fancy steam engine. If I want to fly cross country, I'll just ride a giant bird like any reasonable human being. Good luck not exploding!"
Massive solar flares on a regular basis.
Also, possibly, a much weaker planetary magnetic field.
In 1989, a solar flare knocked out the power in Quebec. Big solar storms capable of knocking out power happen often enough but luckily most of them miss us. And we have a huge magnetic shield around the planet thanks to our active core so smaller storms don't have much impact. (Mars, for example, does not have this magnetic shield, which is a big problem for future colonization plans.)
So, I'm thinking:
The sun for this planet is far more active than ours. The planet is closer to it. The planet's magnetic field is weaker, offering it much less protection. Under conditions like this, my thinking that any sort of advance towards electricity tends to fail so regularly that it's simply not pursued as anything more than a fun hobby for toys that sometimes work. "Steampunk" (mechanical devices driven by simple engines) become normal and electricity is rarely if ever pursued.
Also, they probably have really spectacular auroras.
Further reading: https://earthsky.org/space/are-solar-storms-dangerous-to-us
It's been argued the fact that Western Europe was splintered into competing and often warring kingdoms, with an independent Catholic Church, following the fall of the Roman Empire contributed to a culture of learning and technological innovation that eventually led to the Industrial Revolution.
Yes, Europe benefited from a unique geography, fertile soils, and a rich abundance of mineral resources. However if Europe had been united under one secular and/or religious ruler, as in China or the Ottoman Empire, new and disruptive thinking, financial innovations, and technologies could have been easily suppressed.
If the Roman Empire had persisted under one emperor, and indeed expanded into Germany, Eastern Europe, and perhaps farther east, I can't see the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, or the Industrial Revolution happening in Europe or anywhere else on Earth, at least not by the present time.
A possible catastrophe to stead the progression of technology would need to force people away from cities/ prevent people from gathering in large groups to create a disposable work force (factories would not be able to staff up to full production). A new flu strain might make people weary of large gatherings and tight proximity, a law might be in-place to prevent talk of uprisings and challenges to the powers that be, maybe a disease that only effects woman has killed off most of the females of our population and those left are forced into exclusivity to protect their female resources. The how is pretty broad, but one of those scenarios would be an interesting place to build a world out of.
In terms of impact, the amount of humans the earth can support would be dramatically reduced. Up to current time, population spikes have been met with new technology in the agriculture space to support the new boom. The industrialization of farming is what allowed large populations to be sustained during the industrial revolution, and also allowed for large amounts of the populations that did not have to farm. People all over the world would be starving, likely forcing more people into indentured servitude or slavery as those ways of life would likely be the only way to get fed. It would start its own apocalyptic world, where a large portion of the world is doomed to die of starvation. People likely would turn to cannibalism and the fabric of society would quickly unravel.
Religion won't allow certain advancements.
The impact is fairly obvious, disease and starvation remain rampant, people never live very long, knowledge is rarely passed between generations.
Here's a simplified view.
Generation 1: Man needs wood for his fire, he can only collect fallen trees. He spends his entire life collecting wood and hunting. His son grows up.
Generation 2: Seeing his father busy from wood hunting, her tries to use tools he already has to cut down a tree. Smashing it with a rock doesn't work, but eventually the rock splits and becomes sharp. This new sharp rock works much better. His son sees this.
Generation 3: The Axe is born, the man goes out and cuts down a tree, brings it home, and raises a family, the son is a baby.
---Religious fanatics attack claiming this new axe invention violates gods rules of the world. The man is killed and his axe destroyed.
Generation 4: The baby grows to be a man, and has to go collect wood for the fire by hand, not knowing about the lost invention of the axe or how to make one.
The cycle repeats forever.
The industrial revolution happened because of advances in technology.
Technology improved because of advances in science.
Science (and art) improved because more resources and people time became available.
This Renaissance happened because a substantial portion of the population suddenly disappeared (Black Plague), leaving a population with far more resources and infrastructure per person that they had ever had before.
So, if you want to prevent the industrial revolution, you have to first eliminate the Renaissance. And you can do that by eliminating the Black Plague, and allowing Europe to continue existing in the dark ages.
Limiting fossil fuels would only had delayed the Industrial Revolution from taking off. So that's not going to cut it.
You'll need a massive shortage of materials, like metal ores being depleted or unavailable (think the collapse of the Ringworld civilization in Larry Niven's novels.)
The world would have to have been very unusual, either most metals sunk to the core, or some process depleted them. Then you have humanity with nothing but stone, wood, bone and clay. Too extreme me thinks.
One thing that could delay progress is Plague. Think some form of plague that's cyclic, like the cicadas, with a high mortality rate, but with the cycles changing unpredictable over time, tied to some migratory vector species.
The Old World went to crap several times because of the Plague, and it were plagues introduced by Europeans that utterly destroyed all Pre-Columbian civilizations, from the agrarian all the way up to militarily strong, sophisticated empires.
So if you throw a wrench at humanity in the form of a recurring, unstoppable, high mortality rate, then whatever remains of humanity will be forced to hunker down in fragmented areas, which grow and then break over and over.
The cycles should be long enough for population to semi-bounce and spread and create new bunkers, and then to experience massive, widespread death when the plague comes.
I have a hard time seeing humanity escaping from being illiterate nomads with a few feudal lords here and there.
While not quite at the same level of technology, I suspect better sanitation would be a small, reasonable change.
With better sanitation, the black death never rips through Europe. The grip and authority of the church is never challenged in the same way. The population of Europe remains high, preventing wealth and knowledge from accumulating the same way. As a result, people remain in limbo, or at least advance much slower
The Industrial Revolution would have looked very different, if it could have happened at all, if not for surface deposits of coal (and secondarily oil).
Coal is formed by the decomposition of plant matter in peat bogs by anaerobic bacteria. Therefore, a different microbiome during the carboniferous era (and later) might have produced much less coal near the surface where it could have been easily mined. This might involve a new species that was better at decomposing plant matter in water before it could become coal, either aerobic or anaerobic, or the kinds of bacteria that started the process never evolving.
No scarcity of wood
People in England started using coal for heating because charcoal became too expensive due to massive deforestation. The steam engine was invented to pump water out of coal mines so that more coal could be mined! It was a desperate move to use that dirty toxic underground mineral rather than wood.
No overpopulation in cold latitudes
Of course, wood would not had become scarce of the number of people in England was not large enough to provoke a massive deforestation. If the number of people in cold ladies head remained in balance with the rate of forest recovery, the steam engine would never have appeared.
The history of mankind is one of progress. There must have been many opportunities missed by mankind, and yet here we are. "missing" the industrial rev would not stop progress, the technology would advance, only in a different way. This would be an interesting idea to work with... How would the technology advance differently?
Let me know if you do anything with this, I would be interested to hear what you write.
One example of us missing an opportunity would be periods of tech slowdown like 1971-now. Where tech advance has been limited to only the world of byts. Peter Thiel would say it's because we have become (most people) indefinite optimists, I would say it's because we had some social innovation instead.
You have to derail the western civilization early. It's not natural resources nor technology that brings about industrialization but the social setting. The West industrialized first because it had a global trade network increasing the demand for goods since the great navigations, massive internal migrations from the villages to the cities since the 30 years war devastated the countrysides of Europe and the enclosures finished the jobs and a complete lack of reverence for the natural world that allowed it to exploit both the nature and the fellow men (the lack of reverence for the nature came from christianity killing the ancient animism and illuminism killing the link bewteen man and god).
As god you can engineer your environment to make industrialization less likely. None of these things mentioned here would necessarily be a show stopper on their own but put them all together and industrialization becomes much less likely. Industrialization only came about because it was profitable, make it unprofitable and it won’t happen.
A much drier desert world would help. Not waterless and not without seas, but with much more land and a lot drier climate with more deserts and semi deserts as well as a few more fertile areas.
This could help eliminate fossil fuels by removing or reducing the places where they form. It would also increase the value of trees and make it more expensive to burn them as fuel. Fuel would be provided by low grade materials such as dried plant waste and dung which would not be convenient or energy dense for a stream engine.
Reduce the availability of iron ore and metal ores in general: perhaps there were fewer natural processes at work concentrating ores so although wide spread, they are very dilute and difficult to purify. Concentrated deposits are rare and where they do occur they are located in more remote and inaccessible places far from woodland so either charcoal or iron ore has to be transported across land to bring the two together to allow for smelting making it expensive.
Prevent the agricultural revolution (which preceded and helped to enable the Industrial revolution).Spread the habitable area out along some long valleys like the Nile that flow through a desert. There are no large areas of woodland that can be cleared to make way for vast areas of cereal crops. The population is dispersed in a strip maybe 10 miles either side of the river for hundreds of miles.
Provide plenty of cheap animal labour – something like the camel or some sort of “desert horse” type that can live off of very rough grazing and can be widely used for land transportation when needed.
Industrialization would be unlikely in this world as it would not be profitable.