Philippa Thomas Online

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“Why the West Rules – for Now”


I just finished 620 densely written pages that propelled me through history from the Ice Age to the Atomic Age – filled with dramatic stories of war and sex and famine and migration and discovery – and suddenly realised that this is the best history book I have ever read.

Ian Morris began in the fields of ancient history & archeology. His book, published four months ago, reads like a life’s work. It aims to chart the entire course of human history “East and West”, tell us which trends matter, explain which factors had most impact and why, and extrapolate our probable future – or extinction – as a species. I’d be interested to hear any other readers’ thoughts on how he does it. Or what I should read next!

“Why the West Rules – for Now” is a book that made me think about why we need to study history, and why I want my little boy to enjoy it. If he grows up disconnected from the past, he’ll lack vital resources for shaping his future – and that of others. Especially now we feel as if we’re hurtling down the path of history thanks to the pace of technological advance – as if time itself is speeding up. My eight year old is going to get so much more out of life if he can adopt adaptation as a lifestyle.

All this from one book? Um, yes. Which means it’s obviously too big an academic project to pull into a single blog post.

Oh well. If you’re sitting comfortably, then we’ll begin.

This is what it isn’t about. There’s no long term “lock-in theory” about why the West rules. Morris raises a few of them – climate? Christianity? cultural superiority? racial differences that can be traced to the dawn of man? – only to knock ‘em down.

He argues that those who assume Western superiority aren’t looking back far enough. And he argues that those who look through the lens of a single discipline aren’t looking broadly enough.

He uses biology, geography, climate science and more – beginning with archeological findings – charting the pattern of history from the end of the last Ice Age, through the formation of “Western” and “Eastern” cores, to today.

He tries to explain history by describing how the key factors interact – and of course that’s where his book becomes more art than science – this is the aspect where I felt there’s inevitably shaping of the facts to suit the story – to create a coherent puzzle when all the pieces are in. He also overtly simplifies – with precious little on South Asia or South America.

To help explain the ups and downs of development, he adds in “extra” factors. Like “the paradox of development” – our very success putting too much pressure on the resources we need. Or “the advantages of backwardness” – when we’re forced to innovate because methods of living adapted from the “core” of our developed world just don’t suit the fringes.

More controversially from the point of view of history as our parents would have studied it, Morris rejects what he terms the Great Men /Bungling Idiot theories of history – arguing in essence that individual leaders can accelerate trends or miss opportunities – but that’s it. He dismisses such ideas as the dawn of democracy with the Greeks driving the rise of the West. His motto runs more along Marxist lines, that each age gets the thought it deserves.

“Progress”, as Morris measures it (though he’s careful to say that’s not a Moral Judgement) can be marked out above all by our abilities to capture energy (above all, fossil fuels), wage war, process information and build urban societies. (He demonstrates ingenious ways to measure historical trends – the number of shipwrecks in an era, for example, reflecting levels of trade.)

But “progress” can be negated by his ‘five horsemen of the apocalypse’ : climate change, famine, disease, state failure and migration.

So here’s the heart of it. Morris pulls together a grand chart of Social Development scores through the ages. He concludes (p557) that “The West rules because of Geography”. And here’s how he runs through history, and here’s where I unfairly condense ten chapters into the stuff of television captions.

** The West got a head start of around two thousand years (p130) thanks to climate change. Beginning in the latitudes we know today as the Middle East – Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran – civilisation evolved from foraging to farming to cities to warrior states. In 1200 BCE the western core’s “implosion” wiped out centuries of gains and the East began to catch up. By 200 BCE East and West were dominated by the Qin & Roman Empires.
** Decline and Fall: both empires came apart after 150CE. Centuries of collapse followed at both ends: plague, climate change, civil wars, migration. Writing, taxes, cities, bureaucrats, all slid away. Rome, Byzantium, Persia, all imploded. Arab migrants surged north. “By 700 the Islamic world more or less was the Western core, and Christendom was merely a periphery along its northern edge.” (A trend later reversed by further global warming which shifted the fertile farmbelt towards North West Europe.)
** The Eastern revival: for more than 1200 years, the Chinese led the way. From about 550 to 1775, the Medieval Warm Period brought “an economic explosion to rival ancient Rome’s.” Rice agriculture took off. The 1500 mile long Grand Canal gave China a system of internal waterways that did for it what the Med had done for Rome. Coal mines & iron foundries boomed. The seven Treasure Fleets sent 9,000 miles around the Indian Ocean were “the grandest projections of state power the world had seen.”
– But there was a ceiling to development: no industrial revolution. After the 1300s, the Little Ice Age hit hard. The Black Death arrived. And the East began to turn inward rather than looking out, becoming more conservative (women’s footbinding began in the twelfth century; links with the Jesuits were cut in the seventeenth century; China and Japan “increasingly shut out the dangerous world across the waters” in the eighteenth century) just as Europeans enjoyed the fruits of the Renaissance & the New World. Once again, Morris prefers history by maps not chaps: it was just much easier for western Europeans to cross the Atlantic than for Easterners to cross the Pacific.
** He has an interesting subtext on the Islamic world (p571): “As the Muslim world slid from being the core of the West to being an exploited periphery, its social development stagnated in a sense of victimhood.”
** With Britain’s industrial revolution and the opening of Atlantic trade, the West finally recovered the development levels of Roman times & pulled ahead of the East. The New World brought riches and food : corn, potatoes, peanuts. Elizabeth 1 cleared England’s entire foreign debt with the proceeds of Francis Drake’s piracy of silver and gold from Spain. The momentum was with the British and Dutch and Europe’s merchant class rather than the Spanish Hapsburg empire. The scientific revolution happened in Europe in the 17th century – a Europe that needed precise measures of space, money and time to run the Atlantic Empire. In Britain, a new breed of scholars began to call themselves political economists in the 1770s, just as a new class of wealthy industrialists emerged. . The steam engine.. the spinning wheel.. cotton mills …ironworking.. Working conditions could be appalling but in global terms, real wages soared.
** Morris argues that the East didn’t follow with its own industrial revolution, but simply imported from the West. And that “Germany and the United States led the way in what historians often call the Second Industrial Revolution, applying science to technology more systematically… turning the twentieth century into an age of oil, automobiles and aircraft.” Following the trend of history, twentieth century Britain overreached itself. “To pay its [war] debts, Britain haemorrhaged capital, most of it flowing across the Atlantic.” There was “the giant sucking sound of European wealth rushing into the United States”.
** And the last few decades have seen China & the East catch up fast. “Just as the market had led British capitalists to build up the industrial infrastructure of their own worst rivals in Germany and the US, it now rewarded Westerners who poured capital, inventions, and know-how into the East.” In East Asia, after the horrors of China’s Great Leap Forward in 1958, and the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the pragmatists pushed back, and growth took off.
** We are now looking at “Chimerica” – as coined by historian Niall Ferguson – the bubble economy in which American consumers are borrowing Chinese money to buy Chinese goods – still an unsustainable trajectory of deficit and debt.
** In Morris’s projection, the Eastern line crosses the west at about 2103”. It’s not in China’s interests to sink the west. But it may be in China’s nature to dominate it. So there you have it.

** So what comes next?… well according to Morris, not quite what you’d expect.

The book throws up a lot of tricky questions. If we can table the trends of human history, where does that leave free will? (His answer is basically that as individuals we’re free, as a species, we’re predictable). He quotes Marx, that “Men make their own history but.. they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves.”

And Ian Morris’s conclusion leads to yet more headscratching. The lesson of his painstakingly drawn pattern of human history is probably that China is destined to pull ahead, though the capitalist rising tide should float all boats through the ups and downs of economic crisis.

But what about the wild cards?
In the end, Morris decides to throw out everything that’s come before, arguing that change today is so fast and furious that our future can diverge dramatically from the present path. With weapons of mass destruction, there is at last the potential for the few – the individual actor – to alter the course of human history in a heartbeat. He quotes Einstein in 1949, “I do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth – rocks.”

What to do? Avoid nuclear war. Slow down global warming (and global “wierding” – the unpredictability of climate change.) “In this tiny flattened world, there is no place left to hide.”

He argues that we are heading either for Nightfall (cf Isaac Asimov – the ultimate disaster – global warming? nuclear attack? mass starvation & migration & war? – in which man wipes out his species) or the Singularity (cf futurist Ray Kurzweil – the replacement of carbon-based intelligence with silicon-based intelligence: the beginning of the hybrid- or post-human age). He canvasses the probability of intelligent life beyond us, and the possibility that (cf Carl Sagan) “advanced civilisations” always destroy themselves (Fermi’s paradox – if they’re out there, why haven’t we heard from them?)

Morris basically says – in an elegantly argued essay which I’d urge to read even if you don’t have the hours to dedicate to the thousands of years that lead up to it – that we need to open our minds to take in even the most fantastic options.

Further reading? He loves to quote Jared Diamond of “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “Collapse.” Also Paul Kennedy on “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”. Any other ideas out there? It’s about digging into research – and about stretching your imagination.

Author: philippathomas

I've been a BBC newswoman for 30 years: reporting from around the world. Currently to be seen anchoring BBC World News TV. Main interests - politics, psychology, reading, trekking, and all things American. I began this personal blog as a 2011 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard. You can also find me talking daily news on Twitter at @PhilippaBBC, coaching @positivecoachi3, and life & travel on Instagram at @philippanews. Thanks for reading!

3 thoughts on ““Why the West Rules – for Now”

  1. So this guy talks about human history without (in passing) naming of Africa?

  2. I will get the book (eventually). I am very busy and it often takes me along time to digest these things, but for starters I have read a Trilogy (I’m actually in the last book) by David Lewis-Williams that gives some facsinating contributions on how our societies were constructed on social segregation and this originates from our biology and has influenced our history. These pradigms have been challenged (now, this I think since the enlightenment) but I am not sure that we can survive as a species without this. One more element I guess in this bonefire of vuew points 🙂
    PS- the first is called “The Mind in the Cave”

  3. Hello There. I discovered your weblog the usage of msn. This is a very neatly written article. I will make sure to bookmark it and return to read extra of your useful info. Thank you for the post. I’ll definitely return.

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