Article first published as Book Review: Why the West Rules–For Now by Ian Morris on Blogcritics.
Why the West Rules – for Now by Ian Morris is a fascinating read; its place undoubtedly is among the most interesting contemporary works on history of humanity. Some would argue though that the West does not rule anymore. Nonetheless, the title is provocative, makes the reader curious about the book’s content, and once you start reading it, likely you won’t stop.
Rules or not, the West is still a leader in intellectual progress and innovations, in production and consumption, in art and entertainment, and social governance. Was it always this way? Can we accept the easiest explanation that the white race is biologically superior, and that’s why… whatever it is? Some did, in one form or another. As Morris said, “The most popular version was that Europeans were simply culturally superior to everyone else.”
Only in modern times different disciplines of science provide sufficient evidence, supporting the author’s conclusion that this is not the case. Morris analysis of available information is profound and impressive. It covers the whole stretch of time, during which humanoids and then homo sapience have progressed to the contemporary biological and social status. It encompasses biology, sociology, geography and other branches of science.
Morris begins his analysis with overview of biology. Its latest discoveries are breathtaking. DNA research traces homo sapience to one mother, Eve if you will, who lived in Africa about 150,000 years ago, and one father, our Adam, who lived about 60,000 years ago. There are other findings, no less impressive, proving that we are all the same people with the same identity factors. Therefore, Morris concludes, “Biology by itself cannot explain why the West rules.” It took to tap information of other sources to conduct analysis, “..on the time scale of evolutionary history,” as the author put it. Summing up, he says: “I will conclude that biology and sociology explain the global similarities, while geography explains regional differences.”
Archaeology and historical documents provide the author material evidence about different societies around the globe, using which he restores the picture of their way of life and history of their development and decay. Contemporary technology helps estimate duration of their existence, affect of climate changes and geography on their rise and downfall, and obtain other information, which was impossible to discover even in the recent past.
One of the most important indicators of social progress is energy consumption per person. How can we find it out for human entities, living millenniums ago? Climatology solves this seemingly unsolvable puzzle. Analysis of air, trapped in the ice cover of Antarctica and other parts of polar areas, gives evidence of how much carbon dioxide was emitted by humans in different periods of history. As Morris put it: “These layers are like a chronicle of ancient weather. By separating them, climatologists can measure their thickness, telling us how much snow fell; establish the balance between isotopes of oxygen, revealing temperatures; and compare the amount of carbon dioxide and methane, illuminating green house effects.”
Equipped with this data, scientist made accurate estimates how much energy the human population produced for its needs at different times. Together with archaeological information the scientists calculated energy consumption of all humans, and evaluated its portion for the most developed societies at any given time.
Climatology and geography explain environmental and social developments on our planet, and provide information on factors causing backwardness of some societies and advancements of others in different geographical space and at different time. Periods of cool and warm temperatures, identified by climatologists, affected productivity of agriculture, and with it, rise and fall of agricultural societies; periods of draughts and wet weather, creating favourite conditions for backward nations, and downfall for the others, whose social mechanism became obsolete in the new environment. After thorough analysis of facts Morris concludes that ‘Geography determined where in the world social development would rise fastest, but rising social development changed what geography meant.’
Impressive is the author’s quantitative measurement of society’s progress, which he calls ‘Social development index.” Not going deep into details of its composition, I quote the author’s definition: “Social development, we might say, means a community’s ability to get things done, which, in principle, can be compared across time and space.” This instrument opens the road to all kinds of analysis, inferences and projections; the author uses it throughout the whole book, supporting his arguments with numerous and compelling facts of history and scientific discoveries.
Equipped with the Social Development Index numbers, the author draws the East and the West charts on the time scale between 14,000 BCE to 2000 CE. The graphics shows that the West score was higher most of the time, but not always. Neither will it be in the future.
According to Morris, the life of humanity is harassed by five horsemen of apocalypse: migration, state failure, famine, disease, and climate change. At times, powerful empires were wiped out by any combination of them. It did not matter much on the grand scale of environmental and social process, how clever or stupid people were, who defended the societies doomed for decay. The global process eventually defined the outcome, which was just a matter of time.
Not only climate and geography contribute to societies rise downfall. According to Morris, the paradox of social progress—the tendency for development to generate the very forces that undermine it—means that bigger cores create bigger problems for themselves. In this regard, the similarity between Britain in late 18th century and modern China is striking.
Geography made cotton the perfect industry for Britain. Because its raw materials grew overseas, they did not compete for land at home. Instead Americans, eager for British cash, turned millions of acres into cotton plantations and put hundreds of thousands of slaves to work on them. Britain became a production powerhouse of the world. As a result, it became the largest empire in the history of humanity.
The history repeats itself with remarkable similarity: now, the whole West is moving its production to China and other Eastern counties whereby creating the new center of gravity in international economy and military power.
“Just as the market had led British capitalists to build up the industrial infrastructure of their own worst rivals in Germany and the United States, it is now rewarded Westerners who poured capital, inventions, and know-how into the East. Westerners stacked the deck in their own favour whenever they could, but capital’s relentless quest for new profits also presented to Easterners who were ready to seize them.”
Tendency for development to generate the very forces that undermine it do not disappear with technological progress. The deterioration of the West is better presented by statistics. “By 2000, American workers were less than seven times as productive as Chinese. The United States’ share of world production had barely changed, at 21 percent, but China’s had nearly tripled, to 14 percent.”
The last chapter of the book is devoted to some projections and attempts to develop different future scenarios, taking into consideration the latest economic, social, technological and military trends. To me, it is a more fascinating read than any science fiction book I have ever read.
On Morris’s quantitative chart, the war-making capacity in 2000, expressed in points on the social development chart, the West scores 250, and the East is 12.5. Surprisingly, the gap between the West and the East in the year 2000 was greater than in any preceding history period. But technological and social progress now moves with unprecedented speed. Projecting the chart of the Social Development Index, Morris concludes that between year 2045 and 2103 the West and East will reach the same score in terms of technology, consumption, and military might. Geography differences would not matter anymore, as technology will change its meaning.
Humanity moves quickly to prosperity, defined as an American style consumerism. Economies of East and West so intertwined now, that war, it seems, would do only harm, benefiting no one. Again, the similarity of the present and the past is striking. I quote Morris: “Before 1914, some intellectuals had argued that great-power war had become impossible because the world’s economies were now so interlinked that the moment war broke out all of them would collapse, ending the conflict.” Sadly, this situation had lead to the WWI. Now, “Like nineteenth-century Britain and twentieth-century America, China became the workshop of the world.”
Horsemen of apocalypse are still here with us. Migration to the counties of Western civilization is in full swing. Hordes of unskilled, uneducated people from all over the globe, and particularly from Muslim countries with destructive Islamic agenda, flood the West. Left wing local activists march in front of them, leading democracy undermining forces.
At present, China is as much dependent on the West consumption, as the West on Chinese production. But resources shrink, new places must be acquired. The struggle for resources in the international waters is on the rise.
Population growth combined with increased consumption imposes great stress on agriculture, which is land, and other natural resources, which are the land as well. Space, eventually, will be the cause of great conflict, as it has always been, for the same underlying reasons.
Climate change, the beginning of which we witness now, may present different priorities and different choices for the West and the East. It is appropriate to mention Morris’s quotes of other scholars: “If such a disruption of the climate system were to occur today, the social, economic, and political consequences would be nothing short of catastrophic.”
As Chairman Mao famously put it, “Every Communist must grasp this truth: Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Can the West do something to change that, in the contemporary phase of industrial revolution?
The course of history is impossible to change, claims the author. It does not depend on how clever or stupid people are, who make decisions. “Yet the most that any of these great men/bungling idiots did was to speed up or slow down processes that were already under way.”