A VERY THOUGHTFUL AND INTERESTING ARTICLE
Throughout history, some societies have grown rich while others fail. The West rules for now - but for how much longer?
Ian Morris, Professor Of Classics And History At Stanford University
Last updated at 3:34 PM on 24th October 2010
I grew up in a golden age – I just didn’t know it. Things didn’t always feel golden in the Midlands during the Sixties.
And yet the West – a handful of nations clustered around the North Atlantic, plus their colonists on other continents – bestrode the world like a colossus. Westerners, on average, earned ten times as much as Asians or Africans and lived 25 years longer.
‘You’ve never had it so good,’ Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told us in 1957, and we hadn’t.
Shallow? The stars of a Come Dine With Me WAGS special relax in a hot tub - but the West's wealth and luxury may soon fade
Westerners had televisions, cars and clean drinking water; unlike most of the rest of the world. European and American armed forces dominated the land, sea, and sky; Americans had even walked on the Moon. The West’s wealth and global domination had no parallels in history.
My oldest family Christmas photos, taken by my dad with a little Instamatic at our home in Stoke-on-Trent in the early Sixties, are crowded with this bounty – overflowing with toys, Cadbury’s selection boxes and bicycles.
But behind the beaming boy and the plastic Daleks, a shadow was already falling. Each passing year, more and more of the things we bought came not from the West but from the factories of the East.
First came Japan, which made the toys I loved; and as Japan, with bewildering speed, moved up the ladder to transistor radios and cars, new Asian manufacturers – South Korea, Taiwan and then China – filled the rungs it vacated. Japan’s economy outgrew Britain’s in 1963, and by 1967 was second only to America. Japan stayed in that spot until this summer, when China displaced it.
How did things change so much?
On the rise: Beauty salon staff exercise before work in the booming Chinese city of Chongqing. China's economy has gone from strength to strength in recent years
There is no shortage of theories. Some think self-serving fat cats have failed the West by outsourcing jobs to China and India; others claim the West has lost its moral compass and its residents have grown lazy and decadent. Some even argue that China’s growth is unsustainable, and it will soon go the way of Japan or even the Soviet Union.
If only things were so simple. The reality is the West’s dominance has been slipping for 50 years, and some of the answers can be found by looking at history. As Winston Churchill famously pronounced: ‘The farther backward you can look, the farther forwards you are likely to see.’
We need to know two things: first, how the West originally achieved global domination; and second, why the methods the West used aren’t working any more.
One of the most popular theories about
the West’s lengthy dominance is that Westerners are simply better than
everyone else. However, if we look back far enough we see that this
cannot be correct.
Archaeologists and geneticists have shown that our kind, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa between 200,000 and 70,000 years ago. We spread across the world, and by 10,000 years ago, a single kind of human had colonised virtually every niche on the planet. Wherever we go, people are biologically much the same.
Another widely shared idea is that the West has been blessed with better leaders, but that does not hold up to historical scrutiny. A century ago, the humourist Ambrose Bierce defined history in his Devil’s Dictionary as ‘an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools’.
An overstatement, for sure; there have been blameless rulers and clever soldiers, and non-royal, non-military women and men have done plenty of important things.
But when we run through the history of the world, we see strikingly similar mixes of knaves and fools, saints and sinners, great men and bungling idiots in every part of the planet.
For every mass murderer such as Mao Tse-Tung in the East, the West had a Hitler; for every sage such as Socrates in the West, the East had a Confucius. As we would expect if people really are all much the same, no part of the world has a monopoly on virtue or vice.
When I was a boy, when Western dominance seemed so secure, another theory received plenty of play: that since the time of the Greeks and Romans, Western culture had been the best. By the time I was a student, though, this idea was in retreat as well. Indeed, Western culture seems to be just one example of a broader pattern of human development.
For most of our 200,000-year history, humans lived in small hunter-gatherer bands. After the Ice Age, some hunter-gatherers settled down in villages where they domesticated plants and animals and produced sophisticated art.
Some villages grew into cities, sprouting ruling elites, high-living aristocrats, and complicated poetry. Some cities became states and then empires, building great temples and paying philosophers to think deeply. No band of hunter-gatherers ever produced a Plato; but every rich, literate empire created classics such as Homer’s Odyssey.
In the past 20 years,
though, as Chinese goods have flooded Western shops and Western
self-confidence has wobbled, yet another story has bubbled up.
Instead of looking for some timeless reason why the West is the best, the new theory’s champions claim Western domination was an accident. Given a few different decisions, they say, things could have gone very differently, and some other part of the world would now rule the roost.
this theory too falls apart when we look backwards, because we quickly
see that Western wealth and power are no short-term flukes. For 90 per
cent of the 15,000 years since the end of the last Ice Age, the West has
been the most developed part of the world. Why?
To a great extent, the answer comes down to a single word: geography.
make sense of this, we need to look at the full story. When the world
warmed up at the end of the last Ice Age, climate and landscape
conspired to provide a few areas (basically, a band of ‘Lucky Latitudes’
running from the Mediterranean to China) with species of plants and
animals which could be domesticated – that is, tamed and genetically
modified to meet human needs.
Within these Lucky Latitudes, the densest concentrations of domesticates (wheat, barley, sheep, cows, goats) were at the Western end, in the hills running through what are now the borderlands of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Israel; and so, because people are all much the same and cultures all develop in much the same ways, it was here that foragers first turned into farmers (around 9500 BC). Fed by domesticated plants and animals, they settled in villages that turned into the world’s first cities (around 3500 BC) and empires (around 750 BC).
In other parts of the Lucky
Latitudes, like China and India, the concentrations of domesticates were
less dense, and so it took people longer to invent villages, cities,
states and empires.
Outside the Lucky Latitudes, where there were almost no domesticates, villages, cities and states never developed at all – until conquerors from the Lucky Latitudes brought them. Australians, Siberians and Africans stayed with hunting and gathering not because they were lazier, less clever or better attuned to nature than people elsewhere; geography had simply given them fewer resources.
Geography meant it was likely that some part of the Lucky Latitudes would go on to dominate the globe, and likeliest of all that it would be some part from the Western end.
But geography is full of complicated paradoxes. It shapes the development of societies, but the development of societies simultaneously shapes what geography means. It does this in all kinds of ways. In ancient times, the rise of great empires set off migrations, spread plagues and triggered wars, and by 200 AD all the empires along the Lucky Latitudes were falling apart.
Germanic, Arabic and Turkish invaders fought over the ruins of Rome, a
great new empire reunited China, and by 700 AD politics began changing
what geography meant.
Political division left the war-torn
West languishing for centuries in its Middle Ages, while political
centralisation let China’s rulers bring together the wealth of East
This fuelled an extraordinary golden age of artistic, literary and scientific advances – only for these advances to shift the meanings of geography once again.
In the 12th and 13th Centuries, the Chinese came up with two astonishing inventions: ships that could cross oceans and guns that could shoot the people on the other side.
Such self-evidently fine tools leapt from one end of the Lucky Latitudes to the other. The magnetic compass, first mentioned in a Chinese document in 1119, was in the hands of Arab and European sailors by 1180.
The gun moved even faster. The first known true gun, with enough bang to shoot out a lead bullet, was a modest, 12in-long bronze tube made in Manchuria in 1288; by 1327 a manuscript illuminator in Oxford, at the far end of Eurasia, was portraying far superior versions.
millennia, the lands bathed by the frigid waters of the North Atlantic
had laboured under huge geographical disadvantages. They lay far from
the real centres of action, in the Mediterranean, and their development
lagged far behind.
But ships and guns changed that. Suddenly,
sticking out into the Atlantic became a huge plus. A voyage of 3,000
miles would take a 15th Century West European sailor such as Christopher
Columbus all the way across the Atlantic to the Americas, while the
great 15th Century Chinese admiral Zheng He (a eunuch said to be 8ft
tall and 6ft around the belly) would have needed to sail twice as far to
get there across the Pacific.
Before seafaring ships
existed, this was a trivial geographical detail, but now it was the most
important fact in the world. Given time, East Asian sailors would
surely have run into the Americas eventually, but it was Columbus rather
than Zheng He who opened up this new world to colonisation and plunder.
Chinese sailors were just as daring as the Spaniards, its settlers just as intrepid as Britons; but the new meanings of geography stacked the deck in the West’s favour.
It was therefore the
Europeans who went on to create a new kind of maritime market economy in
the 17th Century. They swapped guns for slaves in Africa, sailed to the
Caribbean and traded slaves for sugar, then headed home to sell the
sugar and buy more guns – promptly setting out on their triangular trade
route all over again, reaping profits at every point.
so much money being made, European labourers flooded into new factories,
and European thinkers saw what gains would come from explaining how
winds and tides worked, measuring and counting in better ways and
cracking the codes of physics, chemistry and biology.
Europeans, not Chinese, hurled themselves into these tasks, not because they were smarter but because geography was thrusting new questions on to the West. Europe, not China, had a Scientific Revolution, and Europeans, not Chinese, turned science’s insights back on to society itself.
Voltaire, the sharpest wit in this 18th Century Enlightenment, remained convinced to his dying day that Europe had more to learn from China than the reverse; but by then it was clear to everyone else that something very special was happening in the West.
Europe’s success was raising entirely new questions. In some countries, particularly Britain, the demand for factory workers was pushing wages up to levels that made exports uncompetitive. British entrepreneurs responded by bringing together science and the new market economy, unleashing the awesome power of fossil fuels.
In 1776, the same year that Adam Smith
finished his masterpiece The Wealth Of Nations and America’s founding
fathers signed the Declaration Of Independence, James Watt launched the
first really effective steam engine.
By 1870, Britain’s steam engines would be generating four million horsepower, equivalent to the labour of 40 million men, who would have consumed more than three times our entire wheat output.
Between 1500 and 1900 wheat yields had
roughly doubled in the Western core, thanks to better organised farming
and more draft animals and manure.
But by the 1890s farmers were reaching the limits of ingenuity. Adding animals could only drive up productivity so far, and by 1900 a quarter of America’s farmland was being used to feed horses.
Thanks to the new meanings of geography, Britain was responsible for the world’s first Industrial Revolution and was the first nation to be able to project power globally. Britain’s population boomed, spreading across the planet in what the historian
Niall Ferguson has vividly called a ‘white plague’; and Britain, not China or Japan, carved out an empire on which the sun never set.
Unfortunately for Britain, however, geography did not stop changing its meanings. As the 19th Century wore on, the British-dominated global economy drew in the resources of North America, converting the United States from a rather backward periphery (like Britain had been half a millennium earlier) into a new global core.
1850 and 1900, Americans felled 168 million acres of forest, more than
ten times Britain’s total farmland, and put it under the plough. The
U.S. economy was half the size of Britain’s in 1840. By 1904 it was
twice as big. But the United States was no more able to stop the ancient
interplay of geography and social development when it was on top than
Britain had been.
In the 20th Century the American-dominated global economy drew in the resources of Asia just as Britain had once drawn in those of America.
Japan cashed in first, doubling its share of world production between 1960 and 1980. Next came the so-called Asian Tigers: the economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.
And then, most spectacular of all, the People’s Republic
of China. Its share of world production tripled in the 30 years after
Mao’s death in 1976; rare indeed is the Westerner who does not now put
on at least one piece of made-in-China clothing every morning.
Chinese industry has sucked 150 million countryfolk into cities – the biggest migration in history. According to Businessweek magazine, ‘the China price’ now represents ‘the three scariest words in the English language’.
So, whatever the analysts may think, the West’s global dominance and ongoing crisis have precious little to do with flukes, great men, or bungling idiots – and nothing at all to do with racial or cultural superiority.
Rather, they are the entirely predictable
outcomes of the complicated interaction of geography and social
development across the last 15,000 years – an interaction which, in just
the past 200 years, has given the West unprecedented wealth and power.
And which, within our own lifetimes, has begun tilting the playing field
in China’s favour.
Things will never be the same again.
Why The West Rules – For Now, by Ian Morris, is published by Profile Books at £25. To order your copy at the special price of £18.99 with free p&p, please call The Review Bookstore on 0845 155 0713 or visit MailLife.co.uk/books