international analysis and commentary

Why the West rules – for now

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■ “HISTORY, n. An account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.” This is the definition given by Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary.

It is a definition with which it is sometimes hard to disagree, for as the archeologist and historian Ian Morris writes: “[…] history can seem to be just one damned thing after another, a chaotic jumble of geniuses and dolts, tyrants and romantics, poets and thieves, accomplishing the extraordinary or scraping the barrel of depravity.”

In fact people do study history in a variety of ways, always searching for truth and coherence and, like in everything else, there are fashions in the proper way to “do history”. For Ian Morris, it is deep history that is the thing. It is all about what we can learn by looking back over 15,000 years, to long before there was a written record, to before we took up farming, to a time when we were all still hunter-gatherers, and then, from there, to move through agrarian times right up to the present day – and beyond.

To make sense of this long period, Morris selects key factors – particularly those which can be quantified. He focuses on factors which have always influenced and, at times, determined the way people lived. These are factors that he reckons would explain why things turned out as they did – and he sets them in context with a lively commentary on each era as he goes along.

In Why the West rules – for now, from 2010, Morris studies the influence of physical geography on what he calls “social development” across the world. Development which is constantly generated by environmental and social factors. In Foragers, farmers, and fossil fuels (2015) it is the amount of energy that can be extracted from the environment by varying levels of technology that defines the social possibilities, and thus influences the attitudes and world view of each epoch.

 

A FASCINATION WITH ARCHEOLOGY. From an early age, Morris was enthralled by archeology. Brought up in Stoke-on-Trent (one of the centers of the Industrial Revolution) where his grandfather was an ironworker and his father a miner, he was fortunate to be encouraged in his youthful enthusiasm, and ended up taking a degree in archeology at the local university of Birmingham.

Morris then earned his PhD at Cambridge. This took him among anthropological archeologists from whom he soon learned that the traditional view – that Western culture is preeminent because it sprang from ancient Greece – is far too limited. His world view was further enlarged when, in 1987, he went to the University of Chicago and began teaching in its renowned History of Western Civilization program, ranging from ancient Athens to (eventually) the fall of communism.

He is now Willard professor of Classics and fellow of the Archeology Center at Stanford, where his multiple duties have connected him to a wide range of disciplines and enabled him to spread from archeology, history and anthropology, into animal behavior, climatology, ethics and many other fields. His books are consciously designed to be interdisciplinary, rather than multidisciplinary, for he argues that although one scholar cannot hope to keep up with all the detail of the many disciplines needed for such long-term studies, it avoids the lack of focus of a book-by-committee to which multidisciplinary academic work would have led.

In any case, he writes very well, with deep scholarship, sensitivity and wit, and although there is much that is unfamiliar (for instance, Chinese place and personal names are difficult for a Westerner), each of his books is a page turner.

As well as being an academic, Morris is also a science fiction aficionado and goes through history as if he is in a spacecraft cum time machine, hanging high above the world, racing though fifteen millennia. Beginning with the time when we lived in small, roving bands, he traces the development of agriculture, an era when populations grew and empires emerged, and finally comes to our time, with our vast states, gargantuan cities and sophisticated technology. The time machine allows him to swoop down and treat us to glowing vignettes, showing how people of the time coped with the constant change, never stepping into the same river twice.

Referring to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels, in which the hero, Hari Seldon, employs what he calls psychohistory to understand the present, Morris acknowledges that most historians maintain that knowing what has already happened cannot possibly help to tell us what is going to happen. Such thinkers deny “that there are any big patterns to find in the past, while those who do think there may be such patterns nevertheless tend to feel that detecting them is beyond our powers.” Indeed, Geoffrey Elton, the former Regius Chair in Modern History at Cambridge University perhaps speaks for the majority when he says: “Recorded history amounts to no more than about two hundred generations. Even if there is a larger purpose in history, it must be said that we cannot really expect so far to be able to extract it from the little bit of history we have.”

In contrast, Morris wants to show that historians are selling themselves short. They do not have to limit themselves to the two hundred generations in which people have been writing documents. As he puts it, if we widen our perspective “to encompass archaeology, genetics, and linguistics […] we get a whole lot more history. Enough, in fact, to take us back five hundred generations. From such a big chunk of time […] we really can extract some patterns.” So Morris, like Seldon, endeavors to use the past to foresee the future.

 

THE ROLE OF GEOGRAPHY. In Why the West rules – for now, Morris compares how well the human race has done in the East and the West during the last 15,000 years. He argues that it is physical geography, rather than culture, religion, politics, genetics or great men, that explains Western domination of the globe – for now.

His aim is to explain why the West was more developed early on, how it lost its lead for a thousand years after the fall of the Roman empire, and how it then forged ahead again in the last two centuries. However, as things are now changing, he suggests that “knowing why the West rules gives us a pretty good sense of how things will turn out in the twenty-first century.” With regard to traditional ways of studying history, he takes a look at the typical theories behind why the West rules, and separates them into two broad schools of thought: “the ‘long-term lock-in’ and ‘short-term accident’ theories.”

“Needless to say, not every idea fits neatly into one camp or the other, but this division is still a useful way to focus things. The unifying idea behind long-term lock-in theories is that from time immemorial some critical factor made East and West massively and unalterably different, and determined that the industrial revolution would happen in the West […]. This long-term lock-in theory is not the only reason why Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and the Kims of North Korea unleashed such horrors on their people, but it bears a heavy burden of responsibility.”

On the other hand, the short-term accident theories sometimes claim that the industrial revolution was, for instance, “a gigantic fluke. Around 1750 […] East and West were both heading for ecological catastrophe. Population had grown faster than technology and people had already done nearly everything possible in the way of extending and intensifying agriculture, moving goods around, and reorganizing themselves. They were about to hit the limits of what was possible with their technology, and there was every reason to expect global recession and declining population in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet the last two hundred years have seen more economic growth than all earlier history put together […] western Europe, and above all Britain, just got lucky.”

For Morris, the fact that so many experts could reach such wildly different conclusions suggests that something is wrong with their approach to the problem. Long-termers and short-termers alike have misunderstood the shape of history and have therefore reached only partial and contradictory results. What is needed is a different perspective, which he provides by looking back to pre-modern history.

“The only way we can resolve the dispute is by looking at these earlier periods to establish the overall ‘shape’ of history. Only then, with the baseline established, can we argue productively about why things turned out as they did. Yet this is the one thing that almost no one seems to want to do. Most experts who write on why the West rules have backgrounds in economics, sociology, politics, or modern history; basically, they are specialists in current or recent events. They tend to focus on the last few generations, looking back at most five hundred years and treating earlier history briefly, if at all — even though the main issue at dispute is whether the factors that gave the West dominance were already present in earlier times or appeared abruptly in the modern age.”

 

LOOKING BACK 10,000 YEARS. Around 10,000 years ago, humans began to form large societies. Since then, these societies have been challenged repeatedly by what Morris calls his Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse: 1) famine; 2) plague; 3) climate change; 4) unstoppable migration; 5) state failure. All societies have had to respond to these challenges. If they failed to solve the problems that confronted them, decline turned into disastrous, centuries-long collapse and a dark age.

Once mankind had settled down to agriculture and herding, there began a back and forth movement between what Morris terms “low end states” and “high end states”, jostling each other for pre-eminence. The low end states he defines as feudal mafias, like the kingdoms of Europe in the dark ages, in which strong men vie for position in an environment with few resources. The high end states are much more complex and stable. They become extractive empires, like ancient Rome, Persia, or China in which an aristocratic class found ways to martial a large population and tax it so as to pay for an invincible army. The army could protect the empire, control it, and extend it. How these low and high end states competed was constrained by geography, technology, and the five horsemen.

Like Jared Diamond, in Guns, germs and steel, he points to the significance of the East/West layout of the Eurasian continent and to its location in what he terms the “lucky latitudes” – the climate zone which is generally good for agriculture and pasturage. This is distinct from the North/South orientation of the African and American landmasses, which, as they span a dramatic variety of climate zones, form barriers to the cultural and biological transmission which occurred easily across the Eurasian continent.

 

Figure 1 – The lucky latitudes

Note: The Hilly Flanks around Mesopotamia is where agriculture began

 

As for the five horsemen, they appear time and again. For instance, from 800 to 500 bce the weather cooled in northern Europe, and the population fell. But in the Mediterranean region it rose. At the same time, cold winds from Siberia blew down into China, making the climate drier. The author of a standard textbook on paleoclimatology says of these years: “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 for the recurrent menace of plague, Morris writes: “Whatever the mechanisms of microbial exchange, terrible epidemics recurred every generation or so from the 180s ce on. In the West, the worst years were 251–266, when for a while five thousand people died each day in the city of Rome. In the East, the darkest days came between 310 and 322, beginning again in the northwest, where (according to reports) almost everyone died […]. Cities shrank, trade declined, tax revenues fell, and fields were abandoned. And as if all this were not enough […] the weather, too, turned against humanity, ending the Roman Warm Period. Average temperatures fell about 2°F between 200 and 500 ce, and since the cooler summers of what climatologists call the Dark Age Cold Period reduced evaporation from the oceans and weakened the monsoon winds, rainfall declined as well.”

So disease and climate change — two of the five horsemen – were riding together. Whether the other three (famine, migration, and state failure) would join them depended on how people reacted.

 

SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT INDEX. As a way to organize and concentrate his view, Morris devised a Social Development Index, which increases and declines through time, along with the rise and fall of each civilization. The index considers:

  • the amount of energy a civilization can usefully capture, per person;
  • its ability to organize (measured by the size of its largest cities);
  • its war-making capability (weapons, troop strength, logistics);
  • its information technology (speed and reach of writing, printing, telecommunication, and so on).

 

Figure 2 – Daily energy capture per person per day

Note: from the time of Homo habilis to 1970s America (in thousands of kilocalories). Source: Earl Cook, geoscientist.

 

Figure 3 – Eastern and Western social development

Note: log-linear scale, highlighting relative rates of growth since 14,000 BCE

 

For those who wish to explore both the evidence and the statistical methods used in the book and to criticize it on historiographic grounds, Morris published a detailed sequel in 2013, entitled The measure of civilization: how social development decides the fate of nations. An extended technical appendix, it is largely concerned with method, but has also been referred to as a treasure trove of information about social development.

All in all, this is a very enlightening and fascinating way to see how we humans have made out. Also a good way to imagine what our descendants will have to overcome.

 

PERSONAL ANECDOTES. Back in 1982, as a young archeologist, Morris went on an excavation to Assiros, a farming village in northern Greece. One evening an old farmer passed by on the dusty road, riding side-saddle on his donkey. Beside him walked his wizened old wife, bent low under the weight of a bulging sack. The old man stopped, smiled, exchanged a few words with Morris’ Greek-speaking colleague, and then trudged on.

“That was Mr. George,” our interpreter explained.

“What did you ask him?” one of us said.

“How he’s doing. And why his wife isn’t riding the donkey.”

There was a pause. “And?”

“He says she doesn’t have one.”

Morris, remembering that day, writes: “It was my first taste of the classic anthropological experience of culture shock. Back in Birmingham, a man who rode a donkey while his wife struggled with a huge sack would have seemed selfish (or worse). Here in Assiros, however, the arrangement was clearly so natural, and the reasons for it so self-evident, that our question apparently struck Mr. George as simpleminded.”

More than thirty years later, Morris wrote Foragers, farmers, and fossil fuels to explain why his take on human values is so different from that of Mr. George. As it says on the book’s flyleaf: “Most people in the world today think democracy and gender equality are good, and that violence and wealth inequality are bad. But most people who lived during the 10,000 years before the nineteenth century thought just the opposite. Drawing on archeology, anthropology, biology, and history, Ian Morris explains why.”

Morris argues that fundamental long-term changes in values are driven by the most basic force of all: energy. “Humans have found three main ways to get the energy they need – from foraging, farming, and fossil fuels. Each energy source sets strict limits on what kinds of societies can succeed, and each kind of society rewards specific values. But if our fossil-fuel world favors democratic, open societies, the ongoing revolution in energy capture means that our most cherished values are very likely to turn out not to be useful any more.”

This book is based on the Tanner lectures on human values, which Morris delivered at Princeton, and in which he defends his attempt to “explain” history, rather than to just “understand” it. At the end, his thesis is criticized from four varied viewpoints by the classicist Richard Seaford, the sinologist Jonathan D. Spence, the philosopher Christine M. Korsgaard, and the novelist and critic Margaret Atwood. He then gets the last word; responding to their critiques.

Morris makes the grand claim that changes to human attitudes largely result from our method of energy capture at different stages of history.

 

Figure 4 – The energy explosion

Note: per-capita energy consumption in the core regions from 1 to 2000 CE.

 

Foragers (hunter-gatherers) could only capture 4-5000 kilocalories per person per day. That is, only enough to eat and keep warm as they roamed about searching for food. Because of their lifestyle, Morris claims that foragers value political and wealth equality, with little or no hierarchy, some measure of gender equality, and an acceptance of considerable interpersonal violence.

Farmers, who could capture 10-30,000 kcal per person per day, used their surplus to form complex and highly stratified sedentary societies. These could support far greater numbers and develop technologies unavailable to the mobile foragers. As farmers cannot move about – living in much larger societies tied to the land – they had to work out ways to organize and protect themselves. This resulted in hierarchically stratified states in which political and wealth inequality was accepted as utterly natural, as was gender inequality. While interpersonal violence was somewhat reduced, state violence was endemic and expected.

Now we, the fossil fuelers, capture up to 230,000 kcal per person per day. Since the late eighteenth century, we have been able to achieve the unimaginable – for now. During this period the West has espoused open democracy as a desirable aim, though much of the rest of the world remains under despotism (remember, the book was published in 2015, before the worldwide trend to populism became evident — a trend which could be interpreted as resulting from some of the five horsemen). So Morris’ contention that fossil fuel made democracy desirable is only true in those parts of the world which have been sufficiently enriched by the early adoption of fossil fuels.

We in the West have seen a radical reversal of ideas. Instead of the previous acceptance of inequality as a natural condition of mankind, we now assume that political equality is possible; we have an unrequited aspiration for equality of wealth and gender. Also, violence, which was accepted as a fact of life, is now considered unacceptable (even if it still goes on and on).

Finally, Morris speculates about what options there may be in times to come, given the possibilities and constraints of energy capture, climate change, migration, disease and state failure. He points out that we have entered a period of even faster change, in which geography will continue to be unfair. For “global warming will raise crop yields in cold, rich countries such as Russia and Canada, but will have the opposite effect in what the us National Intelligence Council calls an ‘arc of instability’ stretching from Africa through Asia […]. Most of the poorest people in the world live in this arc, and declining harvests could potentially unleash the last three horsemen of the apocalypse […] [T]he Stern Review concluded that by 2050 hunger and drought will set 200 million ‘climate migrants’ moving — five times as many as the world’s entire refugee population in 2008.”

 

Figure 5 – The big thirst

Note: the National Intelligence Council’s arc of instability shows areas of water shortage expected in 2025. The darkest areas will face “physical scarcity”, defined as having more than 75% of water devoted to agriculture, industry, and/or domestic use.

 

To be sure, air travel has made disease harder to contain, so the world could be on the brink of another pandemic. If that were to occur, all countries would be affected and medical supplies would be inadequate. Many people would die, sparking economic and social disruption. “As when the horsemen rode in the past, climate change, famine, migration, and disease will probably feed back on one another, unleashing the fifth horseman, state failure.”

In her contribution, Margaret Atwood, who has “spent much of her career exploring the unintended consequences of our choices” (her The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake describe horrifying dystopian futures), asks directly what collapse or transformation might mean for human values.

“You might think,” she suggests, “that if the twenty-first century sees collapse, those of us who are left would go back one step — from fossil-fuel values to agricultural ones — but in conditions of widespread societal breakdown, we’d more likely switch to early foraging values almost immediately.” After all, she observes, “nobody knows how to fix stuff any more … it’s all digital. If our society crashes it’s unlikely to be reconstructed, because the specialized expertise needed to work the machinery of resource extraction and manufacturing will be gone with the cloud.” And in that case, “urban dwellers minus their usual occupations are nomads, dependent not on what they can grow — that’s a long seed-to-harvest cycle anyway — but on what they can scrounge, filch, or kill.”

Morris counters: “Collapse can be fast or slow. But either way, we have to ask the question: then what? [A few nuclear missiles] could kill most of us, and the unhappy few who remained might well shoot each other or scatter and starve in an irradiated wasteland. Alternatively, incoming tides of germs might wash over the suburbs, or rising temperatures might gradually dry up shipments of food […]. When the ancient equivalent of this happened in Italy between 439 and 600 ad, the city of Rome shrank from about 800,000 people to fewer than 40,000.”

Perhaps “collapse — especially the slow kind — will not turn the clock back to the age of foragers. The world still has plenty of people who do know how to do things… Plenty of people farm, know how to generate electricity with bicycles and build shortwave radios, and can make beat-up old trucks run on biofuels. No few of them have guns and have been preparing for the end days for some time now. And for all the things they do not know how to do, there will still be books. Many of these will surely be lost, and we might need characters like the hero of Walter Miller’s science fiction classic A canticle for Leibowitz, working secretly to preserve the world’s stock of knowledge; but we will not regress to a preliterate, prescientific, foraging world.”

For Morris, the most likely outcome is a hybrid economy. “In some ways, it could look rather like the early twentieth century ad, before the computer age began; in others, more like the twentieth century bc. I imagine the overall effect as something like the chaotic, semi-industrialized landscape of failed states in sub-Saharan Africa. When the Western Roman Empire fell apart between the fifth and seventh centuries ad, skills that remained useful survived, those that did not disappeared, and people applied common sense and adjusted their values to the messy new realities. Much the same, I would guess, awaits the survivors of a twenty-first-century catastrophe.” An unhappy time to come.

Morris finishes with: “The historian Yuval Noah Harari, who, like Atwood, sees storytelling as the key to the human condition, ends his fine book Sapiens by asking: Since we might soon be able to engineer our desires, perhaps the real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?,’ but ‘What do we want to want?’. Thinking about Atwood’s comments, I have to wonder whether we should not go even further. Perhaps the real question is not ‘What do we want to want?’, but ‘What are we going to want, whether we want to want it or not?’.”

 

THE INFLUENCE OF KEY ISSUES. All this shows that key issues, when they are based on quantified data, can exert great influence on how we view the course of events. This may seem far too simple for some. But Morris’ writing is both insightful and of great value, for it provides a context over the long term, besides which all other factors can be viewed.

As he says: “Since the eighteenth century, one group of scholars after another has conjectured about the causes of cultural variation, and one group of critics after another has refuted them. In each round of debate, the explainers and understanders forced each other to come up with better theories and data, and in the 2010s, with the understanders in the ascendant, we would-be explainers need to raise our game once again.”

So, as in all departments of life, it is a game of leapfrog, standing on the shoulders of our elders, reaching for new ways to explain why things change. It remains essential for such work to be embedded in all the other ways of studying history, otherwise it can easily suffer from the distortions of reductionism; that is, of not recognizing that new and unexpected patterns emerge from the growth in complexity. Fortunately, Morris avoids the pitfalls of a narrow positivism by his impressively wide scholarship.

 

 

 


Ian Morris, Why the West rules – for now: the patterns of history and what they reveal about the future, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.

Foragers, farmers, and fossil fuels: how human values evolve, Princeton University Press, 2015.