The Big Idea

03.01.13

Ian Morris’s Big Idea: Why the West Will Fall Behind

Why has Europe and America dominated human advances in the last few hundred years, and is China poised to take over? Stanford historian Ian Morris answers those questions in his new book, The Measure of Civilization.

What’s your big idea?

The big idea is that geography explains why the West rules the world—and why its domination may not last much longer.

There are two sides to the story.

First, geography determines how societies develop. The world’s first complex societies appeared toward the Western end of the Old World (around 9000 BC), because, thanks to geography, more plants and animals that could be domesticated had evolved there than anywhere else on earth. Geography dictated that East Asia had fewer potentially domesticable plants and animals.

The second part of the story, however, is that social development determines what geography means. When societies developed to the point that it could organize irrigation systems (about 4000 BC), that changed geography’s meaning. Having access to great rivers now became all-important. Egypt and Mesopotamia turned into breadbaskets.

By about 500 BC, though, societies had developed far enough to master the sea. Greece’s and Rome’s access to the Mediterranean mattered more than access to great rivers.

By AD 1500, sailors could cross the Atlantic—but not the Pacific, which is twice as wide. The result: Europeans discovered and colonized the Americas. By 1800, Europe had had an industrial revolution and could project power globally.

By 1900, societies could master the Pacific too, drawing East Asia into the global economy. North America, with access to both oceans, soon replaced Europe at this economy’s core.

By 2000, social development had shrunk the Pacific. East Asia is moving from being a periphery to being a new core in its own right.

What geography gives, it can also take away.

How do we measure social development?

Everything in this argument depends on us being able to measure social development (basically, societies’ abilities to get things done in the world) and to compare it across vast stretches of time and space.

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‘The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations’ by Ian Morris. 400 pp. Princeton University Press. $30. ()

In The Measure of Civilization, I explain how I think we can do this. I got the idea from the United Nations’ Human Development Index. It measures how well governments are doing at creating conditions that allow their citizens to achieve their innate human potential. The U.N.’s economists pointed out that all we really need is a handful of traits that (a) can be measured and (b) roughly cover what we mean by human development.

We can now do this, by focusing on four traits: energy capture per person, organizational capacity, information technology, and (last but sadly not least) war-making capacity.

For each trait, I assign a maximum possible score of 250 points, which goes to the society with the highest documented level in history. For energy capture, that would be the United States about today. We can range all societies across the last 16,000 years up to 250 points. Ancient Romans scored about 33 points, but declined after the fall of the Roman Empire, and only rebounded by 1700, but industrialization then drove it upward rapidly—to 41 points in 1800, 100 in 1900, and 250 in 2000. Eastern energy capture, by contrast, was ahead of the West from the fall of the Roman Empire until about 1750, but then rose more slowly. In 2000, it was still down at 113 points.

I then repeat this process for the other three traits, producing a social development score for each society. The data show the West pulling ahead by 13,000 BC, and hanging on to its lead until around AD 550. Eastern development then stayed ahead of Western for 1,200 years, but the industrial revolution drove the Western score up sharply. In 1777 (or thereabouts), the West overtook the East; and by 2000, the West’s score of 906 points was far ahead of the East’s 565.

But the East’s social development is now rising almost 50 percent faster than the West’s.

The data show the West pulling ahead by 13,000 BC, and hanging on to its lead until around AD 550. Eastern development then stayed ahead of Western for 1,200 years, but the industrial revolution drove the Western score up sharply.

When will the East catch up?

One of the most entertaining things we can do with a social development index is project the scores forward deep into the 21st century. The index cannot, of course, tell us what will happen in the future, but it does show us the implications of different assumptions we might make.

If, for instance, we make the highly conservative assumption that Eastern and Western social development scores will keep rising across the 21st century just at the same speed that they did in the 20th, we find that the East will catch up with the West in AD 2103, when both will be scoring about 5,000 points. There is no particular reason to think this prediction will come true (in fact, it seems highly unlikely), but it does force us to ask what might happen.

Do you fear that we’re headed for a breaking point at which the world’s fuel supply will not be able to sustain our competitive drive for social development and energy capture?

Projecting trends into the future is only one way we might use the social development index; another is to ask what kind of forces might derail the trends we see.

Looking back, one of the most alarming facts is that development has not consistently risen. There have been plenty of periods when development has stagnated or even fallen for centuries at a stretch. Each time there has been a great collapse (in the West after 1200 BC, AD 100, and 1300; in the East after AD 100 and 1200), the same five forces—what I like to call the Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse—have been involved.

First is mass migration, going beyond what contemporary societies could control. Second is huge epidemics (often fueled by the migrations, which mix previously separate disease pools). Third comes state failure, as governments fail to stem the tide of migrants and population decline; and fourth is famine, which sets in when societies can no longer maintain their trade routes. The fifth is climate change, which acts in complicated ways but has always been part of the mix.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that all five horsemen of the apocalypse are lurking in the wings in the 21st century. There is no guarantee that we will reach 5,000 points by 2103; we might instead experience a new dark age, or even wipe ourselves out completely.

The greatest threat, it seems to me, is not that we might run out of fuel. The real problem is that fossil fuels are also poisoning the planet.

Climate change will not destroy humanity. What might destroy us, though, is how we react to climate change. Its effects will be sharpest in what the National Intelligence Council calls the “arc of instability,” stretching from central Africa through the Middle East to China. This contains most of the world’s poorest people, along with the world’s worst governments, least reliable water supplies, most important energy sources, and scariest nuclear proliferators. If tens of millions of hungry people start moving around, spreading disease, toppling governments, and setting off nuclear wars … well, you can fill in the rest.

We need institutions that operate above the level of the nation-state, able to punish aggressors and impose order; and we need massive investment in new energy sources. If we have these things, we can rely on the human brain and the machines it has already invented to innovate our way out of this problem, just as the first farmers innovated their way out of the problems facing hunter-gatherers, and the first industrialists innovated their way out of the problems facing farmers.

How hard can it be?