This superb book shows how history teaches us vital lessons.

Thoughts while reading Why the West Rules—for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, by Ian Morris

The geographer Jared Diamond’s masterful Guns, Germs, and Steel (2005) should have convinced any of us still needing to be convinced that the West’s domination of the planet since the late 18th Century is not the consequence of differences in racial characteristics. It’s an artifact of geography. It was a geographical accident that the Middle East offered the earliest and best opportunities on the planet for the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture and animal husbandry, which dictated that what we so pompously call “civilization” would originate in the Middle East and spread Westward across Europe and thence to the Americas.

The West’s dominance is only temporary

In Why the West RulesFor Now, Ian Morris, an archaeologist by trade, elaborates (and modifies) Diamond’s thesis to prove through close study of the archaeological and historical record that, in fact, the West’s dominance is only temporary. The geographical bonus awarded to the people of the Middle East, Western Europe, and, later, the United States gave the West a 6,000-year head start over the East (principally China), but the pattern of relative advantage fell apart in what most of us call the Dark Ages. China then began to surpass the West in every measurable respect and retained a significant lead until the latter half of the 18th Century, when most scholars agree the Industrial Revolution got underway in England.

But what else does history prove that helps us understand the world we live in and anticipate the future other than that racism says nothing about the “races” and everything about the people who fall prey to it? My current reading of Ian Morris’ extraordinary book has led me to another surprising conclusion: that climate change has profoundly shaped the course of human history.

Climate change has profoundly shaped the course of human history

It was the planetary warming that began at the peak of the last Ice Age about 20,000 years ago that permitted the hardy survivors of the cold to multiply and begin congregating in larger and larger communities which, at length, led to the creation of “civilization.” A sudden and drastic reversion to cold weather around 12,000 years ago—perhaps due to a cataclysmic volcanic eruption or a lull in solar flares—lasted longer than a millennium, drove the human race out of its growing settlements, and reversed the pattern of growing specialization as so many reverted to a meager existence from hunting and gathering. Once that extended cold spell came to an end, what Ian Morris calls “social development” resumed, resulting first in rudimentary agriculture and the taming of animals and eventually in the growth of early empires.

History teaches us how climate change has impacted our lives

Subsequent climate shifts during the 5,000 years of recorded history have had more modest effects on the conduct of human affairs. The so-called “Little Ice Age,” for example—a three-century period of cooling from about the middle of the 16th Century to the middle of the 19th—is a controversial concept among climatologists, who maintain the phenomenon was limited to the Northern Hemisphere and was anything but an ice age. However, its impact on farmers in Northern Europe and the Americas was pronounced—during a time when a large majority of people were still engaged in agriculture.

Since we’re now in the very early stages of another significant shift in climate patterns, we can only wonder what the future holds for us. Wonder, and hope—that policymakers in government and business will come to their senses and begin taking resolute action to roll back humanity’s contribution to the warming of the planet.

For further reading

For a contemporary view of the prospects for climate change, see my review of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells (Climate change is worse than you think—much, much worse). I’ve reviewed many other Good books about climate change, too.

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