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. And that dictated that what we so pompously call “civilization” would originate in the Middle East and spread outward across Europe, Asia, and ultimately to the Americas.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
The West’s dominance is only temporary
In Why the West Rules—For 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 the the Early Middle 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 the Industrial Revolution got underway in England.
But what else does history prove that helps us understand the world we live in? We know, of course, that there is only one human race, not “races,” so there is no genetic explanation for the shifting imbalance of power. But Ian Morris offers another explanation: climate change has profoundly shaped the course of human history.
Why the West Rules—for Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future by Ian Morris (2010) 768 pages ★★★★★
Climate change shapes 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. At length, these communities created “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 14th 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. Some historians believe that the resulting widespread famine helped cause the nearly constant warfare that wracked Europe during that period.
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.
About the author
British–born Ian Morris is a Professor of Classics and a member of the faculty of the Archaeology Center at Stanford University. He also continues to hold appointments at academic institutions in Britain, France, and Germany. He has published fourteen books. One of them, Why the West Rules–For Now(2010), has been translated into thirteen languages and has won a number of literary awards, including the 2011 PEN-USA prize for non-fiction.
Morris was born in England in 1960. He holds a BA from the University of Birmingham and a PhD in Archaeology from the University of Cambridge. He lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with his wife, two dogs, five cats, two horses, and a floating population of peacocks.
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.
You might also care to check out:
- 20 top nonfiction books about history
- Gaining a global perspective on the world around us
- 20 good nonfiction books about the future
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, on the Home Page.