Cover image of "Why the West Rules for Now," a book about what history teaches us.

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 ★★★★★

Graph depicting the Little Ice Age, which helps understand what history teaches us about climate change
The “Little Ice Age” between the years 1300 and 1850 deeply impacted farmers in the Northern Hemisphere. In Europe, lower temperatures caused crops to fail and livestock to die, creating famine that historians believe was a cause of the almost endless wars during the period. Image: Wikipedia Commons

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

Photo of Ian Morris, author of this book about what history teaches us
Ian Morris. Image: Noah Berger – Chronicle of Higher Education

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.

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