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Why the West Rules—For Now

Stanford Scholar Explains Why the Western Domination of Economy and Culture is Destined to End

For the past 200 years, the world’s economic, political and cultural center of gravity has been firmly rooted in the West. However, times are changing. As other nations like China and India flex their global economic muscles, the baton of domination looks set to pass eastwards. By the end of the century, Eastern social development is predicted to put an end to the reign of Western dominance.

The notion that the East will eventually bypass the West is a source of great debate, with experts closely examining a range of factors that may explain why certain regions gain dominance at certain times. Modern history scholars, political pundits and economists have all entered the fray, proposing a mixture of short-term “accident” theories and long-term “lock-in” theories. The first theory tends to focus on certain long-term characteristics of the West – demographics, climate, politics, culture - that are deemed to have distinguished the west for dominance; the second theory argues that the West’s rise to power around 1800 was largely accidental.

Stanford classics and ancient history professor Ian Morris strongly supports the prediction that global dominance will move east by the end of the 21st century, though he approaches the debate from a unique, multi-disciplinary perspective. In his mind, a true understanding of patterns of global dominance cannot be gained without a deep understanding of the passage of human history and social development.

In his new book, Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal about the Future, Morris studies the history of global power from the Ice Age through to present day, through the lens of biological, sociological and geographical factors. Morris poses his own theory of “paradoxical development”: What happens if human development accelerates to the point that all previous predictions are rendered useless? In a world of nuclear warfare and record levels of extinction, can human development work as an agent for extinction?

Social Advancement Fueled by Greed and Fear

Morris’s basic theory of historical global dominance looks to biology, sociology and geography to explain why power has centered on certain regions over time. Biology, Morris explains, refers in this context to human need to extract energy from our environments to survive. “We are driven by three main forces: greed (for more energy), sloth (wanting to expend less energy), and fear (of being short or having to work harder),” says Morris. He explained that as humans attempt to lessen their workload and maximize output, they find ways to become more productive. This, in turn, drives human social development.

In the 1800s, the West saw this in the form of the Industrial Revolution. “The Industrial Revolution changed our bodies more in one hundred years than ever before in history in the change of diet that it allowed,” says Morris. Sociology enters the equation, according to Morris, to explain why some innovations are successful and others aren’t. Whether an idea spreads and sparks development, or fails and sends a society into collapse is a sociological concept. For example, people in the Roman Empire and Han dynasty China were already experimenting with steam power, coal, and natural gas 2,000 years ago, but many centuries would pass before these innovations caught on.

The Most Important Ingredient in the Recipe for Success – Geography

The link that makes biology and sociology relevant to global power struggles is geography. “The distribution of natural resources, the shape of the continents, the placing of oceans, mountains, rivers, plains, etc. determine why social development has risen faster in some places than in others,” says Morris, “And specifically why it rose so high in the west by 1800 CE that the West came to dominate the planet.” Professor Morris used the United States’ take off as an example. “In the 1870’s when coal was being burned and railroads were booming, North America’s abundant supply of iron, technology, and labor clearly led to America’s ascension to economic powerhouse.”

However, as we can see in the shifting axis of global power, geography is not necessarily a long-term determinant of power. Biology and sociology affect the meaning of geography. The location of Western Europe, for example wasn’t always a plus. “Five thousand years ago, the fact that Western Europe was sticking out into the Atlantic was a geographical negative, because it meant that it was a long way from where the real action was (in Southwest Asia) and had few potentially domesticable plants and animals,” explains Morris. “But five hundred years ago it became instead a geographical plus, because social development had risen so high that ships could cross the oceans. Proximity to the Atlantic became a decisive advantage.”

Ancient History Shows that Explosive Economic Growth Can Backfire

By looking at long-term trends, Morris’s thesis is clear: “East Asia is being drawn into a more global, industrial network. By the end of the 21st century, the world’s economic center of gravity will move to China.” However, ancient history has also shown us the effect that unharnessed development can have on societies. As with the fall of the Roman Empire and the decline of Chinese imperial power a thousand years ago, powerful nations often reach a “sticking point” where further expansion becomes impossible and a once-strong system begins to implode. “When a society developments beyond a certain point, it will start to press against a ceiling,” says Morris. “Sometimes, the society will break through that ceiling and development will continue to rise. However, sometimes societies get ‘stuck’ to the ceiling.”

In the case of those societies that, like the Roman Empire, get stuck to the ceiling, Morris lists five factors, which he has dubbed the “Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, that contribute to a society’s overexpansion: state failure, disease, mass migration, famine and climate change. Morris describes the potential of overexpansion as “one of the great issues of the 21st century.” At present, human development is increasing exponentially and is expected to reach a rate five times the current pace by 2100. “From a futurist perspective,” says Morris, “the changes that we are looking at could lead to the transformation of everything. The effect of this increase in development is simply beyond imagining.” 

Could a New Dark Age Be on the Horizon?

One outcome could be the dawn of a new “dark age.” However, unlike other dark ages, which are eventually followed by a turnaround, this dark age could take a more alarming path.

“The problem in itself isn’t new, but the form it is taking is new,” says Morris. “An important new factor in the 21st century is the emergence of nuclear weapons. Now, we have the ability to wipe ourselves out entirely.” Although Morris doesn’t doubt that Eastern development will outpace Western by 2100, his predicts that this “paradoxical development” will render all previous theories – including his argument about the importance of biology, sociology and geography – meaningless.

“By 2100, social development will have risen so high that it will not just have changed what geography means: it will essentially have obliterated geography—and biology and sociology too,” he says. “Once we know why the west rules we can see that the question will soon cease to mean very much, as humanity approaches the biggest transformation in its 150,000-year history.”

Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal about the Future was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in October, 2010.