To see forward, look back!

Thomas Cole the Course of Empire

“The farther backward you look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”  

Winston Churchill

The above quote is taken from Ian Morris’ recent and fascinating Why the West Rules- For Now: The patterns of history and what they reveal about the future.  Indeed, the whole point of Morris’ book can be seen in Churchill’s quip. Morris, a trained archaeologist and historian, aims to find a pattern in the broad arc of human history beginning with the birth of civilization, take us into the present age, and project current trends outward into the next century and perhaps beyond.

This is, needless to say, a pretty ballsy thing to do, at least if one wants to remain safe in the cocoon of respectable academia where scholars can spend a decade glued like a car door on Magneto to a subsection of one obscure historical text, or stuck for seven years, as Morris himself was, to the excavation of one ancient room.  Writing a meta-narrative like Morris’ is somewhat less ballsy if one intends to enter that rare breed of academic/journalist that has managed to reach the publishing industry’s version of celebrity status. Perhaps the fastest way to reach the top of today’s non-fiction bestseller list is to write a book with the words “America” or the “West” with the verb “decline” attached or- perhaps the flip-side- the words “China” and “Rise”. And who could blame the public for lapping this stuff up, hell, with “Euro-crises”, and “fiscal cliffs” and “debt ceilings” all over the news when everything in the rest of the world, and China especially, seems a go-go-go?    

Morris, however, is not some poor soul lost forever to the seriousness of academia and possessed by the spirit of Oswald Spengler, nor is he some dry professor presenting yet another version of those angels- on- the- head- of- a- pin arguments that force closed the eyelids of popular readers. Rather, he has managed the seemingly impossible task of presenting serious scholarship in a way that succeeds in keeping readers not only engaged but entertained. His book is full of creative leaps in which he uses the instruments and insights from one field of human intellectual and artistic endeavor to help understand history in new ways. Above all, Morris takes seriously what are in fact very important questions- problems which modern historians burned by the hubris and prejudice of their 19th and early 20th century predecessors tend to ignore, questions which nonetheless, should be important to all of us as human beings- where did we come from? and where are we going?

The way that Morris frames these questions of origins and destiny is to see them through the prism of the “rise of the West”. Is this Euro-centric? Perhaps, but the facts remain that it was from an obscure corner of Eurasia that the first civilization arose that managed to tie the globe together into one unit, that it was from there that a brand new form of civilization emerged a scientific-industrial-technological civilization that would force all the world to adapt to it or face decline and domination. Why this happened, and where this process unleashed by the West might be leading is not a matter of increasing Westerner’s self-esteem in a period where the two cores of Western civilization- Europe and the United States- seem to be racing one another down the slope of decadence and decline, but are questions that should concern everyone regardless of the accidents of geography.

Morris is trained as an archaeologist specializing in the classical age in the West. One might, therefore, expect him to fall into the category of those 19th century historians who thought there was something very special about the West culturally, or some, with tragic effects argued racially, about the West that made its dominance over the rest of the world’s cultures inevitable. Usually these “long-term lock-in” theories start from something about the ancient Greeks and how they escaped the hold of superstition by the application of reason to both nature and society.

Morris grapples with these explanations from culture only to dismiss them. There are just far too many periods in history where civilizations other than the West hold first place in the realms of science and technology. Think, for example, of what are considered the penultimate technologies that launched the modern age: long range sailing ships, the compass, the printing press and gunpowder. All of these were invented in China.

Something historians attempting to compare civilizations or talking about their rise or decline is by what basis do you say one civilization is more “advanced” than another? How can you tell if a civilization is rising or declining?

It is in coming up with a new way to answer these questions that Morris makes the first of his many leaps found in Why the West Rules, For Now. Morris turns to a model from contemporary development studies- the UN Human Development Index (HDI) which is a combined statistic that compares development between countries on measures such as life-expectancy, education and income as a template for creating his own measure that will allow him to compare levels of development historically between countries and across an historical period that begins with the appearance of civilization in the “Hilly Flanks” of the modern Middle East with the Neolithic Revolution around 12,000 years ago.

Morris comes up with four key measures that allow him to compare development between civilizations and across time: energy capture (how much energy is taken for work), organizational capacity (measured by the size of urban centers), information technology (measured by literacy rates) and military capacity (measured by the size of armies).  Morris is well aware that he should not give a value judgment to scores on his scale, and he also fully admits that what he has invented is a rather rough instrument. His is a starting point for a larger discussion- not the final destination.

Applying his measure to history since the dawn of civilization here is what he finds:The West, meaning not just Europe, but the western half of Eurasia and North Africa beginning in Mesopotamia was indeed ahead in developmental terms from Eastern civilization, whose core he place in China, for much of its history. Only in the late middle ages from around 900 AD- 1700 AD was the East ahead of the West. Yet, in a version of the theory put forward by Jared Diamond in his landmark Germs Guns and Steel, Morris argues that the fact that the West was for so long more advanced than the East according to his measure is to be explained not in terms of culture but as a consequence of geography.

Intensive agriculture along with permanent human settlements emerged around 12,000 years ago in a region known as the “Hilly Flanks” an area on the edge of the area around the Tigris and Euphrates. Why here? It just so happens that this area has an overwhelming number of that very small group of naturally occurring plants and animals that are suitable for domestication. Agriculture in the Hilly Flanks spread to the nearby Tigris and Euphrates valley in which, under harsh conditions of a new Ice Age it gave rise to what we would recognize as both cities and states which had grown up as solutions to the problem of how to provide food under conditions of intense scarcity.

The West had a further geographic advantage over the East after the center of its civilization moved into the Mediterranean whose sea provided a transmission belt for food, products, people and ideas. Even after China built its Grand Canal it would have nothing to compete with the Mediterranean. The Roman Empire took the West to the very height of social development in terms of Morris’ scale-the number of trees felled for fuel, of cities at a massive scale, soldiers armed for war, or literate persons would not return to those found in the Roman Empire in its height- for Western countries that is- until the 1700s. Rome had hit what Morris calls a “hard-ceiling” and was eventually felled by his “four horsemen of the apocalypse”: climate change, famine, state failure, and disease”.

After 900, China with its Song Dynasty finally caught up to and surpassed the West reaching Roman levels of social development according to Morris’ measure. How exactly it was able to do this isn’t exactly clear, but certainly part of it had to do with the incorporation of rice producing regions in China’s south- perhaps facilitated by climate change. China’s relative isolation would have offered it some protection against epidemic diseases and it had come up with an effective “barbarian policy” that at the very least allowed China to avoid the fate of a city such as Baghdad that around 1200 was absolutely destroyed by a Mongolian horde.

In any case, with the discovery of the Americas in the 1400s the West would begin its crawl back to the levels of social development found in the Roman Empire this time by creating a new version of the Mediterranean world in the Atlantic Civilization and its Columbian Exchange. But by the 1700s when Thomas Malthus realized that all civilizations in the past had collapsed once their population overran their ability to produce food, it seemed like the hard-ceiling was about to be hit again, only this time, as Kenneth Pomeranz pointed out in his The Great Divergence the West would find in the industrial revolution a way not just to poke above the hard-ceiling, but to shatter it.

Here’s what it looks like as a graph:

Ian Morris Great Divergence Graph   

The last 200 or so odd years have essentially been the story of the West taking advantage of this new form of industrial civilization it created to dominate the rest of the globe until non-Western societies adopted and replicated it. Now that countries such as China and India have embraced modernization the fate of the rule of the West is written on the wall. Within a century, the great divergence will have run its course, and perhaps that’s the big story under today’s headlines. But Morris doesn’t think so.

Instead, what he sees is another hard-ceiling out ahead which unless we break through it may result in the end of civilization, what he, borrowing from Isaac Asimov calls Nightfall. If one takes one of Morris measures, say urbanization, and plays out the trend line, what one gets is cities on the order of 140 million people! He sees no way of measuring up to these trend lines unless the hopes of the singularians for radical technological change within the next half century prove correct. The four horsemen of
climate change, famine, state failure, and disease are already out of their stable and only a breakthrough of greater magnitude than the industrial revolution would prove capable of pushing them back in.

If we fail to achieve a breakthrough our particular civilization’s collapse- accompanied by nuclear weapons- will likely, according to Morris, be the last. For him, like the title of this blog the future is one of either utopia or dystopia.

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8 comments on “To see forward, look back!

  1. James Cross says:

    I’m an optimist.

    I think we are headed eventually for something like what Henry Miller wrote about in Sunday After the War that I quote at the end of the first of Why the Future Needs Us posts. This would be civilization that is both decentralized and global. It would be civilization with fewer people living longer. It would have less impact on the environment and be more in harmony with it, but it also would access to almost undreamed amounts of energy and capacity for production.

    I am also a realist. We may come very close to collapsing before we get there.

    • Rick Searle says:

      I tend to be manic about the whole thing moving back and forth between hope and doom. On my more clear headed days I realize that the future will inevitably be more complicated and messy than such an either or situation with utopian and dystopian elements mixed in. Though it’s hard for me not to see this century and the next as make or break for humanity- the challenges are so enormous and the potential so seemingly huge, but this may just be my own historical myopia at play. Who knows?

  2. psriblog says:

    This sounds like a very interesting book, Rick – thanks for posting about it. My own thoughts on the subject (at least the aspect of it that covers the past) is that when examined closely, civilization is a continuum. At 30,000 feet, the ‘civilization’ of China seems as different from that of the West as red from green. But every town geographically in between is culturally, technologically and linguistically in between as well. Where does ‘western civilization’ end and where does ‘eastern civilization’ end? And why?

  3. psriblog says:

    On reflection, I need to qualify my comment – I tend to use the words ‘Western civilization’ in my thoughts and posts as well. What I mean is, up until not too long ago, there wasn’t much of a hard line separating civilizations. ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ civilizations are relatively new concepts. And perhaps if you mean ‘liberal / democratic / free market / free speech’ as the definition of ‘Western Civilization’, it today covers a larger section of the world than can be described by ‘the West’. Possibly in the future, the distinction will go away completely?

    • Rick Searle says:

      Hi Sriram,

      Morris faces this problem of identifying what Western Civilization is by essentially defining it as the cultural area comprising those regions whose ultimate origins can ultimately be traced to the first agricultural civilization in Mesopotamia. This includes what is commonly referred to as the “West” – as in Europe and North America, but also includes the Islamic world. The argument that to an outsider the West and Islamic worlds dominated as they are by the legacy or current reality of monotheistic faiths are in many ways indistinguishable was a point really driven home for me by David Graeber in his” Debt the First 5,000 years.” Morris admits that civilization is a fluid category and there are all kinds of problem with establishing boundaries. The one thing I wished Morris would have spent some time on was what was going on in India, but I suppose he had already bit off a lot to chew.

      I have my doubts that anything like a global civilization is in the offing. Instead, I think what we are more likely to find is a multiplicity of quite rich and diverse cultures that have each come to their own relationship with modernity.

      And you?

      On a totally different note, I’d like to send out something- tonight or may be tomorrow- regarding that whole discussion group thing I’ve been talking about for an eternity. Would you mind sending me your email address to

  4. […] trends might not be leading us to a stark choice between global society and singularity or our own destruction. We might just be approaching some of Stibel’s breakpoints, and as long as we can keep your wits […]

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