Without a doubt, modern history has been dominated by the West, but was this always the case? It is human nature to assume how things are, is how they have always been and how they will always be. But civilisation never actually plays out in this way. Empires rise, empires fall. There is much more to our history as a species, and indeed our future than just contemporary politics. Has the west always been the dominant region of the world? Will it continue to lead from its current position? This is the premise of “Why the west rules – for now” by Ian Morris. So, what can we learn from the book?
Eastern and Western historical development has barely differed
If you want to compare East and West, you must start by evaluating social development scientifically and rigorously. It is to easy to make generalisations based on myth and not actual fact. Social development is a measure of a community’s ability to get things done. Developments include a society’s technological, organisational, or cultural accomplishments. These, in turn, allow people to feed, clothe, house, and reproduce themselves. The author created a social development index for 14,000 BCE onward. It is based on four fundamental characteristics. Energy consumption, quite simple the more advanced and affluent a society, the more energy it consumes. Urbanism, as a sign of advanced civilisation is the size of its capital. The third is its ability to communicate and transfer knowledge. The final one it’s a civilisations ability to wage war. When analysing all of these traits across all major historic societies there is very little difference between East and West prior to the industrial revolution. But the East was in the lead prior to this industrial revolution.
In 1100 CE Eastern social development took the lead
While overall there were very little difference between East and West prior to the industrial revolution, there were small differences. The Western Hemisphere naturally started in the lead as civilisation began in the middle east and quickly shifted to the Mediterranean with the rise of Greece, Rome, Egypt and so on. But as the Chinese Empire also rose this quickly levelled out. But as the Han and Roman Empires began to crumble it was the East that recovered more quickly. The Roman empire fractured into multiple parts, but the Sui dynasty reunified China and this led to the East leading the way globally in social development. This continued all the way through until the Industrial Revolution and is a key reason why European economies were always looking for new routes to trade with the East.
The Industrial Revolution led to Western rule
By the late eighteenth century, the West had finally managed to catch up and overtake the East. The industrial revolution and the discovery of the new world changed the game. Not only did Europe now have access to significant resources from Americas, but with technological advancement of things such as the steam engine, Newtons description of physics and mechanics shifted the balance of power significantly. In 1750 East and West were still level, but by 1850 it was a landslide for the West. This led to various European Powers establishing global empires and centralising a large chunk of global wealth within the western hemisphere.
The rise of the East
Whilst the US remains the leading economy in the world for now, every financial forecast shows that this will not last for much longer. China has already surpassed US in terms of GDP on a PPP basis and it won’t be many more years, barring something drastic that it overtakes the US on other measures too. In fact, beyond just China and US, most financial projections show that 3 of the 4 largest economies in the world will be in Asia within the next decade or so. Asian GDP has also overtaken western GDP. If you look at the largest Financial Services firms, Telecoms’ companies, Car Makers etc the list is dominated by Asian companies. This will only accelerate due to Asia’s growing lead in 5G and other emerging next generation technologies. Moreover, if you include other emerging markets into the equation, there for forecasts that show only 1 Western economy in the top 10 economies in the world by 2050. Obviously, lots can happen between now and then, but western dominance is not certain in future. The only thing that we can say is the west rules – for now.