Watch an interview of Ian Morris with UC Berkeley Professor Harry Kreisler on Why the West Rules. Or buy the book, Why the West Rules-For Now, by Ian Morris. This book could have been titled The Measure of History because that is the seminal new idea in the book. Morris creates an objective measure for comparing civilizations’ ability to get things done. He attempts to make his rules for measuring civilizations as simple as possible, but no simpler. He seeks objective qualities for measuring social development, and after analyzing several of these qualities he settles on: 1. Energy capture per person, 2. Size of the largest city, 3. War-making potential, 4. Information technology. Morris sums these qualities together equally, year by year, over a 16,000-year period; then he charts and compares them.
As a test of the accuracy of his claims and methods, on the final page of the book he compares his charts of the East and West by raising all Western scores and reducing all Eastern scores by 20 percent and on a second chart does the opposite and raises all Eastern scores and reduces all Western scores by 20 percent. After you have read the book and followed his arguments, these comparisons are quite compelling as to the validity of his overall argument. His objective method tracks the total power of civilizations. There will be endless quibbling over the details, which are perforce a little vague, but the overall charts would probably change very little even if a perfect measure were found.
The importance of the ability of humans to extract power from natural resources becomes apparent with these charts. Throughout all but the last few hundred years of history people were dependent upon muscle power to create the goods and services they needed; but with the advent of coal-powered steam engines humans were able to multiply their energy production and consumption at any location, which was then converted into more and better things. This has created tremendous abundance for a vastly larger human population.
Morris proclaims that it is geography which drives big history, because large groups of humans are essentially the same, just human. Every culture has geniuses, fools, and scoundrels, but they each live within a different geography. Yet another twist in that geography theme is that it changes meaning with changing technology. The Mediterranean Sea was at first an impediment to travel as were the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but once a technology had been created for coping with these natural impediments, they became highways for commerce and war. The same idea can be applied to many other things.
Morris does discuss the downside of pollution and the approaching final consumption of one-time-use resources, like coal, oil and gas. He briefly mentions that some other source must be found and mentions solar energy, but he seems to think that the current army of engineers and scientists will find a way to solve these problems. If that doesn’t happen, humanity must return to near the previous ceilings which previous civilizations have hit and fell back from time and again.
The problem with understanding history is there is so much of it.