The west still rules—but this will change in the coming decades; indeed, geography may cease to matter
China’s Nanjing Greenland Financial Center, now the sixth tallest building in the world, is one of many recent building projects that advertise China’s growing power to the world. If the rate of global change keeps accelerating, we should expect eastern dominance by 2050. Photo: Jakob Montrasio
The west is still the “best”—if by that we mean richest, strongest, and most inventive. True, China now has the second biggest economy in the world and Japan the third; but Europe and north America still generate two thirds of the world’s wealth, own two thirds of its weapons, and spend more than two thirds of its R&D dollars—all despite having less than one-seventh of its population. The west still rules the roost.
But will this last? No. This much we know, because history tells us so. As Winston Churchill (no mean historian himself) put it: “The farther backwards you can look, the farther forwards you are likely to see.” If we look back far enough (to the last ice age), on a scale big enough (the whole planet), we can indeed identify the forces that drive history—and where they are taking us.
The west dominates the world not because its people are biologically superior, its culture better, or its leaders wiser, but simply because of geography. When the world warmed up at the end of the last ice age, making farming possible, it was towards the western end of Eurasia that plants and animals were first domesticated. Proto-westerners were no smarter or harder working than anyone else; they just lived in the region where geography had put the densest concentrations of potentially domesticable plants and animals. Another 2,000 years would pass before domestication began in other parts of the world, where resources were less abundant. Holding onto their early lead, westerners went on to be the first to build cities, create states, and conquer empires. Non-westerners followed suit everywhere from Persia to Peru, but only after further time lags.
Yet the west’s head start in agriculture some 12,000 years ago does not tell us everything we need to know. While geography does explain history’s shape, it does not do so in a straightforward way. Geography determines how societies develop; but, simultaneously, how societies develop determines what geography means.
Take the case of the hot, humid valleys of south China. In the days of the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), these lands beyond the Yangzi River seemed backward to China’s rulers, because they lacked the skills to make them productive. By 400AD, though, farmers migrating southwards to escape the chaos after the fall of the Han brought rice agriculture to a peak of perfection, building high-tech paddies in the wet south and extracting huge yields. They changed geography’s meaning: the south became the rice basket that fed a golden age of eastern culture. The west, which had no equivalent to this rice basket, lost its 10,000-year-old lead in development. So for more than a millennium, until at least 1700, China was the richest, strongest, and most inventive place on Earth.
As east Asia pulled ahead, its inventors came up with one breakthrough after another. By 1300 China had ships that could cross the oceans, magnetic compasses that could tell skippers where they were heading, and guns that could shoot the people they met when they arrived. But then, in the kind of paradox that fills the pages of history, the east’s breakthroughs changed the meaning of geography once again.
Up until that point, western Europe—thrust out into the cold north Atlantic, far from the centres of action—had been a backwater. But when, after a lag of a century or so, Europeans adapted the east’s oceangoing ships, compasses and cannons to their own needs, their location on the Atlantic abruptly became a huge geographical plus. When no one could cross oceans, it had not mattered that Europe was twice as close as China to the vast, rich lands of the Americas; but now that people could cross, it mattered very much indeed. Geography explains why it was western Europeans, rather than the 15th century’s finest sailors—the Chinese—who discovered, plundered, and colonised the Americas. Chinese sailors were just as daring as Spaniards and Chinese settlers, just as intrepid as Britons, but it was Christopher Columbus rather than the great Chinese admiral Zheng who discovered the Americas—simply because Columbus only had to go half as far.
And thanks to these new meanings of geography, Europeans (rather than Chinese) created an equally new kind of maritime market economy in the 17th century, exploiting comparative advantages between continents. It was European thinkers (again rather than Chinese) who saw what benefits could come from explaining how the winds and tides worked, measuring and counting in better ways, and cracking the codes of physics, chemistry, and biology. Europeans, not Chinese, hurled themselves at these tasks; Europe, not China, had a scientific revolution; and Europeans, not Chinese, applied science’s insights to society itself in the 18th century to set off what we now call the Enlightenment.
By 1800 this combination of science and the Atlantic market economy provided incentives and opportunities for western Europeans to mechanise production and tap the awesome power of fossil fuels. Therefore Britain, not China or Japan, had an industrial revolution, and by the mid-19th century Britain bestrode the world like a colossus.
Europeans liked to think that their own superiority accounted for all this, but a rude shock was coming. The hidden laws of history kept on working, and by 1900 geography had changed its meaning once again. The British-dominated global economy drew in the resources of north America, converting the US from a rather backward periphery (like Europe had been half a millennium earlier) into a new global core. Nor did things stop there: in the 20th century the American-dominated global economy, in turn, drew in the resources of Asia, transforming Japan, then the “Asian Tigers,” and eventually China and India from rather backward peripheries into even newer global cores. The “rise of the east,” so shocking to so many westerners, was entirely predictable.
So what does all this mean for our future? Extrapolating from these historical patterns, we can certainly make some predictions. If the processes of change continue across the 21st century at the same rate as in the 20th century, the east will overtake the west by 2100. But if the rate of change keeps accelerating—as it has been doing since the 15th century—we should expect eastern global dominance as soon as 2050.
However, that is not all that will change. As can see from the past, while geography shapes the development of societies, development also shapes what geography means—and all the signs are that, in the 21st century, the meanings of geography are changing faster than ever. Geography is, we might even say, losing meaning. The world is shrinking, and the greatest challenges we face—nuclear weapons, climate change, mass migration, epidemics, food and water shortages—are all global problems. Perhaps the real lesson of history, then, is that by the time the west is no longer the best, the question may have ceased to matter very much.
Ian Morris is Willard Professor of Classics, History and Archaeology at Stanford University, and author of “Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History, and What they Reveal About the Future” (Profile). He will be speaking in a number of the Prospect-sponsored debates entitled “The Battle for the Past” in London on 31st October.