By Lynn Willoughby
Why the West Rules – For Now ~ Ian Morris
Non-fiction can sometimes be hard reading. I often feel like a student again unless the language is readable and the author has a sense of humour. I would describe this book as a quick lesson in world history, geography, sociology, anthropology, archeology and climate. What saves it is the humour, the references to current poetry, popular music, TV, movie and news clips, and the very readable prose.
Let’s begin with an example of what I mean. Morris contends that mankind throughout the world and through the ages, is basically “lazy, greedy and fearful.” Almost all innovations, inventions and changes will either bring great joy or great pain. Today we are taught to be competitive from an early age “…compete to earn money so we can chase Infinite Needs by buying things we don’t really want. …we could learn something from hunter-gatherers. The world’s most primitive people have few possessions but they are not poor.”
I was truly fascinated by this book and could write a long essay instead of a review, but I will try to contain myself. Basically, Morris refers to the FIVE Horsemen of the Apocalypse – famine, migration, disease, state collapse and climate change, as the undoing of every human empire. He believes people have free will but are driven by sloth, greed and fear, and each of us gets to choose among them at every challenge.
He begins with pre-recorded history to prove his theory, but starting with Mesopotamia, Egypt, and then Rome (empires we are all more familiar with) the fall of each of these great empires follows his pattern: people produce more and better food, they reproduce more efficiently and faster which causes famine unless they migrate. By migrating they meet new people carrying various bacteria and viruses which impact the newcomers who die of disease or war breaks out, causing a state of collapse. The climate is constantly changing which speaks to how well or poorly people adapt or collapse, and since the Industrial Revolution, the use of fossil fuels simply adds acceleration. Prior to this “Virtually all energy previously used in the entire history of humanity had come from muscles or from biomass fuels, but people now tapped into four potentially revolutionary sources – coal, natural gas, water and wind.”
So, Morris says, whether it was Alexander the Great, Gengis Khan or the Taosi excavations telling the story of China’s first human dynasty, the Xia, Morris’s theory holds true. Not only that, but Morris often writes about “…mishaps by chaps…innovation by visionary or bungling idiot…” He gives numerous examples of innovations by people just too lazy to do things the old way!
His conclusion is that America is heading the way of all other empires.
1. “By 2000 each acre of American farmland absorbed eighty times more energy than it had in 1900 and yielded only four times as much food.”
2. “The human body has changed more in the last hundred years than in the previous fifty thousand…”
3. “…the coming American collapse…was not Viet Nam or Angola. It was the shopping malls.”
4. “Between 1992 and 2007 China’s exports increased a dozen fold and its trade surplus with the US ballooned from $18 billion to $233 billion.”
5. “Even if we stopped pumping out greenhouse gases tomorrow, there is already so much carbon in the air that warming will carry on. We have changed the atmosphere’s chemistry.”
All this is the stuff of nightmares!! Does Morris provide a solution? Yes!
“In the 21 century we must restructure political geography to make room for the kinds of global institutions that might slow down war and global warming; then we must use the time that buys to carry out a new revolution in energy capture… Some environmentalists recommend a different approach, urging us to return to simpler lifestyles…” (but in China alone fourteen thousand new cars hit the roads every day!)
Morris’ final conclusion :” …we need to keep the dogs of war on a leash, manage global warming and see through a revolution in energy capture. Everything has to go right. For Nightfall to win, only one thing needs to go wrong. The end looks bad!”
He concludes his book using information from the book “Collapse” by Jared Diamond, who suggests there are two forces that might “save the world from disaster: archaeologists (who uncover the details of earlier society’s mistakes) and television (which broadcasts their findings). Morris adds, “Only historians can draw together the grand narrative of social development: only historians can explain the differences that divide humanity and how we can prevent them from destroying us.”
Personally, I plan to drink better Scotch and eat dessert first!