LONG VIEW: Why The West Rules — For Now
Tracking social development of East vs West from 15,000 BC
Our long-time readers will be aware that we’ve previously used night-time lights (NTL) to track China’s real estate (see here), NO2 to track China’s coal energy consumption (see here), and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) to track activity at critical locations such as the Qinhuangdao Coal Seaport (see here).
Having mapped out the satellite technologies we think will be most helpful in monitoring China’s economy in the future amid an increasing opaqueness of publicly available statistics (see here), we will devote some time to developing what we hope are helpful data product(s). As the under-the-hood development process can be rather involved and even tedious, we will be posting more general China content in LONG VIEW in the meantime instead.
1. East-West History in One Chart
Ian Morris, a professor of history at Stanford University, has written a fascinating book called “Why the West Rules — For Now” (and its methodological follow-up: “The Measure of Civilization”). It’s a dense, involved read full of archaeological evidence and detailed arguments. It’s the type of book you need to take notes on while reading, but it keeps throwing up gems, even on a second read-through.
The unique point of the book is that it builds a development index for both the West and the East. Spanning 17,000 years! From 15,000 BC. Ian Morris puts numbers on history. In a way, that’s something crazy even to attempt to do. And yet, if you accept the evidence he sets forth, he manages to pull it off. We also get a chart out of it.
I. Defining East and West
Some definitional housekeeping first:
One of the greatest difficulties in explaining why the West rules has been the tendency of different scholars to define “the West” in different ways, reducing the debate to a definitional impasse. […]
I define the “West” as the societies that have developed and spread through a combination of colonisation and emulation from the westernmost original core of domestication in Eurasia, in the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers [i.e. Hilly Flanks].
Similarly, when I refer to the “East” I mean those societies that have developed and spread — again, through a combination of colonisation and emulation — from the easternmost original core of domestication in Eurasia, between the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers.
— “The Measure of Civilization” by Ian Morris
II. Defining Index Components
What follows is our paraphrased distillation of Ian Morris’ description of the index and its components:
Social development [is the] social groups’ abilities to master their physical and intellectual environments and get things done in the world.
The composite social development index therefore comprises:
1. Energy capture per capita
Food (whether consumed directly, given to animals that provide labour, or given to animals that are subsequently eaten);
Fuel (whether for cooking, heating, cooling, firing kilns and furnaces, or powering machines, and including wind [incl. sailing ships!] and waterpower as well as wood, coal oil, gas, and nuclear power);
Raw materials (whether for construction, metalwork, pot making, clothing, or any other purpose).
2. Social organisation
The correlation [between the largest settlements within a society and the complexity of its social organisation] is far from perfect but it works well enough at the course-grained level of an index of social development spanning sixteen thousand years. […]
Rome had a million residents in the first century BCE; it also had street gangs that regularly brought government to a halt and death rates so high that more than a thousand country folk had to migrate into Rome every month just to maintain its numbers. Yet for all Rome’s foulness, the organisation needed to keep the city going was vastly beyond anything that any earlier society in the world could have managed — just as running Lagos (population 11 million) or Mumbai (population 19 million), let alone Tokyo (population 35 million), calls for organisation far beyond the Roman Empire’s capabilities.
3. War making capability
There are many assessments of modern Western military power. I rely mainly on the annual Military Balance volumes of the Institute for International Strategic Studies, which provide data on national spending, force strengths, quality, and logistics.
I suggest a West:East war-making capacity ratio for 2000 CE of roughly 20:1, much higher than Dunningan’s range of 3:1 to 5:1. This would be by far the highest West:east war-making ratio in history, dwarfing even those of the 19th and 20th centuries, but the vast technological gap that separated Eastern and Western military forces in 2000 CE seems to me to justify it.
4. Information technology
This actually contains two subcomponents: literacy, as well as the speed and reach of of technologies (for storing and communicating information).
I divide tools into handling information into three broad categories: electronic (in widespread use in East and West alike in 2000 CE), electrical (in widespread use in the West but not in the East in 1900 CE), and pre-electrical (in use in the West for perhaps 11,000 years and in the East for perhaps 9,000 years).
— “The Measure of Civilization” by Ian Morris
The four components are added in equal weight to arrive at the composite social development index, as seen in the chart above.
2. Some Comments
I. The Western core has moved geographically over time
While this may be nothing new to some of our readers, here’s the point that blew our minds — the Western core has moved geographically over time; the Eastern core did not. And here’s why this is such a big deal.
There are projects on which the CCP invests enormous resources that get little or no coverage in Western media. Yet, they are important to understand how the CCP operates. One spectacular case is the “National Research Project on Tracing the Origins of Chinese Civilization” (中华文明探源工程), which lasted for sixteen years from 2002 to 2018 and mobilized more than 400 scholars and CCP ideologists, and 70 universities. It originated with Hu Jintao, but was concluded by Xi Jinping.
Chinese leaders love to emphasise that China has “more than 5,000 years of civilisational history” (see here and here). The claim is brought up to build internal legitimacy and position China vis-a-vis Western culture. There is also the disturbing idea that “those who control history control the country, that history in itself [is] political, and that it should be ultimately controlled by the CCP, not by professional historians” (source).
Enter Ian Morris. And while he doesn’t make this particular argument himself explicitly, it arises from the evidence he puts forth. China can indeed claim to have 5,000 years of civilisational history. Whether or not it can be described as “uninterrupted” or “continuous” is another matter. What is clear, however, is that the Eastern core has primarily remained geographically fixed. Eastern civilisation has evolved more or less in the same place. That is why modern China can claim 5,000 years of civilisational history. Because the physical borders of China today overlap with the multiple political instantiations (e.g. its dynasties) of the Eastern core across the ages.
On the other hand, the Western core has moved. It started in the Hilly Flanks, moved to Egypt and Mesopotamia, then Rome, then northeastern Europe, and then across the Atlantic to the US of today. The modern United States cannot similarly claim 5,000 years of “continuous” civilisation history because it occupies a physically different space on the map. The geography is different. But, similarly to China, the modern US is at the apex of the evolutionary processes of civilisation that can be traced back in time (Western core to 7,000 BC). It’s just that this evolution occurred across locations, peoples, and languages, which muddies the picture.
A parallel argument to Ian Morris’ geographical one can be made in that the operating system of the Western core — Christianity, its stories, its values, its ethic — evolved from the mythology and cosmology of ancient Egypt (e.g. here) and Mesopotamia (e.g. Epic of Gilgamesh) (see Jordan Peterson on tracing these similarities across time or Volume 1 of the Durant’s masterful 11 volume series “The Story of Civilization”).
Just because modern political units (i.e. nation-states) of the Western core are seemingly young (e.g. US Declaration of Independence 1776 CE, England 976 CE), that does not mean they come from a less storied tradition than that of China. It just requires an expanded understanding of geography and history.
II. Not the first time East is playing catchup
This point is more straightforward than the first. It’s not the first time the East is playing catchup with the West. The Western core got a head start because of geography — the combination of climate, as well as the concentration of the appropriate flora and fauna, favoured animal domestication to first emerge in the Hilly Franks around 7,000 BCE. The Eastern core’s Xipo only reached 1,000 residents in 3,500 BCE. Marco Polo visited China when the East was ahead on the index, as the West was still regrouping following the breakdown of the Roman Empire. The age of sail and the industrial revolution again put the West ahead and placed us where we are today.
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