One of our board members offers up this week’s suggestion: Niall Ferguson’s bestseller, Civilization: The West and the Rest.
Niall Ferguson, renowned British historian and professor of History at Harvard, poses the following question: Why, starting about the year 1500, did Western Europe and eventually North America, come to dominate the world? After all, it was Ottoman Turkey and Ming China which seemed to have the appearance of world civilizations. Europe, by contrast, was a miserable backwater recovering from the ravages of the Black Death and plagued by perpetual wars. Similarly, fifteenth-century North America was an anarchic wilderness compared to the towering temples and skyscraping roads in the areas of South and Central America where the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayas were dominant.
Ferguson gives the reader six reasons: competition, science, property rights, advances in medicine, the development of a consumer society, and the work ethic allowed for the rapid growth and eventual supremacy of the West over what he refers to as the Rest.
Civilizations come and go, Ferguson asserts. There is no rhythm to the rise and fall of civilizations – and we are living through the end of 500 years of Western dominance. History teaches us that collapse can be sudden – two years after the Soviets left Afghanistan the Soviet Union disappeared.
Ferguson, however, is somewhat optimistic about the long-term viability of Western Civilization. Civilizations must be defended and the West, he argues, has some institutional advantages over the Rest. This is an interesting read.