Tag Archives: Kenneth Pomeranz

Global history: Ian Morris and the Great Divergence

Two of the big questions of global history are why did the industrial revolution happen, and why did it happen in NW Europe?

I’ve been partial to the explanation offered by historian Kenneth Pomeranz in his 2000 book The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (here’s Cosma Shalizi’s review) that China and Europe were quite similar and industrial revolution in Europe is largely explained by the accidental discovery and then imperial conquest of new world by Europeans.

Stanford archaeologist and historian Ian Morris has a new popular world history book, Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, that similarly proposes that geography has been the main factor shaping history. He takes a longer view and argues that the aspects of geography matter depend on social development.

In the videos below he outlines the thesis of his book in a short publicity interview from Stanford and a longer lecture at the RSA . (Here’s a review from the Economist).


In response to comments.  Morris is concerned about fossil fuels and environmental degradation. Here is a quote from a review of his book by Orville Schell in New York Times:

Finally, Morris surprises us. … what really concerns him, it turns out, is not whether the West may be bested by the East, but whether mankind’s Promethean collective developmental abilities may not end up being our common undoing.

The competition that East and West have been pursuing for so long, Morris warns, is about to be disrupted by some powerful forces. Nuclear proliferation, population growth, global epidemics and climate change are in the process of radically altering old historical patterns. “We are approaching the greatest discontinuity in history,” he says.

… Morris counsels that we now need to concentrate not on the old competition between East and West, but on a choice. We must decide between what Morris, borrowing from the writer Ray Kurzweil, terms “the Singularity,” salvation through the expansion of our collective technological abilities, and “Nightfall,” an apocalypse from the old Five Horsemen aided by their new accomplices. He warns that this choice offers “no silver medal.” One alternative “will win and one will lose.” We are, he insists, “approaching a new hard ceiling” and are facing a completely new kind of collective historical turning point.

For the Singularity to win out, “everything has to go right,” Morris says. “For Nightfall to win only one thing needs to go wrong. The odds look bad.”

Because distinctions of geography are becoming increasingly irrelevant, Morris views the old saw that “East is East and West is West” as a catastrophic way of looking at our present situation. Like it or not, East and West are now in a common mess, and “the next 40 years will be the most important in history.”