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.”

7 thoughts on “Global history: Ian Morris and the Great Divergence”

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    Ummm, I think it was because we discovered fossil fuels, invented the steam engine to pump out a flooded coal mine, and we were off to the races? Does resilience science not recognize the importance and impact of energy flows in ecosystems?

  2. The question is why were industrial steam engines invented and used in the UK rather than China (or elsewhere), which was already using natural gas, not whether energy flows are important. That is what is discussed at length in the Great Divergence and touched on in Moriss’ talk.

  3. I apologize, Garry. I read the links to Morris’ book, and there was no mention of fossil fuels as the cause. Instead he and the reviewers listed sociology and geography as the causes. The inability of our society to speak in a straightforward way about our quandary, and to blame our crisis on more comforting substitutes (climate change?) concerns me. If we cannot even name the problem accurately, how can we start to adapt?

    It is interesting watching The Economist trying to change its spots.

  4. The best single argument for Britain’s (as opposed to Europe’s) industrial distinctiveness, and one the one I find most consistent with both current historical understanding and a resilience interpretation (though certainly not stated in those terms), is provided by Jack Goldstone ( He draws heavily on Wrigley’s distinction between an organic economy and a mineral based economy and effectively renders the developments in Britain as a shift from one to the other.

    Goldstone’s article is a response to an excellent overview of the debate: Bryant, Joseph M. 2006. The West and the rest revisited: Debating capitalist origins, European colonialism, and the advent of modernity. Canadian Journal of Sociologie/Cahiers canadiens de sociologie 31(4):403–444. For those with a desire to read lots, see the entire Comments section of the issue at

  5. Iaato: “If we cannot even name the problem accurately”
    Please then, name the problem you see.

    To me it seems that psychology is the root of action. Difference between NW Europe and China? An outstanding one, to me, is Protestant Christianity, an ideology which some see as the origin of modern capitalism, which exalts the rapaciously wealthy as somehow morally superior, and alienates believers from nature, making it the Other, something to be, in Francis Bacon’s words “bound into service, hounded in her wanderings and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets”.

  6. Thanks, BTL. The problem I see is that we used to live a sustainable hunter/gatherer or farming life, conservatively based on flow-based energy resources from the sun and geothermal processes. While farming allowed storage of resources by humans and the development of civilization, human population and civilization did not explode until we discovered coal and oil, which allow much more complex civilization and allows us to live as though we are apart from nature and do not need it.

    Unfortunately, that view of the world is a mirage. We live in a world today where Americans, especially, own many fossil fuel slaves powered by the last rays of ancient sunlight. We are kings and queens of our destiny, but only until the oil flows through the society slow down. That started in 2005, when oil production globally peaked, and the problem of about 6 billion people too many for a non-fossil fuel based lifestyle is beginning to assert itself in the form of permanent economic contraction and a dismantling of the amazingly complex structures of our global trade system. We must understand that permanent economic contraction is due to the fossil fuel peak and downturn in production, which will only get worse as we go on, rather than blaming it on housing bubbles and bad management.

    Americans especially are blinded to the energy flows through society, as we use 25% of the world’s oil for 4% of the population, and we regard it as our due. Our specialized academic education system prevents us from viewing the world from a broader, macro-perspective using an energetic ecological lens. And the idea of resilience is a good one, but we are going to have to reduce the size of our population and the complexity of our society by an order of magnitude, at least, before we can redevelop resilient structures for living.

    My mental model of how the world works is explanatory and predictive. But as long as we are blinded by the mighty glare from burning oil, very few will understand why civilization collapsed.

  7. Aah, you meant peak oil. No argument there from me. I live in Britain, people here are no better and we don’t have the advantages you have in the US.

    The large majority hope if they ignore those nasty niggling voices, it’ll go away, or not affect them somehow.

    That’s why they don’t want to make, or even hear of any alternative utopias, as talked of on another post. Most people already have their mindless utopian vision helpfully provided to them – the one presented in trashy magazines of slebs and adverts.

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