While Niall Ferguson's new book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, is mostly about the past, it true importance is what it says about our future. Nowadays it is hard not too worry about the future, as we struggle from one funding crisis to the next, watching resources for public investments (like education) erode. The most powerful antidote to depression about our future is a good understanding of our past, particularly the changes in the past 5 centuries that are Ferguson's main subject. Five hundred years is really not that long of a time, but within this time frame we can trace a transition from a world dominated by scarcity, hunger, and disease to one characterized by health and abundance.
Ferguson asks two key questions in Civilization:
1) Why is it that a relatively few number of people living in a few small countries in the West became so wealthy and powerful in the last few hundred years as compared to people in Asia, South America, and Africa?
2) Will the 21st century belong to non-Western civilizations, and is it possible that the U.S. and Western Europe could even share the same fate of decline and fall as the Roman Empire?
Ferguson's answer to the first question, why the West got wealthy, basically comes down to institutions. The West developed a set of key institutions (Ferguson calls these killer apps), that the others lacked. The killers apps include: competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the Protestant work ethic. The book is (loosely) organized around these themes, with Ferguson jumping (sometimes confusingly) across centuries and continents in support of the narrative.
On the second question, will "The Rest" catch-up, Ferguson is guardedly optimistic. While the non-Western world may not have all the structures in place for sustained growth (most obviously the lack of democracy in China), the overall trends are all going in the right direction. The BRIC's (Brazil, Russia, India, China) are rapidly integrating into a world energy, consumer and production market, although none of these societies enjoy all of the institutional underpinnings that have sustained Western growth. It was not solely the availability of coal or oversees markets that drove the development of the British Empire, but also the presence of property rights, a free press, and representative government.
Making sense of why some countries are wealthier today than others, and who will be wealthy tomorrow, requires the skills of an economically literate historian. Ferguson is as good a guide as anyone writing on these questions today. Civilization is not a systematic or deep investigation of a few narrow questions, but rather a simultaneously concise and sweeping narrative around big questions and large trends. Enjoyable but not overly taxing.
What are you reading?