Monday, 5 November 2012

Book review: Civilization by Niall Ferguson

How did it come to pass that a tiny percentage of the world's population came to dominate global culture and the global economy for half a millennium? That is the big question posed by Niall Ferguson in Civilization: the West and the Rest. How did this dominance become so universal and accepted? And as the world changes and new global powers arise, where and when did this supremacy start to fall apart?

No one can argue that 'the West', itself a hugely outdated term, is in trouble. Capitalism, that great builder of wealth and power, has stumbled and with it caused great economic hardship in those countries so dependant on free-market free-spending to circulate and grow national wealth. America is in trouble, the Eurozone is in trouble and though here in Australia we sit smugly proud having braved the worst and come out seemingly on top, we are none the less hugely dependant on the uncertain fates of our economic treaty buddies and former colonists.

Where we are fortunate is that our proximity to Asia has caused us to form close economic ties with countries such as Indonesia, China and Japan. China is our largest two-way trading partner, Japan number two. In 2010, 7 of Australia's top 10 trading partners were Asian countries. Countries that an 18thCentury traveller would have viewed as undeveloped are booming and with that boom comes the power of money to spend and goods to sell.

No one can argue that global economic supremacy is drifting away from Europe and its (former) colonies to China, India and even parts of Africa, where economic development may have lagged behind 'first world' countries, but in a tortoise vs hare race, the Asian tortoises are now equipped with jet packs and rocket launchers prepared to overtake the US, Australia and Germany within decades.

Civilization: the West and the Rest is an examination on how European cultures came to dominate the world socially and economically for 500 years. This is not a dissection on 'Where the Rest went wrong', rather, what cultural and historical factors led to this imbalance in world power for the last five centuries. Ferguson is a skilled and impartial historian. By dissecting where it all went right for such a small group of people who in the early second millennium didn't look like they would be leading any global revolution, Niall Ferguson can examine where the West might have got complacent and how the Rest are taking the innovations that proved so successful for Western cultures and upping the game.

Civilization is broken down into six sections, each covering what Ferguson terms a 'killer application' that arose or flourished in western European cultures. These killer applications are competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic.

All good works on history are furnished with inciteful examples. In studying 'competition', Ferguson compares the splintered countries and duchies of Western Europe to the unified and prosperous China of the 13th Century. China was superior in every conceivable way, except that they had no one with which to compete. Competition, particularly military fighting, encourages innovation as you strive to better your foe in a bitter struggle for land or fortune. It was the peace and internal prosperity of China that ultimately led it to fall behind globally.

Equally, in studying 'democracy' – or the right to property – Ferguson compares the fate of the Americas. Why did North America fare so differently from South America when they were colonised by equivalent cultures; the English and the Dutch compared to the Spaniards and the Portuguese. The answer lies in the methods of colonisation. North America was fortunate to be invaded by colonists intent on starting a new life and with rights to limited self government, whereas the Spaniards and Portuguese viewed South America as a continental cash cow from which they could draw vast fortunes of spices, silver and gold with no thought to long-term settlement or prosperity.

Ferguson is an exceptional historian, concerned mostly with studying how we as a world reached the place we are at today. I own one of his other works The Ascent of Money, which is a history of how people all over the world have developed currency as a form of exchange and how the changing nature of 'money' and the way we use it has shaped our world. Ferguson has a talent for writing on topics that are relevant, current and complex, then breaking down sweeping histories into digestible, comprehensible books.

When you finish one of Ferguson's works you feel better informed. Your brain has been exercised by a fast-moving but engaging history that explains why the world is as it is. If you are interested in history I would certainly recommend picking up a book by Niall Ferguson. 


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