These four confronting lectures by Ian Morris are based on his book, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve. Morris argues that fundamental long-term values are driven by the interaction of geography and energy extraction.
Morris confronts us not only with the politically unacceptable view that democracy and equality are far from universal values, but also that values are circumscribed by energy and geography and that the bloodshed, inequality and geopolitics of the past were “needed”.
His work is not history for its own sake, but history for what it might tell us about our future.
Most people in the world today think democracy and gender equality are good, and that violence and wealth inequality are bad. But most people who lived during the 10,000 years before the nineteenth century thought just the opposite. Drawing on archaeology, anthropology, biology, and history, Ian Morris, author of the best-selling Why the West Rules–for Now, explains why. The result is a compelling new argument about the evolution of human values, one that has far-reaching implications for how we understand the past–and for what might happen next.
Fundamental long-term changes in values, Morris argues, are driven by the most basic force of all: energy. Humans have found three main ways to get the energy they need–from foraging, farming, and fossil fuels. Each energy source sets strict limits on what kinds of societies can succeed, and each kind of society rewards specific values. In tiny forager bands, people who value equality but are ready to settle problems violently do better than those who aren’t; in large farming societies, people who value hierarchy and are less willing to use violence do best; and in huge fossil-fuel societies, the pendulum has swung back toward equality but even further away from violence.
But if our fossil-fuel world favours democratic, open societies, the ongoing revolution in energy capture means that our most cherished values are very likely to turn out–at some point fairly soon–not to be useful any more.
London School of Economics Introduction to Podcasts based on Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels
In the last 50 years, knowledge of archaeology, anthropology, history, evolution, genetics and linguistics has exploded. A new synthesis of history is emerging, suggesting that people are all much the same and the societies we create all develop in much the same ways. What varies is the places in which societies develop. Biology and geography have driven a 150,000-year story of cooperation and competition. By projecting forward the patterns of the past and the forces that disrupt them, we can begin to see where the 21st century might take us.
20,000 years ago, ‘international relations’ meant interactions between tiny foraging bands; now it means a global system. Ian Morris explains how the growth of the international system and the shifts of power within it are linked to geography and energy extraction. In tracing this story, Professor Morris asks: Why were the world’s greatest powers concentrated in western Eurasia until about AD 500? Why did they shift to East Asia until AD 1750? Why did they return to the shores of the North Atlantic? And where will they go next?
20,000 years ago, the average person stood a 10-20% chance of dying violently. Today, the chance is under 1%. We have cut rates of violent death by 90% by creating large organisations that impose peace; but the main method for creating these organisations has been war. In effect, violence has slowly been putting itself out of business. The broad trends suggest that this process will probably continue.
Changes in how we capture energy from the environment have determined the degree of inequality in society – but what does this mean for the future?
In the last thirty years, there have been fierce debates over how civilisations develop and why the West became so powerful. The Measure of Civilization presents a brand-new way of investigating these questions and provides new tools for assessing the long-term growth of societies. Using a ground-breaking numerical index of social development that compares societies in different times and places, award-winning author Ian Morris sets forth a sweeping examination of Eastern and Western development across 15,000 years since the end of the last ice age. He offers surprising conclusions about when and why the West came to dominate the world and fresh perspectives for thinking about the twenty-first century.
Adapting the United Nations’ approach for measuring human development, Morris’s index breaks social development into four traits–energy capture per capita, organization, information technology, and war-making capacity–and he uses archaeological, historical, and current government data to quantify patterns. Morris reveals that for 90 percent of the time since the last ice age, the world’s most advanced region has been at the western end of Eurasia, but contrary to what many historians once believed, there were roughly 1,200 years–from about 550 to 1750 CE–when an East Asian region was more advanced. Only in the late eighteenth century CE, when northwest Europeans tapped into the energy trapped in fossil fuels, did the West leap ahead.
Resolving some of the biggest debates in global history, The Measure of Civilization puts forth innovative tools for determining past, present, and future economic and social trends.
See also Dowlphin’s Why the West Rules – For Now for the podcast and other links.