Civilization: The West and the Rest with Niall Ferguson
The West once ruled more than half the world. The religion it exported, Christianity, is still followed by a third of mankind. Above all, the way people live - or aspire to live - is unmistakably an invention of the West. All over the world, more and more humans eat a Western diet, wear Western clothes and live in Western housing. But are we living through the beginning of the end of the West's ascendancy? In this remarkable series, Niall Ferguson explains how by juxtaposing the West and 'the Rest', we can uncover the keys - the six killer applications - of Western ascendancy: the real explanation of how, for roughly five centuries, a clear minority of mankind managed to secure the lion's share of the EarthÂ´s resources.
]]> Historian Niall Ferguson, with his warm Scottish burr and firm gaze, has a general theory of Western civilization and how it came to dominate the world over the past 500 years: Six "killer applications"--i.e., ideas and socioeconomic mechanisms--such as competition, science, and democracy. He illustrates his points with vivid comparisons (between the British colonization of North American and the Spanish colonization of South America, or between Europe and China in the 15th century, among others) and by spotlighting lesser-known historical figures that serve as fascinating examples, such as a castrated Chinese admiral who sailed huge ships from China to East Africa in the 1400s, or a German economist whose experiences at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904 led him to connect the Protestant work ethic with economic success. Add a sprinkling of visual panache (snappy editing, gorgeous landscapes, fascinating historical images), and the result is a hugely entertaining and stimulating six-episode series, Civilization: The West and the Rest
. Ferguson's fervid pronouncements are debatable, but that's much of the series' pleasure. He's not playing it safe, trotting out received wisdom that everyone accepts. His volatile arguments make the events of hundreds of years ago suddenly seem suspenseful: Who will win when the Turks lay siege to Vienna? Did blue jeans have more to do with the fall of Communism than Ronald Reagan? Some weaknesses are more obvious than others--Ferguson touches on slavery in the Americas but is a bit glib about the damage it did, and he tends to view economic dominance as an absolute good, regardless of the cost to the cultures being dominated. But it's hard not to get engaged by Ferguson's energy and his willingness to go out on a limb for the sake of an exciting concept. And if anyone thinks this is all purely academic, Ferguson's arguments are tied to a very pressing concern: Is Western Civilization on the brink of collapse precisely because these six "killer apps" no longer have the same hold on our culture? --Bret Fetzer