*The Measure of Civilization*

The author is Ian Morris and the subtitle is How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations.  I don’t like the subtitle of this book, which I feel should include the word “energy.”  While a number of topics are covered, the core parts of the book concern the importance of energy sources for early economic development.

This strikes me as an important work.  I will report back on it once I have the chance to give it further study (which won’t be right away).  In the meantime I am simply reporting that it will come out this January and that it is worthy of your attention.


The price of energy always has been and always will be important in every place at every time.

If we can deliver unlimited amounts of energy at $0.10 per kilowatt hour mankind's future is bright. If the cost of energy goes to $1.00 per kilowatt hour then the future will be not so bright.

The data he used to construct his index of social development is available on the web:


Notice that there is a loot of guessing involved. Though I generally agree with him that Western Eurasia was the most advanced region of the planet for most of the last 10,000 years and that China was the most advanced region during most of the middle ages. I disagree when he claims that the West only surpassed China in the mid 18th century. I think that modern research in economic history shows that some European regions such as North Italy and the Flanders were already much more sophisticated than anywhere else in the world by the 14th and 15th centuries.

I also agree with his thesis that geography is the main determinant of long run historical processes. That's because people are all alike and thus what changes between regions is the geography. Western Eurasia had the Mediterranean Sea to provide a cheap transport network that allowed the development of integrated market economies that supported classical civilizations such as the Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans. Other regions in Eurasia lacked this god given transport network and when the Arabs closed the Mediterranean to the Christians them Western Eurasia also lost this transport network and fell into the dark ages.

Culture and institutions are important but what determines culture and institutions? Geography plays an important role as well in influencing the development of culture and institutions. For instance, the development of democracy and the rule of law in ancient Greece was the outcome of a process of interstate competition brought by the existence of hundreds of independent states living closely together. The hilly geography of Greece favored the formation of many small states while the fact that it was a peninsula that was immersed into the Mediterranean sea made it easy for ideas and goods to travel between these small states, which means that "market for institutions" was extremely competitive, and this competitiveness was a result of geographical factors.

So overall, I think that it is mostly correct to say that geographical factors have been of primary importance in history.

Human beings are not all alike. That is easily, demonstrably false.
There are myriad systematic genotype and phenotype differences between different human sub-populations.

Only a science-denying zealot could deny that.

Greece may have been a peninsular surrounded by lots of islands, but so was Malaya/Indonesia. Why didn't they develop a competitive market for institutions? In fact interstate competition was so fierce that the region is one of the massive beneficiaries from colonialism - the Dutch and British suppressed inter-state raiding and piracy which led to a population boom.

China has an even greater God-given transportation network in the Yangtze river. Yet in China civilization arose in the North, not along the river. Brazil had an even greater transportation network in the Amazon. Still a backward dump. Which is odd because it shares a climate with the Yangtze and with the Ganges but they were developed, the Amazon never was.

The hilly geography of Fujian and Guangdong is a lot hillier than that of Greece. Democracy and independent small states did not survive there. But then India and China share many common geographical features and yet unity has been a feature of Chinese history and India was created by the British - for the first time.

I could go on. I think the point is clear - geography is not the be-all and end-all. It may not even be that significant. The problem is we can only do the experiment once. Only God can decide He does not like the results, rewind the tape and try again. All we know is that civilization arose where it arose. It didn't where it didn't. And it is very hard to change that.

"Greece may have been a peninsular surrounded by lots of islands, but so was Malaya/Indonesia."

As is Scandinavia, which also shows plenty of evidence of high mobility, but failed to develop much in the way of an advanced civilization or even large cities.

Re: Yet in China civilization arose in the North, not along the river. Brazil had an even greater transportation network in the Amazon.

But Chinese civilization did arise on a river: the Huang He (Yellow Rover) in the north, then spread south to the Yangtze. And the two rivers were eventually knit together by the Grand Canal.
As for the Amazon, the lower Amazon hosted one of the proto-civilizations of the New World; there was also a proto-civilization on the Mississippi-Ohio-Missouri confluence in North America. The North American one collapsed in the Little Ice Age, while the Amazonian one survived until European contact overwhelmed it with disease.

Of course it arose on a river. Just not the obvious one.

Proto-civlizations is one of those terrible words that misses the point. No one is denying that someone down there was burning small patches of forest down and sharpening rocks. But civilization it was not.

By the time the Arab caliphate became a power, civilization had already collapsed in Europe due mainly to a series of natural disasters in the 6th century. The first of these (a two year volcanic winter) affected the entire world and led to widespread famine, the second was a plague epidemic that puts even the Black Death in the shade.
The Caliphate kept Europe disconnected from the rest of the world for some time, until the Byzantines worked an arrangement with the Arabs and restored trade. However the Arabs were not the cause of the initial collapse.

I'm reading an old 1991 book on the Soviet economy by Alec Nove, an éminence grise of Sovietology, now deceased. What struck me--he's a historian, not an economist--was how backwards Japan was in 1900. In terms of (per capita) iron, coal, energy, textiles, etc--by any metric--they were way poorer than Russia. Yet they beat Russian in the 1904 war, and became a powerhouse. Same for Korea. How does one account for this? It's a mystery.

Ironically, Japan began to change its ways after a backwater, upstart nation called the United States steamed four warships into Edo Bay. Japan and England are both counterexamples to the claim that domestic resources are essential for development. Transportation, especially by sea appears to be elemental, but go more deeply and it is the harnessing of energy (not merely possessing it) that drives development. The underdeveloped world either didn't, couldn't, or didn't have to develop energy. Technology appears highly correlated to cold climates (but not too cold).

By the time America was founded, Europe was almost completely deforested. The United States had a seemingly endless supply of wood, then coal, then oil, then nuclear, then natural gas. The industrial revolution in America continuing to this day has been fueled mostly by coal. Oil is important, but it is a Johnny come Lately. Coal is still king. We would have a cleaner world if we had developed nuclear power more extensively.

The Japanese had shorter lines of communication and a Navy that had been built for it by the British.

South Korea benefited from American economic assistance and concessions and, of course, the economic stimulous of having large numbers of American soldiers stationed in South Korea and spending money.

sailerites should be here in a few minutes

You misspelled "scientists"

This sounds like an expansion of one elements of his Why the West Rules--for Now, which I really enjoyed (aside from the last fifty or so pages). Definitely going on my to read list.

Professor Cowen,

Just out of curiosity, but how many books do you read in a week/ how long does it take you to read one, on average? You seem to plow through material at an insane rate when you are not writing your own.

Ian Morris wrote another awkwardly titled book, "Why the West Rules -For Now", which is supposedly about why the industrial revolution occurred in the West (Morris seems to think that it was something of an accident that it occurred specifically in England and not some other part of Europe and I agree with that) and not in China. He describes how close the Chinese came on several occasions.

To do this, Morris came up with four measures of social development, consisting of the size of the largest cities, information technology, energy capture, and war making capacity. As he acknowledges, this introduces huge questions about why these four measures, what metrics to use for them, and the quality of the data available, but he defends his methodology in detail and it seems reasonable.

This book seems to be going over the same ground as "Why the West Rules -for Now", but maybe it does so more in depth. "Why the West Rules -for Now" is definitely worth reading.

Some caveats apply. The last fifty or so pages of "Why the West Rules -for Now" seems to be an argument that industrial civilization is due to collapse in the next fifty or so years, if humans don't go extinct altogether, though he dances around coming right and and saying so explicitly. Maybe that material should have been moved to an appendix, or put in another book. Plus he writes in a chatty style that is at odds with the subject matter.

Morris' approach is consistent with the other recent "explain the rise and falls of civilizations" books by Diamond, and to some extent Tainter, and he is familiar with the work of both. So I don't think sailerites will buy into this one either.

I did not care for Why the West Rules, and only made it halfway through. I thought it was substantively lacking, and I found the "chatty" style to be particularly grating. My wife agreed with me, which I consider proof of her excellent taste.

This book has been on my Amazon wish list for some time now.

Is there going to be anything in here that wasn't in Why The West Rules - For Now

Angus Maddison's research suggests that England was significantly ahead of both China and India in terms of per-capita income as early as 1500!

It is difficult to beat:

Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Especially after DOH! HA! climate talks that just ended.

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