There seems to be a crisis of confidence in the West. In the face of the rising power of China, and with a seeming lack of interest in its own history and civilization, many fear that the West has somehow lost it way.
Civilization aims to explain why the West grew so powerful and dominated the rest of the world. The answer lies with six killer applications, which enabled the West to overcome the rest. Yet vital questions arise: Has the West forgotten these killer apps and will this lead to its collapse?
If you had been able to travel around the globe in the fifteenth century, you would have been more impressed with the civilizations of the Orient than with those of Europe. The societies in the East were more culturally and technologically advanced than their European counterparts. Europe was in fact a relative backwater, plagued by conflict among its many states. While China was able to mobilize its workforce to build great architectural projects like the Forbidden City, Europe was struggling with dreadful sanitation and violence.
Yet towards the end of the century, the nations of Europe had begun to grow economically and militarily. Over the next 500 years, the balance shifted overwhelmingly in favor of the West.
The development of the Western empires is one of the most obvious examples of this phenomenon. In 1500, the Western nations controlled just 10% of the world’s surface and 16% of its population. By 1900, this ratio had risen dramatically: just under two thirds of the world’s land and peoples, not to mention 79% of global economic output, were under the control of the Western empires.
Increasingly, the West’s domination stretched into other spheres. Western religion and Western science spread across the globe, with, for example, economic debate having long been dominated by the ideas of three Europeans: Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes and Karl Marx. Even Western fashion became the widespread norm.
With this domination, living standards in the West rose compared to those elsewhere. By 1990, the average American was seventy-three times richer than the average Chinese – an extreme reversal of their fifteenth century statures.
Western nations have grown exponentially from relative poverty to world dominance over the past five centuries.