Civilization: The West and the Rest

Niall Ferguson. Penguin Press, $35 (432p) ISBN 978-1-59420-305-3
Ferguson (Colossus), Harvard historian, polymath, and bestselling author, joins others who’ve tried to explain the rise and dominance of the West, “the pre-eminent historical phenomenon of the second half of the second millennium after Christ.” He also has his eye on an increasingly pressing concern: the threats, from inside and outside, to Western hegemony. Ferguson attributes the West’s supremacy and the spread of Western ways to six factors: competition, science, property rights (the rule of law), medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic. It’s a grab bag of plausible conditions that differ from reasons cited by other students of the subject, but all hard to prove. Ominously, from Ferguson’s perspective, “the fortuitous weakness of the West’s rivals” is turning to strengths, threatening Western supremacy. Turning from historian to seer, Ferguson thus foresees the West’s decline and fall (of which he seems convinced) arising from both self-inflicted wounds (such as self-indulgence and weakening educational systems) and the strengthening of nations, such as China, that are modernizing and improving the education of their young people. Perhaps. The book would have gained by greater focus and less of a jumble of details. The reason for Ferguson’s fear of “the rest” isn’t clear, but those who share his concern will find that he has penned a sobering caution. Illus. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 09/12/2011
Release date: 11/01/2011
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