News & Current Affairs

November 11, 2010

Location, location and how the West was won

Filed under: Politics News, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 8:38 pm
Union flag hoisted in Beijing

On his current visit to Beijing, UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said China will soon reclaim its position as the world’s biggest economy – a role it has held for 18 of the past 20 centuries. But how did the US, Britain and the rest of Europe interrupt this reign of supremacy? It comes down to location.

Why does the West dominate the world?

Europeans have been asking this question since the 18th Century, and Africans and Asians since the 19th. But there is still not much agreement on the answers.

People once claimed Westerners were simply biologically superior. Others have argued Western religion, culture, ethics, or institutions are uniquely excellent, or that the West has had better leaders. Others still reject all these ideas, insisting that Western domination is just an accident.

But in the last few years, a new kind of theory has gained ground.

What is the West?

image of Ian Morris Ian Morris Professor, Stanford University


Distinctive ways of life began emerging in different parts of the world 11,000 years ago, when the first farmers created more complex societies. Great civilizations grew out of the original agricultural cores (in what we now call southwest Asia, China, Pakistan, Mexico, and Peru), all of which steadily expanded as population grew.

The westernmost of the Old World’s agricultural cores, in southwest Asia, was the foundation of what we now call Western Civilization. By 500 BC, the Western core had expanded across Europe, its centre of gravity shifting to the Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome. By 1500 AD it had expanded still further, and its centre was shifting into Western Europe. By 1900 AD it had expanded across the oceans, and its centre was shifting to North America.

People, it suggests, are much the same all over the world. The reason why some groups stuck with hunting and gathering while others built empires and had industrial revolutions has nothing to do with genetics, beliefs, attitudes, or great men: it was simply a matter of geography.

China and India are, of course poised to pick up the baton of global superpowers, but to explain why the West rules, we have to plunge back 15,000 years to the point when the world warmed up at the end of the last ice age.

Geography then dictated that there were only a few regions on the planet where farming was possible, because only they had the kinds of climate and landscape which allowed the evolution of wild plants and animals that could potentially be domesticated.

The densest concentrations of these plants and animals lay towards the western end of Eurasia, around the headwaters of the Euphrates, Tigris, and Jordan Rivers in what we now call south-west Asia. It was therefore here, around 9000 BC, that farming began, spreading outwards across Europe.

Farming also started independently in other areas, from China to Mexico; but because plants and animals that could be domesticated were somewhat less common in these zones than in the West, the process took thousands of years longer to get going. These other zones of complex agricultural societies also expanded, but the West long retained its early lead, producing the world’s first cities, states, and empires.

But if this were all that there was to the story – that the West got an early lead and held onto it – there would be no controversy over why the West rules. In reality, when we look back across history, we see that things were more complicated. Geography determined how societies developed; but how societies developed simultaneously determined what geography meant.


The first city – 6,000 years ago in Iraq

image of Richard Miles Richard Miles Archaeologist and historian


The ancient Greeks called it Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers – Tigris and Euphrates. But it is also the land between two seas – the Mediterranean Sea and Persia Gulf. It is also the land between mountain and desert, lagoon and salt marsh. All these geographical features have to be borne in mind when considering the birthplace of the first civilisations.

Geography v history – it’s impossible to know which takes precedence. There’s no getting away from the brutal facts of nature – rivers that flood will dry up, rainfall that’s intermittent, mountains that are impassable, deserts that are hostile.

Applying this kind of analysis to Mesopotamia, where summers are hot, winters are cold and rainfall is low, I’d sum it up like this: difficult but not impossible. No garden of Eden, but no howling wilderness either.

In the earliest days of agriculture, having the right temperatures, rainfall, and topography was all-important. But as villages grew into cities, these geographical facts became less important than living on a great river like the Nile, which made irrigation possible.

As states turned into empires, being on a river began mattering less than access to a navigable sea like the Mediterranean, which was what allowed Rome to move its food, armies, and taxes around.

As the ancient world’s empires expanded further, though, they changed the meanings of geography again. The long bands of steppes from Mongolia to Hungary turned into a kind of highway along which nomads moved at will, undermining the empires themselves.

In the first five centuries AD, the Old World’s great empires – from Rome in the West to Han China in the East – all came apart; but the political changes transformed geography once again. China recreated a unified empire in the 6th Century AD, while the West never did so.

For more than a millennium, until at least 1700, China was the richest, strongest, and most inventive place on earth, and the East pulled ahead of the West.

East Asian inventors came up with one breakthrough after another. By 1300 their ships could cross the oceans and their crude guns could shoot the people on the other side. But then, in the kind of paradox that fills human history, the East’s breakthroughs changed the meaning of geography once again.

Dr Richard MilesPlease turn on JavaScript. Media requires JavaScript to play.

Richard Miles at Tell Brak – a city first excavated by Agatha Christie’s husband Max Mallowan

Western Europe – sticking out into the cold North Atlantic, far from the centres of action – had always been a backwater. But when Europeans learned of the East’s ocean-going ships and guns, their location on the Atlantic abruptly became a huge geographical plus.

Before people could cross the oceans, it had not mattered that Europe was twice as close as China to the vast, rich lands of the Americas. But now that people could cross the oceans, this became the most important geographical fact in the world.

The Atlantic, 3,000 miles across, became a kind of Goldilocks Ocean, neither too big nor too small. It was just big enough that very different kinds of goods were produced around its shores in Europe, Africa, and America; and just small enough that the ships of Shakespeare’s age could cross it quite easily.

The Pacific, by contrast, was much too big. Following the prevailing tides and winds, it was an 8,000-mile trip from China to California – just about possible 500 years ago, but too far to make trade profitable.

Geography determined that it was western Europeans, rather than the 15th Century’s finest sailors – the Chinese – who discovered, plundered, and colonised the Americas. Chinese sailors were just as daring as Spaniards; Chinese settlers just as intrepid as Britons; but Europeans, not Chinese, seized the Americas because Europeans only had to go half as far.

Europeans went on in the 17th Century to create a new market economy around the shores of the Atlantic, exploiting comparative advantages between continents. This forced European thinkers to confront new questions about how the winds and tides worked. They learned to measure and count in better ways, and cracked the codes of physics, chemistry, and biology.

As a result, Europe, not China, had a scientific revolution. Europeans, not Chinese, turned science’s insights onto society itself in the 18th Century in what we now call the Enlightenment.


Will China soon rival the US?

George Bush

Many observers think so, but not George W Bush. In an interview with the Times this week, he said that “internal problems” meant it was unlikely to rival the US any time soon. “Do I think America will remain sole superpower? I do.”

By 1800, science and the Atlantic market economy pushed western Europeans into mechanising production and tapping the power of fossil fuels. Britain had the world’s first industrial revolution, and by 1850 bestrode the world like a colossus.

But the transforming power of geography did not stop there. By 1900 the British-dominated global economy had drawn in the resources of North America, changing the meaning of geography once again. The US, until recently a rather backward periphery, became the new global core.

And still the process did not stop. In the 20th Century, the American-dominated global economy in turn drew in the resources of Asia. As container ships and jet airliners turned even the vast Pacific Ocean into a puddle, the apparently backward peripheries of Japan, then the “Asian Tigers”, and eventually China and India turned into even newer global cores.

The “rise of the East”, so shocking to so many Westerners, was entirely predictable to those who understood that geography determines how societies develop, and that how societies develop simultaneously determines what geography means.

When power and wealth shifted across the Atlantic from Europe to America in the mid-20th Century, the process was horrifyingly violent. As we move into the mid-21st century, power and wealth will shift across the Pacific from America to China.

The great challenge for the next generation is not how to stop geography from working; it is how to manage its effects without a Third World War.

Why the West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History, and What they Reveal About the Future is published by Profile.

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Developing world warned of ‘obesity epidemic’

Filed under: Health and Fitness — Tags: , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 8:31 pm
Obesity Developing countries are catching up industrialised nations

Developing countries should act now to head off their own “obesity epidemic”, says a global policy group.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says obesity levels are rising fast.

In a report in the Lancet medical journal, it says low-income countries cannot cope with the health consequences of wide scale obesity.

Rates in Brazil and South Africa already outstrip the OECD average.

Increasing obesity in industrialised countries such as the UK and US has brought with it rises in heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

However, increasing prosperity in some developing countries has led to a rise in “Western” lifestyles.

Now the OECD warns that they are catching up fast in terms of obesity rates.

Across all the countries represented in the OECD, 50% of adults are overweight or obese.

Childhood obesity

Rates in the Russian Federation are only just below this, and while fewer than 20% of Indians are classed this way, and fewer than 30% of Chinese people, the body says things are worsening fast.

graph

The report recommends that these countries act now to slow the increase, with media campaigns promoting healthier lifestyles, taxes and subsidies to improve diets, tighter government regulation of food labelling and restrictions on food advertising.

Its authors calculate that doing this would add one million years of “life in good health” to India’s population, and four million to China over the next 20 years.

The cost would be considerable but the OECD insists that the strategy would pay for itself in terms of reduced health care costs, becoming cost-effective at worst within 15 years.

Michele Cecchini, one of the report’s authors, said: “A multiple intervention strategy would achieve substantially larger health gains than individual programmes, with better cost-effectiveness.”

She suggested that specific action be taken to target childhood obesity.

Karachi CID building hit by bomb and gun attack

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , — expressyoureself @ 8:28 pm

An attack on anti-terrorist police headquarters in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, has left 20 dead and at least 100 injured.

Police say they exchanged fire with militants trying to storm the Criminal Investigation Department building.

Then a truck laden with explosives drove into the boundary wall, detonated its load and almost completely destroyed the structure.

The blast could be heard across several miles of the city of 14 million people.

Eyewitnesses said the blast left a crater three metres (10ft) wide and TV footage showed bloodied victims being taken away on stretchers and dozens of security officers combing through the wreckage.

“Over a dozen militants tried to storm the building,” a police official who was inside the building told the news.

A man helps a woman from the scene of the blast in Karachi, Pakistan The blast took place in the busy evening rush hour

“An exchange of fire took place for at least 15 minutes. We then saw the pick-up truck trying to ram its way inside.”

A government spokeswoman, Sharmilla Farooqi, said: “There are five policemen among the dead.

“We have reports that there may be some women police among the casualties because there was a women’s police station inside the building.”

Pakistan’s continuing battle against militancy appears to have arrived in its main business capital, Karachi.

The city had managed to escape much of the violence since Pakistan’s security forces launched a crackdown on Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in the north west.

Many of these fled the region to take refuge in Karachi – keeping a low profile.

But since the bombing of a Shia procession on 29 December 2009, militants have regularly been involved in attacks in the volatile metropolis.

Most of these have been on soft targets such as shrines and religious processions. Thursday’s attack shows that militants are now growing as confident here as in the north west. At the moment, it appears Karachi’s security forces are firmly in their crosshairs.

One witness told the news that he had heard the exchange of gunfire before the explosion.

“I was playing tennis across the road at the Karachi Club when I heard gunshots and then a huge blast,” said Ali Zaidi.

“Everyone started panicking and running toward the changing rooms. Some of my friends have been injured and have been taken to hospital.”

The news, in Islamabad, says that CID officials and their offices – including this building – have been targeted in Karachi in the past.

Our correspondent adds that the latest attack comes a day after the same unit arrested several wanted militants in the city, said to belong to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi – Pakistan’s most dangerous militant group.

The group, which is closely linked to al-Qaeda, has been involved in a string of high profile attacks across the country.

Mohammad Aslam Khan, of the CID, told the news that he believed the arrested men were planning to carry out bombings on Shia processions in the city.

Locator map

The site of the blast is within a high-security area of the city, not far from the Sindh province chief minister’s residence and near the luxury Sheraton hotel in the south of the city.

Other buildings close by were badly damaged in the blast, which shattered windows within a two-mile radius.

The blast took place in the evening rush hour as Pakistan’s commercial capital was busy with people leaving work.

No group has immediately claimed responsibility for the attack but the Taliban have been behind a number of similar attacks on police and army compounds in recent years.

Are you in Karachi? Have you been caught up in events? Send us your comments

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