Originally published Sunday, November 27, 2011 at 5:32 AM

Book review

Niall Ferguson's 'Civilization': They're gaining on us

In "Civilization: the West and the Rest," Harvard professor, author and historian Niall Ferguson warns that the U.S. and European powers are in danger of being eclipsed by ascendant countries such as China, India and Brazil, unless the West returns to its core strengths.

Special to The Seattle Times



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'Civilization: The West

and the Rest'

by Niall Ferguson

Penguin Press, 402 pp., $35

Best-selling author and historian Niall Ferguson conceived of his impressive treatise on the rise — and possible fall — of Western culture, "Civilization: The West and the Rest," as a wake-up call of sorts.

Early on in this heavily researched and sharply argued book, he makes the shattering assertion that "we are living through the end of 500 years of Western ascendancy." That notion might seem like a stretch, if it were not for nagging economic and political dysfunction in America, the European debt crisis, street demonstrations over corruption and capitalist greed on both continents and the seemingly unstoppable rise of China.

Ferguson's division of world societies into "Westerners" and "Resterners" may be too cute by half, but if his premise is correct, then the West is in for a spectacular fall.

To make his case, he sails us down the river of time to show us how Europe and the United States ushered in the Age of Exploration, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Technology Revolution and some of the greatest economic and military empires the world's ever known.

Ferguson says that this pre-eminence has not been an accident but rather the result of six "killer apps" that helped Western societies gain an edge over their counterparts in the East: robust scientific research and innovation; property rights; market competition and capitalism; consumerism tempered by a sense of thrift; advances in medicine; and a strong work ethic.

"The grand narrative of Western ascent," as Ferguson describes it, is dazzling, to be sure. But in this glory, Ferguson sees reasons to worry.

Emerging economic powerhouses such as China, India and Brazil have figured out how to unlock their own potential and in a sense, Ferguson argues, the people of these societies now embrace ideas like the dream of economic uplift more passionately than we do.

In Ferguson's estimation, though, the Western world may be on the verge of decline or collapse not simply because the bureaucrats of Beijing, the entrepreneurs of Bangalore and the investment bankers of São Paulo have figured out how to compete with us. Rather, he suggests we are undermining our own dominance.

It's as if, now that we in the West have reached the pinnacles of success and power, we've forgotten the principles and practices that got us here. Ferguson argues that the first thing we need is a crash-course in Western Civ., to remind ourselves and make younger generations aware of the strengths that have served us so well.

Ferguson, a Scotland native who teaches history at Harvard and is a research fellow at Oxford University, lays out his observations and arguments with an erudition that is enviable in its breeziness, sweep and confidence.

And despite his dark prognosis, he tries to leave us with a little hope, as well as reason for continued pride. After all, he says, "no civilization has done a better job of finding and educating the geniuses that lurk in the far right-hand tail of the distribution of talent in any human society."

That's why many of the countries that make up "the Rest" emulate us so eagerly, especially our free-market system and entrepreneurial zeal, even if they lack some of the other elements of our success, such as political competition (in nations like China) and "freedom of conscience" (in places like Iran).

This last bit begs a question: If we are still so great, is all the hand-wringing over China's rise and the future of Western civilization even warranted? Maybe there's nothing to worry about and the West will emerge from its current doldrums better than ever.

Ferguson leaves room for this possibility but suggests we take our core strengths for granted at our peril.

Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine.

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