Civilization


Duration: 6 x 47 minutes; shot on Red
Broadcast: Channel 4, March 2011
Distribution: BBC Worldwide


The Series

Competition. Science. Democracy. Medicine. The consumer society. Not forgetting the Protestant Work Ethic. Western civilization gave the world the way it works, the way it thinks, and the way most of it now governs itself. The West once ruled more than half the world. The religion it exported is still followed by a third of mankind. Above all, the way people live—or aspire to live—is unmistakably an invention of the West. All over the world, more and more human beings eat a Western diet, wear Western clothes and live in Western housing.

But are we living through the beginning of the end of the West’s ascendancy? In demographic terms, the population of Western societies represents a minority of the world’s inhabitants, and a dwindling one at that. Once so dominant, the economies of the United States and Europe are now facing the real prospect of being overtaken by China within a generation. There is mounting scepticism, too, about the West’s recipe of the free market plus democracy. Western “hard power” seems to be weakening from Iraq to Afghanistan, just as the consensus on economic policy disintegrates amid the greatest financial crisis since the 1930s. That crisis also seems to indicate a fundamental flaw at the heart of the consumer society, with its emphasis on debt-fuelled retail therapy. The Protestant ethic of thrift that once seemed so central to the Western project has all but vanished. And, of course, Western societies are beset by almost millenarian fears of a coming environmental apocalypse.

What is more, Western civilization has lost confidence in itself. The grand narrative of Western ascent has fallen out of fashion. Most children leave school knowing only unconnected fragments of Western history: Henry VIII and Hitler, or Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr. Moreover, the argument is gaining currency that it is other cultures we should study, not our own. Yet the study of other civilizations should not lead us to think that there was nothing special about the West. There was—and this series sets out to explain what it was.

Only by juxtaposing the West and “the Rest” can we hope to uncover the keys – the six killer applications - of Western ascendancy: the real explanation of how, for roughly three centuries, a clear minority of mankind managed to co-opt a majority of the earth’s resources. Only then we can we see if the end really is nigh for the West.

The answer Niall Ferguson comes up with is surprising and provocative. The West has triumphed, after all. Western ideas and institutions have indeed transformed the world. But, in the process, Western civilization has lost faith in itself. It is that loss of self-belief which poses the biggest threat to our continued predominance.

Western civilization gave the world the way it works, the way it thinks, and the way most of it now governs itself. The West once ruled more than half the world. Above all, the way people live—or aspire to live—is unmistakably an invention of the West.

But are we living through the beginning of the end of the West’s ascendancy?

Only by comparing the West and “the Rest” can we hope to uncover the keys – the six killer applications - of Western ascendancy. Western ideas and institutions have indeed transformed the world. But, in the process, Western civilization has lost faith in itself. It is that loss of self-belief which poses the biggest threat to our continued predominance.