The people of Europe and North America still produce two-thirds of the world's GDP, spend more than two-thirds of its R&D dollars, and own almost all of its nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers. Yet, in recent weeks the USA--the richest, most inventive, and best-armed country in history--has seemed paralysed as its allies have been tumbled from power across the Middle East, and China, now the world's secondbiggest economy, has blocked its latest moves to manage international finance.
There is no shortage of theories about the shift in power from West to East, blaming everyone from incompetent politicians to currency manipulators. But the real explanation goes much deeper. Winston Churchill famously said that 'The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.' He was right. To make sense of the forces that shape our world, we have to look deep into the past.
When we do this, the upheavals of our own day are revealed as merely the latest phase in a historical process that has been unfolding for thousands of years. The process is driven not by bungling bureaucrats or by sinister moneymen, but by the deepest force of all--geography.
To understand why our world is changing, we have to look back all the way to the end of the last ice age and then trace history forward to our own age. This is no small undertaking, but it remains the best method we have.
When the world warmed up 15,000 years ago, geography dictated that there were only a few regions on the planet where complex societies could develop. This was because only a few regions had the kinds of climate and landscape that allowed the evolution of wild plants and animals that could be domesticated; and farming could only arise in these places.
The densest concentrations of these plants and animals lay toward the western end of Eurasia, around the headwaters of the Euphrates, Tigris, and Jordan Rivers in what we now call Southwest Asia. It was here, around 9000 BCE, that farming began, spreading outward across Europe. Western Eurasia became the richest part of the world.
Farming also started up 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. Farming took longer still to get firmly established in regions like sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, where domesticable...