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Civilization: The West and the Rest with Niall Feruguson
For the past five centuries, Western civilizations have prevailed around the world. More people have been influenced by Western food, clothing, medicine, government and religion worldwide than by any other civilization. How did that happen? What led the West to be so influential and powerful? And how long will the West sustain its supremacy? As America approaches the 2012 presidential election in the midst of a geopolitical paradigm shift, acclaimed historian Niall Ferguson returns to public television with a timely look at the reasons behind the West’s economic ascendancy and why Eastern civilizations may now be taking the lead.

Accompanied by a major new book, Civilization: The West and the Rest (Penguin Press), the series explores the West’s epic and surprising rise to global dominance. Applying essential economic and political insights, Niall Ferguson identifies what he calls “the six killer applications” that “the Rest” lacked, but which enabled the West to become an economic and political superpower. Yet no civilization lasts forever, and Ferguson speculates that perhaps “The Rest” can overtake the West by “downloading” and upgrading these “apps” too.

Each two-hour episode focuses on three of these factors: competition; science; modern medicine; democracy; consumerism; and the (Protestant) work ethic. Spanning theories on the rise and fall of empires past and present, Ferguson explains how the West taught others its ideas and institutions.

Ferguson argues that competition, science and property-oriented government put the West ahead of Asia, the Muslim world, and South America and proposes that modern medicine, consumerism and work ethic supported the West’s expansion into Africa, its mastery of mass marketing and consumption, and promotion of its work culture.

Before the space race, Ferguson asserts, there was the spice race. In the 15th century, competition, both economic and political, fostered capitalism and spread the wealth from royal courts to a fragmented European state system. European kingdoms enlisted explorers such as Portugal’s Vasco da Gama to map and conquer the world with trading posts. Soon, Europe’s combined economy overtook the wealthy but monolithic empire of China to the East.

After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1683, Prussian King Frederick separated church and state and fostered an education system based on scientific inquiry. By contrast, the Ottoman Sultan Osman III ushered in an era of religious laws that forbade the study of science. As a result, scientific progress was hindered by religious rules in the East, while it flourished in the West. With modern science, the West pushed the frontiers of artillery warfare and established its position as the world’s military master.

Ferguson suggests that the practice of property-owning democracy, established in America, fundamentally altered the distribution of power by giving landowners a voice in the government. Spain and England competed for New World riches. In the beginning, it seemed that South America with its abundance of gold and other natural resources, controlled by a small ruling class of conquistadors, would become the greater, more prosperous empire. However, North America, with its hardworking indentured servants and devolved land-ownership paved the way for a profitable democratic society.

The West’s “civilization” of Africa relied heavily on modern medicine. At best, medicine cured diseases and prolonged the lives of both colonists and Africans.

After the destruction of two World Wars threatened to destroy Western civilization, consumerism unified and accelerated Western influences during the Cold War. Ferguson explains how, as socialism faced off with capitalism, a sartorial revolution fueled the first wave of globalization in the 20th century. Jeans and T-shirts became the “must-have” fashion around the world. Popularized by the entertainment industry, mainly Hollywood and rock ‘n’ roll, denim was cultural currency with mass appeal and a mass message about American industrialism and capitalism.

The final “app,” the Protestant work ethic, was also critical to the West’s success. Outlined in 1904 by Max Weber, the work ethic encapsulates the spirit of capitalism. Hard work, savings, and deferred consumption were seen as the means to glorify God. As the episode closes, Ferguson returns to China, where Christianity has flourished in spite of communism. And as the popularity of Christianity rises ever more rapidly in China, so too does the country’s economic success.

With the inexorable rise of China and Islam re-energized, is the West history? Ferguson believes it doesn’t have to be. The West still has an edge in political pluralism, commercial competition, scientific development, and medical advances. Most of all, the West maintains the freedom and creativity to write the next chapter in Western civilization.

Civilization: The West and the Rest is a co-production of Chimerica Media Limited, BBC and THIRTEEN in association with WNET.

Niall Ferguson, MA, D.Phil., is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford.

Production and Web Credits

Funding provided by
Kenneth and Anne Griffin
Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation
Marie-Josée & Henry R. Kravis Foundation
Peter Thiel and the Thiel Foundation
James and Merryl Tisch
Joan Ganz Cooney and Peter G. Peterson
A production of Chimerica Media Ltd. in association with Thirteen and WNET.
PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.