The West and the World

Article excerpt

Barely a half-century after a quarter of Europe's people had died of bubonic plague and the Turks had begun their invasion of the Balkans, West European overseas expansion began with the conquest of Ceuta by the Portuguese in 1415. As the nineteenth-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt commented: `There seems to be a total life of humanity which makes losses good. Thus it is not certain, yet it appears to us probable, that the retreat of culture from the eastern half of the Mediterranean in the fifteenth century was made good, spiritually and materially, by the expansion overseas of the peoples of Western Europe. The accent of the world shifted'.

In the course of the following four centuries Portugal, Spain, England, France and the Netherlands competed for supremacy, and their ocean-going sailing ships and naval cannon enabled them to establish colonies in the Americas, Africa and Asia. The scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries paved the way for the industrial revolution, which began with the mechanization of textile production in England in the 1770s.

Growth in coal, iron and steel production and the replacement of draught animals and sails by railways and steamships went hand in hand with a rapid increase in manufacturing from 1830 onwards, first in Britain, then in France, Belgium, Germany and the United States. Europe reached its zenith (relative to the rest of the world) in 1870-1914; this period saw the advent of chemical industry (including Haber-Bosch ammonia synthesis, later to prove the most important technological innovation of the 20th century), electric power, ferro-concrete, the internal combustion engine, the automobile, the telephone, the cinema and aviation.

Despite the immense human and material losses of the 1914-18 war, economic growth continued until 1929, when the Wall Street stock-market collapse triggered a depression that persisted until the production of munitions caused a resumption of growth in the United States in 1941. By the early 1950s, the United States had developed into what J. K. Galbraith termed `the affluent society'. Western Europe recovered rapidly from the effects of the 193945 war, and the high rate of economic growth that prevailed from 1958 onwards resulted in the achievement of affluence in the early 1970s. Japan, which began to industrialize in the 1870s, achieved affluence in the early 1980s. Economic growth continues today under the impetus of electronics, telecommunications, bioengineering and other technologies.

The affluent industrialized countries comprise the United States, Canada, Western Europe (excepting Greece and Portugal), Japan, Australia, New Zealand. Hong Kong. Israel, Singapore and Taiwan. These countries have 15 per cent of the world's population.

A number of countries have achieved a moderate to high degree of industrialization. but have not yet attained affluence. They include most of the East European countries, Russia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, South Korea, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Uruguay, Venezuela and South Africa. This group of countries accounts for 13 per cent of the world's population.

A few countries have attained affluence without industrializing. They include Bahrain, Brunei, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These countries, which are almost entirely dependent on oil exports for their revenues, account for 0.4 per cent of the world's population.

In the remaining countries of the world, industrialization is at an early stage or has not even begun. Will affluence gradually spread over the entire world, or will it remain confined to a minority of the world's people? Can economic growth continue indefinitely, or will resource constraints bring it to an end? Let us start by considering the following statement by an anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement: `In its struggles to survive [this species] has experimented with many social forms, all of them cruel, violent, superstitious and totally odious to all save a small elite -- and even they suffered hell from toothache, the stone, cancer, and similar benefits of the natural order. …