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History in 10,000 words


‘Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things. And they rarely know what they’re doing’

Morris’s Theorem (Morris 2010, p. 28)

Most of us are overwhelmed by the sheer scale and detail of history[36] let alone trying to make sense of it all. The single major difficulty is that of interpretation – because history is not only ‘one damn thing after another’ it is also ‘his story

. . . but we have to start somewhere.

Only by having an overview of the past can we develop a historically grounded perspective on the present and future – and this is especially important if we are to make informed decisions about our future sustainability.

How we got to now

In this article I give a long-term Big History synopsis of human history as seen through the mind of Harvard Professor of Classics and History Ian Morris – partly because I think it is interesting in itself, but mostly because it is the structured thought of someone trained in historical analysis. He is skilled in working with historical ideas, asking the right questions, and isolating key events. Ian Morris gives us a challenging general framework of ideas on which to build our own thoughts.

Professor Ian Morris
Willard Professor of Classics and History at Stanford University
Photograph 2015, age 55
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Morris describes himself as someone who approaches history not by understanding it in the traditional mode of the humanities (grasping the subjective meanings of historical characters and their actions) but by explaining it in a manner more akin to social science (identifying causes) and he acknowledges that this entails simplification (reduction) of history’s teeming variety into underlying principles. The problem, he says, is not whether explanations are reductionist or not (most explanations are reductionist) but whether the degree of reduction is sufficient to answer the questions posed.

Morris’s thesis on the course of human history – from the Palaeolithic to present – is outlined in his book Why the West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future (2010). In this highly readable acount of the broad sweep of human history he concludes that, when considered over the long term, human history is best viewed through the lens of social organisation.[34]

Historical analysis

Historians, let us remember with sympathy, are trying to tell us how the world of human affairs works – no mean task. But how can we possibly confidently sift, sort, and rank in importance the many circumstances and choices that have determined the course of history?

Historians, like all of us, in providing accounts of peoples’ actions in the past, either deliberately or inadvertently present us with theories about the way the world works and they tend to fall into two camps. There are those that emphasize material factors like climate, topography, geography, natural resources, and technology . . . and those that emphasize socio-cultural factors like great men and women and the ideas embedded in science, medicine, culture, politics, economics, and religion. The former theories tend to be long-term, the latter shorter-term.

But when is history following a predictable path and when is it just a matter of chance events and random outcomes? Can historical analysis make progress and, if so, how is this to be measured? When is a historical theory compelling and when has it been falsified, and at what point does simplification become unacceptable over-simplification?[2] Without an explicit means of assessing the relative significance of one historical interpretation over another do we have any means of progressing?

Needless to say, with all things being connected, historians have differed widely in their conclusions about the key factors that have brought us all to now. Part of Morris’s aim is to sort the wood from the trees. Just as different objects come into focus when we view the world on different spatial scales so too do the important causes of historical change vary as we zoom in and out of different temporal scales. This point is easily missed: what we regard as important in history will depend on the spatial and temporal scales under consideration. In very general terms, the longer the time frame (millennia) the more important become large impersonal forces like geography: ‘what differs is not people but places’. Over the medium-term, say centuries, we tend to focus on change due to political, economic and cultural factors. Short-term history is inclined towards particular places, events, and people.

To make historical headway we need to agree on the definition of key terms and standards of evidence, proof and falsification and to acknowledge that outcomes are more a matter of probabilities than inexorabilities or accidents.

Morris tells us that Western historians have tended to take either a ‘long-term-inevitability‘ or ‘short-term-accident‘ view of world history.

Long-term inevitability

Examples of long-term-inevitability theories would be the claim that:

a) white Europeans have dominated the world because they are racially superior.

b) that the ancient Greeks passed the torch of reason and science to the Romans as a mode of thinking that ignited the eighteenth century European Enlightenment (a humanitarian revolution and second-wave revival of Axial thinking where knowledge replaces superstition leading to rapid social development) which then led to the Industrial Revolution that has dominated modern culture – dubbed the ‘Plato to NATO’ interpretation of history.

c) that the climate of the tropics has resulted in high rates of disease accompanied by human lethargy, while temperate regions have facilitated human creativity and hard work.

Short-term accident

Examples of short-term-accident theories would be:

a) the historians who start with the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, assuming everything before this period was of little consequence. Niall Ferguson, professor of history at Harvard, for example, prefers to account for western ascendancy through six key institutional factors: competition, science, the rule of law, medicine, the consumer society, and the Protestant work ethic.[46]

b) Historian of science David Wootton agrees with John Stuart Mill that ‘one of the main drivers of economic development has been ‘the perpetual, and so far as human foresight can extend, the unlimited, growth of man’s power over nature’ and that this power is a consequence of increasing scientific knowledge’.[47]

c) Another approach is that of Professor Acemoglu of MIT and his colleague political scientist-economist Robinson of Harvard who are mostly concerned with modernity, settling on social institutions as the key factor determining the fate of nations, essentially economic policies as determined by the political process. On their view only ‘inclusive’ (pluralistic democratic states with rule of law and property rights) can release the ideas and talents of their populations: this is the path to power and prosperity. They observe that throughout history, and today, many states have been ‘extractive’ (protecting the special interests of ruling or minority elites) which discourages creative innovation and eventually leads inevitably to decline.[39]

Morris resists long-term claims about race (‘people in large numbers are more or less the same‘ he says) and, though he is a classical scholar, he believes the intellectual advances of the Greeks were parallelled elsewhere in the world during the Axial Age (see later). But short-termism does not work either because there were many key factors shaping history well before the 16th century. Apparently small and innocuous initial conditions have had major long-term consequences. So how are we to resolve this complicated dilemma of historical causation?

Morris suggests that by using a social organisation index (SI) we can expose the shortcomings of both short-term and long-term views.

Social organisation

The general historical methodology and the strengths and weaknesses of his SI are discussed at length in The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations (2013) in which Morris points out that social organisation has increased over time, albeit erratically, beginning with the Agricultural Revolution and then accelerating rapidly with the Industrial Revolution . . . but there have been periods of stagnation and the SI has sometimes slipped into reverse. The SI, for all its shortcomings, allows us to graph and compare particular societies over time revealing the accelerations, slow-downs, collapses, convergences and ceilings that historians are required to explain. A graph displays the overall pattern or ‘shape’ of history and can draw attention to weaknesses in both long-term and short-term views.

So what does Morris’s SI tell us about history?

On a scale of 1000 points, hunter-gatherer foragers score an SI of about 8, agricultural societies score from 8 to about 43, and industrial societies rocket into the high hundreds. The surge of social development since 1800 as a result of the Industrial Revolution exceeds former high points many times and it is still accelerating.

Starting at 14,000 BCE (the end of the last Ice Age) Morris compares East and West as centres of civilization. The scores for the West have been higher than those of the East for 90% of this time (a problem for short-term-accident theories) but, significantly, there was a 1200-year period from about 550 to 1750 CE during which the East scores higher than the West. There is a temporary peak of 43 points in the West in the first century CE followed by a decline after 100 CE, the score of 43 points only being regained in about 1800 CE. The East had a similar peak in the first century (but at a lower level of 34 points) and later reaches 43 in 1100 CE at the height of the Song Dynasty before a similar decline sets in. In 1700 both East and West had equal scores at 43 points before the Western score explodes with the Industrial Revolution reaching 906 points in the West in the year 2000. It seems there was an agrarian threshold of 43 points that defeated both Rome around 100 CE and Song China in 1100 CE. Around 1300 CE East and West scores follow a similar pattern but this time the West scores 31 and East 43 before both scores increase to become level in about 1700 CE.

Morris’s latest book considers the way that values are strongly linked to forms of social organisation and how the mode of social organisation itself ultimately depends on the method its society uses for energy capture. This extension of history into values considered in relation to energy capture is outlined in his Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve (2015).

In the 19th century increasing social organisation was regarded as an unquestioned good no matter what it was directed towards ‘ . . . whether God, affluence, or a peoples’ paradise‘. Today, faced with existential threats like climate change and environmental degradation, the possibility of nuclear conflict, not to mention increasing global inequality, we are not so sure. Civilized lifestyles have generated costs as well as benefits.[30] Is an SI simply a Western device using Western criteria as part of an ideology of self-justification – yet another demonstration of hubristic Eurocentrism? Morris argues that whatever our moral interpretation and evaluation, social organisation itself is a historical fact.

Getting things done – What gets it all going?

How can we account for all human activity in just a few words?

Our biological function is to survive, reproduce and flourish (see Purpose) – but gene replication is not what most of us regard as the single most important driving force in our daily lives. Our explicit and ultimate motivation seems more to do with our happiness, well-being, or flourishing (see Happiness). But even the ideas of human flourishing seems to miss some of the the practical cut-and-thrust of history’s social drama and the way our behaviour is so obviously directed at practical goals.

The goal of the United Nations Human Development Index is to enable people to achieve their innate human potential and for Morris all societies, of whatever persuasion, consist of people who seek to achieve their human potential through the intellectual and physical process of ‘getting things done’, whether this be practical or intellectual.[16] For better or worse, those societies that have been most efficient and effective at ‘getting things done’ (those that are more socially organised) have dominated or absorbed others. He is not suggesting that dominant societies are necessarily better or more desirable, or that people in such societies are happier, or that such societies do not have high costs or unpredictable futures . . . he is simply pointing out what he believes is a major causal element in human history.

For Morris the most succinct way to explain the unfolding of human history in the long term is through the way that energy capture has influenced our ways of ‘getting things done’.

Social selection?

Underlying all history is the fact of social change. Darwin explained biological change through natural selection (see Darwin and Issues of evolution) and Morris, in a general way, accepts this mechanism as also applying to societies. Societies, like organisms, are competitive . . . and, like organisms, many have, over time, differentiated to become more complex and in so doing they take advantage of the benefits of scale. This gives us a general principle:

Principle 1 – Cultural structures that sustain social cooperation and survival in particular environments – those societies that are best organised to exploit modes of energy capture will tend to persist.[13][41]

Energy constraints

‘Getting things done’ is about work and energy and in social terms this is strongly associated with social organisation. Dependence on energy is as true for social systems as it is for what goes on in physics and biology.

For Morris the mode of energy capture has determined (or at least limited) population size and density which, in turn, has limited the kinds of social organisation that are possible. There is a corollary: the mode of organisation then makes some values more appealing than others and, as a consequence, ‘each age gets the thought it needs’. Morris’s Great Chain of Being, energy is the factor that decides how human beings are to be ranked against one-another over the long term on the Ladder of Life.[15]

Morris clearly has sympathy for anthropologist Leslie White who, in the 1940s, reduced history to the equation C = E x T where C = culture, E = energy and T = technology. Also White’s observation that ‘Culture develops when the amount of energy harnessed by man per capita per year is increased; or as the efficiency of the technological means of putting this energy to work is increased; or as both factors are simultaneously increased’.[4]

Access to energy relates largely to geography since it is geography that determines those places where new forms of social organisation are likely to originate, increase in complexity, and flourish. However, Morris emphasises that change in social organisation itself changes the nature of the geographic challenges – as when improved transport systems remove the tyranny of distance.


Values are important because they drive much of our behaviour. The values Morris has in mind are primarily political and economic but he gives special attention to social hierarchy, gender discrimination, and attitudes to violence.

If we accept Morris’s view that social organisation and values are determined largely by mode of energy capture, then it follows that over the long term religion and moral philosophy are ultimately subordinate to energy capture in the establishment of human values – ‘energy capture is the motor driving the big pattern’ . . . ‘Common sense . . . adapts to the facts’.[5] ‘What causes values to change is not the deep thoughts of philosophers but the most basic force of all . . . energy.’ More specifically Morris regards values as adaptive traits that accommodate changing social circumstances. Though we have certain innate predispositions (natural moral intuitions, see Moral psychology) these will vary somewhat according to circumstance depending on the particular part of the process of cultural change, a view that runs counter to religious and philosophical objective ethics (see Reason & morality). Morris echoes Ed Wilson’s view that ‘ . . . ethics (be) temporarily removed from the hands of philosophers and biologicised’.[6]

To support his view Morris refers to an ongoing World Values Survey (WVS) that commenced in 1981 and its conclusion that ‘. . . socioeconomic development tends to transform people’s basic values and beliefs – and it does so in a roughly predictable fashion.’[7]


Principle 2 – in the long term mode of energy capture drives social organisation which, in turn, determines what geography means.

This now needs explaining in more detail as the important historical questions become: how exactly did this historical process unfold; did it follow an inevitable path; why did systems of energy-capture change over time; and what does all this mean for the future?

The major phases of human history

Needless to say, this account is crude and highly simplified but it is the key points that we are seeking. For Morris, human history falls into three major phases based on forms of energy capture: foraging (Natura), farming (Agraria), and fossil fuel use (Industria).

Natura – 55,000 yrs -1500-2000 kcal/cap/day – group size 10-20 & about 100 – world pop. 3 m

After the evolutionary origin of Homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago it took about 55,000 years from about 70,000 BCE (when the population numbered about 50,000) to around 15,000 BCE (population about 3 million) for anatomically modern humans to migrate out of Africa and across the world as nomadic Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers who ignored political and wealth hierarchies but accepted gender hierarchy and violence. For these people the environment of evolutionary adaptation was nature itself. It was this interaction with nature that had forged their biology (both physical and mental) through the course of their entire evolutionary history. This was a lifestyle with an energy consumption of around 1500-2000 kcal/cap/day obtained from plants (usually harvested and prepared by women) and animals (mostly hunted by men). On the cusp of domestication around 10,000 BP this would have risen to an upper level energy consumption of around 5000 kcal/cap/day, about half from food and the rest from fuel, clothing, shelter, industry, transport etc. This foraging phase of human history I have called natura.

Agraria – 11,000 yrs – 6000-8000 kcal/cap/day

It took a further 11,000 years from about 9,500 BCE (population about 5 million) to 1500 CE (population 450 million) for agriculture with domesticated animals and plants to be adopted in about seven centres of civilization, and for foragers to decline. These farmers of the Neolithic Revolution instigated strong political, wealth and gender hierarchies while containing violence, extending their communities first into fertile river valleys, and then coastal regions with access to distance-trade. This was an organic economy with an energy consumption of about 6000-8000 kcal/cap/day and an upper level consumption of around 30,000 kcal/cap/day.

Industria – 250 yrs – 200,000 kcal/cap/day+

Heavy consumption of fossil fuels began in the 18th century western Europe as part of the Industrial Revolution with massive improvements in technology building on the scientific achievements of the 17th century and a rapid increase in trade and communication across the world’s oceans that led to globalization and today’s international integration and interdependency as the human population rapidly increased from 450 million in 1500 to 7 billion today, the momentum gathering with the ‘Great Acceleration’ after the second world war when the world population in 1950 was just 2.5 billion. Commerce centred largely around the Mediterranean at the time of the Roman Empire, moving to the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans by the time of the British Empire. Through the 20th century American power increased, especially in the Pacific. After 1950 we see a gradual Asian ascendancy. Today, with most of the world’s people living in cities, we are suspicious of political and gender hierarchies and resist violence, but accept some wealth differentiation. With the abundant fossil fuels for food production and manufacturing productivity soared, increasing 7-fold in the most industrialised Western economies so that energy consumption rose from roughly 38,000 kcal/cap/day in 1800 to about 230,000 kcal/cap/day in the 1970s.


Forager energy

To survive, adult humans require about 1500-2000 kcals of food energy per day but energy use can be greatly increased through the use of additional energy needed for food production and social activity – like the muscle energy of domesticated animals, or the energy needed for technology, manufacturing, transport and so on.

For well over 90% of its evolutionary history Homo sapiens has been a nomadic hunter-gatherer. The most efficient way of obtaining energy (food) was by finding seasonal sources of animals and plants (depending on local geography) which entailed moving around for at least part of the year. This was achieved most efficiently in small bands rarely exceeding 100 people and generally far fewer. Nomadism severely restricted both the quantity of material possessions and the number of children but foragers usually found it relatively easy to obtain the energy needed for survival and there was often plenty of leisure time.

Near the equator about 4,000 kcal of energy was sufficient to cover the requirement for food, tools, fuel for fires, some clothing and shelter and the food energy that comes mostly from plants. Nearer the poles the demand for heating, housing and tougher clothing can double this figure and food energy came more from meat.[8]

Eventually hunter-gatherer social organisation faced the energy constraints of a life-style that demanded mobility to achieve a varied diet. Only a year-round secure food supply would allow these small groups to settle, increase in number and develop a different form of social organisation.

Forager values

Division of labour in forager groups occurred within families and depended largely on age and gender. Women usually gathered plants, cooked and pursued handicrafts, men hunted. Across the world it was taken for granted that men should be in charge.[11] Classical accounts of foragers (Greek, Roman, Chinese, no doubt biased, referring to them as savages or barbarians) describing them as egalitarian but belligerent. Statistics on forager violence are controversial but as more are gathered it appears that death by some kind of physical trauma on average ranged between 10-20%.[12] Small isolated groups lacked the means of resolving disputes forming allegiances of close kin against outsiders. In general hierarchy was discouraged and sharing emphasised.[10] Institutionalised leaders were rare except where numbers passed into the hundreds or activities demanded it. Self-aggrandisement of whatever kind was generally greeted with disapproval.[9] Ownership or control of land and goods was generally carefully managed and shared property rare.

The Gini Coeffficient as a measure of wealth distribution (0 = total equality, 1 = a single individual owns everything) clusters foragers around 0.25.

The behaviour of humans ‘in a state of nature’ remains controversial. Are we ‘naturally’ selfish, violent and impulsive or are we rational, peace-loving, cooperative and altruistic? Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jaques Rousseau famously regarded the hunter-gather as an innocent ‘noble savage’ uncorrupted by modernism while more recent observers have concluded that they were ‘the original affluent society’. Others are not so sure: it does seem that the incidence of violent death was masively higher than today.[32] Whether foraging can be a satisfying lifestyle is also hotly debated. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) thought life in nature was probably ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ a more stable form of society requiring overarching state law and control, The Leviathan.


Human population at the height of the last Ice Age 20,000 years ago was about a half million, rising to about six million by about 8000 BCE.

Agricultural communities first arose independently after the last Ice Age in about six major regions across the ‘lucky’ latitudes’, a strip of land extending from China to the Mediterranean in the Old world, and Peru to Mexico in the New World. This zone provided conditions where both animal and plant resources were rich, varied, and amenable to domestication … the most probable region for such an event to occur.

In the West the first small agrarian communities arose in about 9,500 BCE along what is known as the Hilly Flanks of the Taurus and Zagros mountains in Western Asia where there was wild wheat, rye, barley, and beans and the wild animals included sheep, pigs, goats and cattle. Geography and social organisation would require 3000 years for a transition from the Hilly Flanks to Mesopotamia. This was because a high degree of social organisation was needed to take advantage of the fertile sedimentary soils of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys with elaborate mass crop irrigation that allowed greater control of the energy supply, less dependence on rainfall, and a trading system based on river transportation. It would also take 5000 years for farming practices to be taken up across Europe, eventually reaching the Atlantic coast in the northwest in about 4000 BCE and even longer in moving to th East, arriving in the Philippines in about 1,500 BCE.

Mesopotamia of 5,000 BCE was growing high-yielding crops as cities sprang up along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and later in the Nile delta, Indus Valley, and along the Yangtze and Yellow rivers but with different domesticates: in East Asia there was millet, rice, pigs and water buffalo; in Mesoamerica squash, peanuts, potatoes, maize, llama, and alpaca; in New Guinea bananas and taro. Australia had no such potential beasts of burden and or other obvious potential domesticates. Chinese agriculture and settled communities arose about 2,000 years after tose of the Near East.

By 3100 BCE cities in the Nile valley were united into the largest kingdom the world had ever seen and by 2230 BCE the core kingdoms of the Near East eclipsed all other settlements around the world. A ready supply of energy combined with the discipline of hierarchy resulted in rapid population growth and also gave some people the time needed to create civlizations based on a division of labour, the invention of coinage as part of extensive and far-reaching trade in a period that saw the advance of philosophy and science (especially mathematics and astronomy), sophisticated art and iterature, and the study of law.

People in large numbers could exploit the benefits of scale constructing large ships and impressive monumental architecture and amassing huge armies and navies. Writing had emerged c. 3300 BCE in today’s southern Iraq as cuneiform, leading to a Phoenician alphabet subsequently modified by the Greeks and Romans launching an information and knowledge revolution. Literacy in classical Athens and first century BCE Republican Rome was available to about the educated 10% male elite. This percentage would not increase until the early second millennium in Western Europe and urban China, only rising above 50% in the age of fossil fuels.

It might have seemed that Agraria marked the transition from a life of freedom and leisure to one of bondage and toil, but the transformation would have been gradual and the advantages of scale would tend, over time, to subsume the forager lifestyle.

With the collapse of Egypt and Mesopotamia the former geographic paradigm of irrigated crops grown along the banks of trading river valleys began to change.

Axial Age

The period 800-500 BCE, known as the Axial Age, was a time of global introspection as Confucians, Daoists, Buddhists, Jainists, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Pre-Socratic philosophers explored ideas about the material and spiritual worlds – about justice, politics, morality, religion and science, echoes of their thought still with us today, not least in the philosophies of Christianity and Islam. Leaders of these Axial movements came from lesser strata in society and geographically peripheral regions – they were not kings or aristocrats and they questioned the prevailing hierarchical order.[33]

One major theme was that of a purer perfect world that transcended the imperfections of the squalid and painful world on Earth – ideas like the Buddhist Nirvana, Confucian Ren, Christian Kingdom of Heaven, Daoist Way, and Platonic Good . . . a perfect world that could be approached through meditation, prayer, philosophical reflection, study and ritual.

Another common theme was the central position of the individual in the moral order (rather than kings and priests), an acceptance of the ‘in-principle’ equality of all – that nobody is morally privileged above others, all people deserving of dignity and respect (the Golden Rule).

The world around 820 CE
Cores of civilization are in the Near East and East Asia after the Axial Age (800-500 BCE) when Confucians, Daoists, Buddhists, Jainists, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Pre-Socratic philosophers questioned the nature of the physical and spiritual world, society, and human existence in a melting pot of ideas from which Christianity and Islam would emerge in the West
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Carlaude Accessed 19 May 2017
By 200 BCE the world was divided into single empires in East and West linked by the Silk Roads and highway across the steppes, also a path for the disease that in 200 CE decimated one third to one half of people in the Roman and Han empires and contributing to their decline.

Mediterranean & E Asian trade

Later empires would access not only river valleys but entire seas. The economic and social benefits of less energy-intensive water-trade later became evident to Western empires (Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans) who were able to access the resources of the Mediterranean. as when the Roman empire dominated the Mediterranean and the population of Rome reached 1 million, a number not subsequently reached anywhere in the Western world until the time of Victorian London. The Grand Canal in China completed in 609 CE linked north and south China in a vast trade like that of the Mediterranean with Chang’an having a million residents in 700 CE. The Roman Empire and contemporaneous Chinese Han Empire eachhad about 60 million subjects and by 1600 CE Ming China this had risen to about 160 million. By 1500 BCE a new ‘International Age’ had arrived involving the exchange of people, royal marriage, trade and ideas between Egypt, Babylon and the new states of Assyria, Mittani and Hittites. The Mediterranean was now a new geographic challenge as trade developed along its shores. Social development (large ships, advanced weaponry, early machinery, cities) was at a peak at this time. Morris’s social development index indicates that between 1000 and 100 BC social development doubled in both East and West but it was not to last as it actually decreased during the medieval period. In Morris’s terms it was ‘greater when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon than it would be when Columbus crossed the Atlantic’.[6] As social organisation and transportation became more efficient trade increased, trading centres now moving from the banks of major rivers, now including the Nile, to the sea coast of the Mediterranean. Following Phoenician, Greek and other trading nations the highly organised Roman Empire converted the Mediterranean from a chaotic mix of nations, races, religions and piracy into a vast trading highway.

Steppe pastoralists linking East & West

Central Eurasian nomadic steppe pastoralists around 3500-1200 BCE used horses and herded cattle, sheep, goats and yak for at least 5,000 years, thriving on the trade link between the core civilizations of East and West.

Above all there was the need for records. At first mostly a matter of commercial transactions literacy eventually provided a sophisticated and improvable means of expression, a repository for knowledge, and the initiation of academic traditions. Those city-states that flourished took advantage of the resources obtainable through water-transport along river-valleys, but later the advantage was held by cities benefitting from the energy benefits of maritime trade that supplemented further the limits imposed by agricultural energy capture. All this resulted in higher densities of population, sustained economic growth, increased per capita consumption, higher wages, and increased literacy. In ancient Athens during the period 800-300 BCE individual consumption probably doubled enabling a ’classical’ Golden Age. Cities like classical Athens and medieval Venice in this sense seem to be more a part of Industria than Agraria.[20]

At the time of the Roman empire in the West and the Han dynasty in the East social development had never been greater … but both would decline, the West through the Middle Ages but only briefly in the East with a period of ascendancy from 550 AD to 1800 CE. Western growth would take off with the Industrial Revolution.

Farmers & energy

Before the emergence of farming, affluent foragers would have consumed about 5,000 kcal per day, about half this as food; in later horticultural villages this would have increased to about 6,000 kcal, rising to about 8,000 kcal in early farming communities. Domesticated animals were used for their muscle power and in about 4,000 BCE the ox-drawn plough was invented.[15] Larger populations could be supported by farming but it involved heavy labour and a less varied diet than that of the forager, these stresses being evident in the teeth and bones of excavated bodies.

Domestication of plants and animals was based on the energy of the Sun (solar agriculture) allowed sedentism and the quantity of energy needed for populations to grow. As populations reached the hundreds and thousands the maintenance of social stability became paramount as societies were stratified into political, economic and gender hierarchies with legal systems that regulated behaviour and discouraged violence (unless officially sanctioned). The strength of the law was universally endorsed by religious systems that provided much of the glue needed to maintain social cohesion.

The energy needed to support palaces, agriculture and the construction of towns and cities came from plant energy converted into human labour. Vast cities and states were built on a large labourer class, sometimes as a government-paid labour force but, more often, through the forced labour of slavery. A life of toil was the price paid for food and security. At the height of the highly organised Roman Empire tens of thousands of men would produce the marble monuments and unload the imported grain that fed the one million residents of Rome, while 350,000 served as soldiers in the great Roman army.[18]

‘ … by the time that energy capture rose above 10,000 kcal per person and towns grew beyond about 10,000 people, ruling elites were taking charge. This happened somewhere around 3,500 BCE in Mesopotamia, 3,150 BCE in Egypt, 2,500 BCE in the Indus Valley, 1,900 BCE in northern China and 100 BCE in Mesoamerica and the Andes.[19] The SI stood at around 10-13 points.

Farming values

Agraria was based on values which Morris calls the ‘Old Deal’, the belief that in such communities nature and the gods required societies in which there were those that should give orders and those that should obey. Provided each played their part to the best of their ability then all would be well. This was the ‘natural order’. Kings would act like shepherds minding their flocks, being mediators between their sheep and the god(s). On rare occasions (for example the pharaohs of Egypt and some Roman Emperors) the rulers became gods themselves. Wealthy rulers exhibited the confidence that came from god’s approval: they were also the physical manifestation of the social and intellectual capacity of their nation. Civic pride, monuments, feats of artistry and engineering, luxurious excess, all were ultimately demonstrations of collective power and resourcefulness, not just that of the rulers. Poverty (like that of hunter-gatherers) only demonstrated shame; so wealth was the source of both envy and admiration. The economic and political hierarchy itself was rarely questioned, criticism being reserved only for those individuals who abused its agreed boundaries. There was comfort in order and discipline even if some were poor and weak and others rich and strong.

In Agraria families remained the basic social unit, men doing most of the heavy labour of ploughing etc. Being settled in one place women produced more babies that drew them into home life and families of, on average, about seven children. Food required more processing. More elaborately constructed houses needed upkeep and these duties fell to women. This gender division appears to have been universal in farming communities. Plato had suggested equality of the sexes in the Republic but this idea did not resurface for nearly 1500 years. It appears likely that male authority in Agraria was more a matter of efficiency than brutish domination.

Individual violence was kept in check by the state which deterred the appeal of pre-emptive strikes and removed the need for revenge. Violence would destabilise the collective – but the use of official violence through law and the military was legitimised by the state when perceived as a force for communal good as in quelling rebellion or expanding territory. This social development would culminate in the Roman empire of the west and the Han dynasty of China.

The Gini score for landholding in fourth century BCE Athens was about 0.38-0.39 and overall income inequality 0.40-0.45 while chattel slaves made up about one third of the population as forced labour. The energy needed to effect the architectural and engineering feats of the classical world that we so admire today though founded ultimately on the plant energy of Agraria were achieved in human terms through the energy of slave labour. It was also a time of extreme gender inequality. Wealth hierarchy was especially pronounced culminating in the staggering wealth of some families of the Roman Empire, the Gini wealth coefficient in the first century CE being about 0.43 (foragers about 0.25).

Property (land, tools, buildings, animals, slaves) now became critical to livelihood and therefore inheritance takes on great significance. Greater attention is therefore given to property law, management of sexual activity, especially inter-dynastic marriages to extend holdings of land and property and therefore power.


Following the fragmentation of the Roman Empire social organisation and trade declined in the West as Europe in the Middle Ages divided into warring states based on religious factions while China recovered quickly to enjoy a period from 550-1750 CE with social organisation well above that of the West. Around 600-700 CE a Grand Canal had been built in China linking the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers and social development had recovered from the Han decline by 1000 CE. By 1300 China had massive ocean-going ships with compasses and water-tight compartments and in 1288 the first guns appear in China. This technology was quickly adapted by western nations, the gun appearing in Europe less than 40 years after its emergence in China. Ships enabled travel and trade over large distances and guns were a means of social domination. Europeans would take full advantage of both these Chinese technologies during the Western Renaissance that began around 1400 in Italy, leading to the European colonisation that occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth century Age of Discovery and eighteenth century Enlightenment.

Morris points out that it was geography (more than, say, science or greed) that allowed Europeans by 1600 to economically exploit the rich resources of the New World creating the first market economy in a highly profitable trading triangle selling manufactured goods from northern Europe to West Africa where slaves were taken aboard and sold to plantations in the New World where cotton and sugar were returned to Europe. Britain, on the Atlantic coast, was now ideally situated to exploit the concentrated energy of fossil fuels, using the coal, steam and scientific technology to extend commercial enterprises across the world through the Industrial Revolution. The world’s largest single bloc was the British Empire which, in 1914, governed 84% of the world’s population. Britain had exported violence across the world but by the 1870s Britain’s future depended on assisting its colonies to industrialize and eventually its rule could be challenged.

European domination of world trade, Morris points out, occurred because the Europeans were geographically closer to this rich resource rather than because they were smarter, more wicked, or possessed better technology than the Chinese. The new trade had stimulated seventeenth century scientific interest in the winds, stars, tides, mathematics along with the curious and new organisms of foreign climes. Newton had heralded a new, successful and affluent scientific age whose focus on science and reason was, in the eighteenth century, turned onto society as Europeans demanded greater democracy.

A new phase of human history began with the use of fossil fuels in the eighteenth century, industrialization in Britain soon passing to the countries of western Europe and to United States through the Atlantic trade and communication, followed by British colonies in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere as the British Empire expanded across the world.

Intellectual effort was diverted from the study and interpretation of classical and sacred texts to science, natural history, navigation, astronomy, mathematics, and challenging new political ideas during the eighteenth century Enlightenment like a new Axial Age but grounded more in natural than supernatural explanation. At first greeted with suspicion by the Church, with mistreatment of men like Galileo (1564-1652), Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was to command great respect.

Challenges to monarchy, aristocracy and the established church though not overturning the Old Deal, did weaken it considerably through constitutional reform as the ‘general will’ became broadly recognised as a more convincing basis for government than divinely ordained monarchs.

Peasants had lived in relatively small communities with fragmented markets. The scale of Industria changed all this as profits produced higher wages and more disposable income for factory-produced goods. Fossil fuels saw the end of the long-entrenched tradition of enforced labour. Machines reduced the need for muscle power and increased the demand for effective services and administration. Peasant societies required women to have about six or seven children to maintain the population but benefits of fossil fuels reduced the need for large numbers of children resulting in smaller families that were healthier and better educated while mothers had more time for themselves and salaried work (the ‘demographic transition’) in a change facilitated by the arrival of the condom in 1920, the contraceptive pill in 1960 and also in this period, all manner of electrical gadgetry to ease the burden of household chores.

Between 1780 and 1830 Britain’s population doubled from 7 to 14 million and in the century between 1800 and 1900 the proportion of the world’s population living in Europe and North America increased from 16% to 24%.

People of Industria are predominantly WEIRD (Western Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic). Political tension has now moved to the option of small and large government and its degree of involvement not only in the division into socialist and capitalist economies but in liberal democracies, especially after the demise of the Soviet Empire in 1989-1991, the degree of involvement in other areas like health, education, the disadvantaged, and work-place conditions. After 1945 the fossil-fuel revolution was globalised as world population entered the ‘great acceleration’ to increase from 2.5 to 6 billion, the Euro-American component shrinking to 13.7%.[22] ‘In 2000 the average human was 10 cm taller than his or her grandparents had been in 1900, lived 30 years longer, and earned six times as much in real terms’.[38]

By 1950 America had been able to exploit its resource advantages and assume the mantle of world authority moving in to the Pacific – but in its turn it is being superseded by Pacific nations.

Industria & energy

Though the heat from burning coal had been observed in northwest Europe about 2000 years ago it only challenged wood as a fuel in China c. 1000 CE and England in 1600. In the seventeenth century northwest European coalminers burned coal to boil water, using the steam produced to drive pistons that pumped water out of the mineshafts. Coal (fossilized plants containing the stored energy of the sun) as a concentrated source of energy. Steam power was used to drive new machines that could replace or supplement traditional human and animal muscle, wheels and sails – all resulting in a massive increase in productivity that drove western European economies into unprecedented levels of growth and innovation and a SI in the hundreds. In both eastern and western parts of the Old World in the seventeenth century, as energy capture increased to about 30,000 kcal per person per day, there came the first major challenge to political and economic hierarchy since the Axial Age. In the twentieth century electricity, oil and natural gas were a bonus.

Energy use per person per day rose from c. 38,000 kcals in 1800 to 230,000 by the 1970s[21] with the advent of trains, steamships, tractors, and industrialised agriculture vastly increased crop yields.

Britain was the focus of this energy bonanza using its revenues to create the largest empire the world had seen. ‘By 1914, most of the people on earth were part of a Western-dominated fossil-fuel economy and tied to global markets’ Europeans through their colonial exploits now had ‘… control of 84% of the planet’s landmass and 100% of its oceans’.[37]

An early example of the geography/social development interaction

Industria values

In less than ten generations former political, economic, and gender hierarchies have gone from seeming entirely natural and just, to appearing – to varying degrees – ‘bad’. This transformation began around the shores of the Atlantic . . . it has impacted almost every part of the planet’[42] Old preoccupations with religious affiliation so important in Agraria were challenged by the political ideologies of socialism, communism, and evolutionism. Church attendance in Britain fell from 60% in 1851 to 12% in 1979 and 7.5% in 1998.[28]

Old systems of absolute monarchy based on God-given authority were either replaced by or subject to secular authority following the American (1873), French (1789), Russian (1917) and other revolutions as old aristocracies and elites gave way to the new well-to-do capitalists and industrialists (the nouveau riche), the franchise passing to more men as political exclusion based on property, education, race, religion and sex was resisted as more countries moved towards representative liberal democracy. ‘By almost any measure societies that moved toward democracy outperformed those that did not’.[43] Meanwhile the gap between the fossil-fuelled West and farming ‘rest’ was, of course, widening.

Industria with its open markets and exchange of people could not operate effectively with the levels of violence encountered in the farming age (Britain’s modern London police force was created in 1828). Agraria reduced the scope of violence and Industria has gone further. Agrarians regarded warfare as a matter of honour, the supreme test of male character and courage. Police statistics around the world show how, regardless of social circumstances, men are 10 times more likely to commit violent crimes. Support for warfare is much weaker today as the desire to fight for king and country has lost much of its meaning. As we enter a ‘post-heroic’ era war is increasingly regarded as ‘… an abnormal and immoral state’.[44] About 100 to 200 million people died violently in the twentieth century which included two world wars – about 1-2% of world population at this time. For the 21st century the figure is much smaller, less than 1% (more than 90-fold improvement over that of forager societies) in a value-mix of peace, democracy, open markets, gender equality, and equality before the law.

Morris addresses violence[35] in his book War, What Is It Good For (2014)? High rates of Stone Age violence were reduced by religious farming communities using strong government, law and order, to ensure the internal pacification needed for community survival. From about 10,000 BCE until about 200 CE there is the staggered but steady formation of ever larger groups – from villages to cities, to city-states, to empires, culminating in the Roman Empire in the West and the Han dynasty in the East. Fragmentation of these empires led to smaller warring factions. Warfare has been the only means by which people have given up personal freedoms. Significantly, along with the long-term historical formation of larger political and geographic units came a decrease in violence and warfare. And with an increase in peace and security came increasing prosperity.

In 1867 the Gini Coefficient in Britain reached 0.55 almost as high as the highest scoring farming communities but after World War II all the old hierarchical boundaries were clearly under challenge – everything from gender to dress code, spoken accent to educational opportunity, all became less obvious as the Gini Coefficient dropped. in a social change between the 1940s and 1970s (the ‘great compression’).[29] Only in 1928 did all women over 21 obtain the vote in the United Kingdom but after WWII women confined to poorly paid domestic, nursing, secretarial and teaching positions would see change.

In 2007 there was about 80% support worldwide for democracy regardless of geography, gender, religion, or age.[48] But Industria needs both an affluent middleclass to purchase goods and a dynamic entrepreneurial class with rewards for economic leadership and management. Economic elites and business groups tend to have more influence on social politics than average citizens and political discussion tends to centre on equality of opportunity rather than outcomes and concerns over-regulation stifling liberty and economic growth while others are more concerned with equality of outcome and the abuses of great wealth that might also compromise economic growth.

Why did the mode of energy capture change

Foraging to farming

In 20,000 BP in the heart of the Ice Age there were about 500,000 people on earth: by 8,000 BCE this total had risen to about six million.

Domestication happened where it was easiest and most likely including the time scale of later centres around the world.Increased energy availability in Agraria led to more labour-intensive lives but allowed populations to increase and benefit from scale by division of labour and social stratification. Given the suggested violence of small groups cooperation on such a scale was, in retrospect, a both extremely unlikely and miraculous achievement. It appears to have been done through the uniting power of religious belief and the power of a ruler with God’s authority.

Farming to fossil fuels

In each Agrarian centre it took about 2,000 years for domesticated crops and animals to replace their wild counterparts. Various ways were attempted to succeed including highly centralised bureaucratised states with energy use peaking in the Roman empire at about 30,000 kcal per capita per day at the height of the Roman Empire only to fall back, reaching the same level in the Chinese Song Dynasty in about 1000 CE, followed by the Mughul, Qing and early modern Europeans the peak of what is achievable in a highly organised farming community.

The breakthrough came at a particular time and place, c. 1800 in NW Europe with a single breakthrough. Historians have attributed to European science and technology, the trength of western institutions, culture, religion, climate or access to resources or that the East was held back in some way. See Ferguson etc. In Why the West Rules for Now Morris argues that the ultimate reason why fossil fuel societies began where they did was the same as for foraging societies – geography. Once cut off from the rest of the world away from the trade and action of the Mediterranean Britain was now situated to take advantage of the resource base of increasing maritime trade in the Atlantic after accessing the Americas and Indian Ocean. By 1700 the Atlantic was ‘ … the world’s most powerful wealth-creation machine in history’.[27] The single major difference between NW Europe and the old city states was the new use of coal. New global markets gave capital the opportunity to augment human labour with machinery and this was most effectively exploited in NW Europe and England England by Stevenson, Trevithick. Boulton, and Watt. By 1850 the world was dominated by England.

So cultural evolution caused the two great energy shifts. Were they inevitable? As likely as is possible. And the same forces: rising energy capture, competition, open markets, the shrinkage of distance just continued to confer advantage. The vibrant American economy would later cash in on the Pacific. Container ships, the internet, and jets acted just like steamships and trains had before. But these forces have not stopped but been embraced by China and SE Asia.

Few women had the right to vote before 1918 and paid female labour really only took off after 1940. Australia led the way (South Australia, 1895; Western Australia, 1899). In 1902 the Commonwealth Franchise Act gave all women the right to vote and be elected for federal Parliament. By 1911 all states and territories had granted women’s suffrage for state elections.

Almost all forms of violence have reduced over time. Since this can hardly be a result of changing biology we must attribute it to culture – perhsaps the Flynn Effect whereby people today are thinking more abstractly and universally than ever before while exerting unprecedented self-control, empathy and reason.

Large-scale agriculture and cities arose independently in different parts of the world suggesting stages in an inexorable process of social development.

There was a high probability that farming would emerge given suitable conditions and, once established, the benefits of scale were so great that the future of foragers inevitably came to look bleak when aligned against the armies, cities, technology and accumulating written knowledge of Agraria. Social pressures would propel foragers towards an urban and rural lifestyle rather than drawing Agrarians into the freedom of nomadic foraging. ‘No one chose hierarchy and working longer hours; these things crept up on them’ … ‘… it was as close to inevitable as anything in history can be’ … ‘In general the most likely things to happen, do’.[24]

The future

China’s GDP will overtake that of America in the next decade or so although GDP per capita will take much longer. Geography and energy will continue to drive history as China and the Pacific exert increasing influence on the world although globalisation means that geographic factors will have a lesser impact than they did in the past. Will the views of freedom and democracy that swept the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries embrace the world? Perhaps this has already occurred in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.[23] Today security is maintained through the global policing of the US and UN. Perhaps the political pendulum will not swing from West to East but the world will become a noded web with no centre and a convergence of values.

Morris would substitute the words ‘fossil-fuel’ for ‘Western’: ideology followed the industrial revolution, not vice-versa ‘… liberal, individualist values are the ones that work best in Industria …’(p. 163).

Across the two centuries since the Industrial Revolution began and capitalism took off, the world’s population has grown 7-fold, its biggest city 25-fold, its stock of knowledge (by Morris’s calculation) 860-fold, and its energy capture more than 40-fold’. Social scientists accumulating data measuring wealth, inequality, and rates of violence in the past have shown that in every era before 1800 CE, world-wide life expectancy at birth averaged less than 25 years – now it is 63 years. This represents a staggering acceleration on what happened before. On Morris’s SI, assuming a continuation of the current rate of increase, there must be total societal transformation by about 2100 on a scale that we cannot imagine. Just as our hunter-gatherer ancestors could not have foreseen agriculture or the kind of life that you and I live today, so we cannot envisage the kind of world that science, and especially biotechnology, will create in the future.

Is there a fossil fuel ceiling?
It took foragers 60,000 years to spread and generalise hunter-gatherer societies and values; it took Agraria 10,000 years to do this. It will probably take Industria less than 300 years to do the same. The transition from cave paintings at Lascaux to modern reading humans in front of computers involved a transition in Morris’s social development score of from 4 to 900 points. But projecting from 2000 to 2100 this score will grow to more than 4,000 points, a fourfold increase. We can have no inkling of what this means except that if change continues at the current rate we are at the beginning of the greatest historical discontinuity in history. Above all we will use technology to modify our bodies – chemically, genetically, mechanically and mentally.

Is there a fossil-fuel ceiling as there was for foraging and agriculture?

Probably yes. At present this seems to lie with the acceptable levels of climate change. There is always the possibility of societal collapse of some kind, whether a natural catastrophe, global economic calamity or pandemic of disease. Massive social change has, in the past, involved turmoil and violence, and has been associated with five major forces. We are in a race between transformation and disaster as all former Dark Ages (like 3100 BCE Mesopotamia, 1200 BCE Mediterranean, after 150 CE Han and Roman Empires, and 14th century plague) have involved mass migrations, new diseases, collapse of states, famine, and climate change – and social discontinuity has always been combined with warfare. Our interconnected and interdependent global society is vulnerable to all these shocks.

As in so many other aspects of modern life we are currently running a single human experiment where once there were many. In the past if one society died out there were other societies to continue and other places to explore. We are now just one place and one society. World eyes are nervously cast towards the ‘arc of instability’ the poor and poorly-governed countries that run from Central Africa through to East Asia, an area that will be deeply impacted by climate change. We cannot say if we will be plunged back to forager values or live in the promised land of the technofuturists. Perhaps we will undergo a change in scale and magnitude that will make discussion of values irrelevant as Homo sapiens is totally transformed in a strange new culturally- (not biologically) determined form of speciation.

Commentary & sustainability analysis

Just as Morris has simplified his story to draw out its main conclusions, so I have had to simplify Morris – to do him justice you could read his books.

Much of the history of recent times is all about people and the interaction of different groups – it is social history. Morris’s human drama is played out as a theory of human access to and use of resources and in this sense it is an economic history. But his key themes, the life-sustaining resource of energy and how the human relationship with energy connects to the broad environment, to geography, is core history … it is environmental history. Morris’s long-term history thesis takes us to a fundamental but historically strange place – the evolutionary context of organism and environment – the story of one of many species on planet earth. Over the course of this timeframe environmental selection pressure came first from nature (geography) and subsequently from culture (people and institutions) in the dialectic of human adaptation to changing environments.

This voyage through social, economic and environmental history must be part of our journey to sustainability.

We might not agree with all of Morris’s analysis but he has a clear framework for his thought and challenges us to do better, identifying his approach to history as reductionist, materialist, universalist, functionalist, and evolutionist: reductionist because he teases out the barest and most important causal links in the chain of historical causation; materialist because he identifies material causes rather than cultural forces as more important in shaping long-term history; universalist in that his theory covers more than 95% of people who ever lived although it does exclude steppe pastoralists; functionalist in regarding values as adaptive traits constrained by our range of moral intuitions (‘values always exist only in the real world, as parts of actual social systems’); evolutionist by being a supporter of social evolution and the claim that moral and social systems are cultural adaptations. A long-term temporal scale also draws our attention to spatial scale as geography – small village settlements became towns, cities, city states and empires based around resources, mostly energy, firstly local but later based around river valleys and oceans. Energy and geography are key factors relating to where and when things have happened over the long term; the question of why they happened at all is more a biological question about human nature. In a loose sense he is modest about the role of historians: if we want to know why history is the way it is we need to look to biology – to human human nature; if we wwant to know how it works we need to look to sociology; and if we need to know where certain changes are likely to have occurred in the past then we should look to geography.

He tackles head-on the key historical question of why human history unfolded the way it did, identifying the method of energy capture as the key factor, associated with geography, regulating the social organisation and value systems of past societies and insisting that this key pattern only becomes evident when history is viewed long-term. Although Morris acknowledges the halting messiness and waywardness of social selection he clearly thinks that human history has not been a random and accidental process. Indeed, though nothing in history is ever absolutely certain, historical outcomes have not been arbitrary because social evolution is ‘path-dependent‘ … ‘the state of a society today constrains what it might turn into tomorrow … ’[3] ‘Those events most likely to occur often do’.

He goes on to consider how the major three phases of history (accounting for more than 95% of all people, but largely ignoring steppe pastoralists) can be accounted for in this way. However, geography is the key determinant of time and place where these three major energy transformations occurred. Finally he considers whether these major phases of history were inevitable, concluding that they were and speculates on future energy use and societies.

Why does Morris regard geography as having such a large influence on social organisation – why not religion, culture, science or technology? Why does he think that, over the long term, it is material rather than cultural factors that have shaped history, that our long-term history has been about energy and ‘maps not chaps’. Geography accounted for the origin of agriculture in the ‘lucky latitudes’; increasing social organisation allowed migration to fertile river valleys with the formation of trading cities and as people were increasingly based in coastal areas trade and influence spread first from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and then the Pacific in an age of empires.

Over the 10,000 years of his analysis societies there has been more than a 90-fold decrease in violent death which he attributes to the increasing safety evident in regulated state societies.

We can ask many questions: is history really only about the ascendancy of one people over another – high and low scores? Aren’t values, at least in part, a consequence of rational consideration rather than just biological traits? Can history’s complexity really be reduced to a very few key causal elements, why not multiple-factor history? Having a strong thesis to attack is a great way to advance.

Rising energy capture, a cultural adaptation to changing environments, has created selective pressure for the development of certain kinds of social organisation and values. Forager daily energy use would not exceed about 10,000 kcals/person/day, agrarians from about 10,000-30,000 this rocketing to 230,000 kilocalories in the 1970s. Agraria was a better survival machine that small bands and Industria better again. Morris points out that this is an empirical observation that ‘does not necessarily mean that there is no such thing as a single, all-best set of values, whether it be calculated in terms of a telos toward which our values inevitably move, or utility, or the categorical imperative, or a difference principle’ but ‘The reality is that values cannot be separated from the concrete world in which they are held’ … ‘… what moral philosophers have really done is argue about what kinds of values work … at their own stage of energy capture . . . [26]

History, like other subjects in the arts, is threatened by the scientific sword of Damocles. The deep mysteries of the human spirit and its motivation are being unlocked by psychologies of every kind and shade. The machinations of society are being dissected, analysed and quantified by economists aided by social and political scientists. Ancient human societies are best understood, not by historians, but by archaeologists and anthropologists. So what remains for the historian? Whatever it is – it is getting smaller.


Most historians explain the past in terms of culture, beliefs, values, institutions, or blind accident rather than the hard surfaces of material reality preferred by Morris. Soft culture is mostly where history and the humanities reside: material causes are more in the realm of the sciences and perhaps one reason why historians would rather give them a miss.[25] Morris is a historian with a natural science bent. We feel intuitively that material factors must underlie the cultural. We cannot develop religion, science, and good government if we have nothing to eat. His acknolwedgement of energy as underlying social activity is a surprising admission coming from a historian but extremely welcome, especially as a contribution towards the opening up of cross-disciplinary studies rather than a curmudgeonly hunkering down into the silos of specialization.

Plants as energy source are front and centre in the story of humanity through our two most important social transitions: forager to farmer, and farmer to fossil-fuel industrialist – the former based on man-made plants and the latter on the ancient highly concentrated energy of the sun stored in fossilised plants. The relevance of all this to climate change needs no further comment.


As Morris himself points out[40] (p. 5) his view that values are a consequence of social circumstances has the ring of moral relativism that conflicts with our intuition that at least some values must hold regardless of convention or historical circumstance. Are values really just a matter of functional adaptation? Can and should underlying values be subject to ideological distortion, material scarcity, insecurity and other social and economic conditions.

Moral philosophers distinguish between moral values that can be identified as true or objective, identified in Morris’s text as Real Moral Values (would murder be ‘right’ if we all took a ‘murder pill’ for example? Is morality relative?) Actual values in societies are referred to as Positive Values. For Morris, particular values are held by particular people at particular places and times ‘… it is positive values all the way down’ as they serve evolutionary and social functions. For Morris shared core values – fairness, justice, love, hate, respect, loyalty, preventing harm, and a sense of the sacred – are reinterpreted across successive stages of human development (see also Moral philosophy). ‘For me wrong behaviour is something that violates my strongly held, fossil fuel interpretations of biologically evolved human values’. Many would find the idea of morality as just being different at different times or stages of social evolution as inadequate. We can challenge this particular sense of moral progress.

Moral values arrived at through reason have nothing to do with evolution except insofar as reason itself (not just the content of value, but the capacity to value) is a product of evolution. Sometimes our values are immediate and impulsive, sometimes they are longer-term practical responses to the world around us, and sometimes they are based on long-term rational considerations in which practicality plays little if any part. We also reflect on our values without automatically endorsing them all. Perhaps, like our capacity for scientific knowledge, our values develop slowly through history. We can explain changes in value systems over time in different ways but a kind of total social determinism does not feel intuitively correct. We are conscious of values made for reasons of expediency and values that may be of more lasting worth. Acceptance is not endorsement. Perhaps Morris’s biologicism dismisses the philosophers too quickly.

Wealth equality is an unlikely prospect as we have experienced a great divergence in recent times. Plato recommended no more than a fourfold difference in wealth between the people of Athenian society. When Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776 th difference between rich and poor nations was about fourfold. Today th discrepancy between rich and poor is about 55-fold, figure than certainly needs to be addressed for many reasons.

Scale (population size) has produced hierarchy but this has diminished as scale gets larger, suggesting that energy use and not scale is the ultimate cause just as capitalism too is a proximate not ultimate cause.

Signs of collapse

Civilizations come and go – are there common factors contributing to their demise? Morris finds five: major population movement, interchange of disease pools, state failure and warfare, decreased trade and increased famine, and climate change. Alarmingly these a characteristics of our own times although Morris believes unpleasant outcomes can be prevented through good leadership, encouragement of prosperity, and active discouragement of violence.

Key Points

  • We need to know the underlying factors that motivate humans in the process of creating history (biology and psychology); the methods used to build societies and institutions (sociology, politics, economics); and an account of the environmental, mostly geographic, differences between communities over time (history)
    • Our interpretation of history is a function of scale as we zoom in and out analysing various regions of space from the perspectives of different periods of time. In zooming in and out of the dimensions of space and time historians have disagreed widely over the relative importance of different material and cultural factors that have brought us to now, most taking either a ‘long-term-inevitability’ or ‘short-term accident’ perspective
      • Long-term history has been determined by the geographic location of the energy and resources needed to build the social organisation that enables one society to claim another.
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