Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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This year has opened in a chill fog of doom and gloom. That recovering Utopian Ken Livingstone welcomed the eco-historian Jared Diamond to London's City Hall to discuss the capital's contribution to surviving climatic calamity and social meltdown. (And, perhaps, its inability to save a single whale?) Gaia's champion James Lovelock has toughened his predictions of near-imminent catastrophe (see John Gray's review on p.24). Elsewhere, the season's most ambitious wide-screen history book ends up veering pretty close to the apocryphal answer that Mahatma Gandhi gave when asked his views on Western civilisation: "I think it would be a good idea".

That's not quite a fair summation of Roger Osborne's absorbing blockbuster, Civilization: a new history of the Western world (Cape, £20). In many ways, this is an admirable achievement: a coherent narrative that gallops from the painting of the Lascaux buffalo to the cloning of Dolly the Sheep, from the Beaker People to the McDonald's People, in fewer than 500 crisply written pages.

At the same time, such panoramic "what's it-all-about?" stories will always look in retrospect like revealing snapshots of their era. Osborne knows this better than anyone, as one of his signal virtues is an ability to pinpoint the Western self-image of "civilisation" as it shifts over the 2,500 years from Herodotus to Freud.

So where does the essence of his Western culture lie? For Herodotus, the barbarians stood outside the Greek gates (although he admired them). For Freud, the barbarian lurked within each tormented Western breast. Osborne's cover depicts the gates of Auschwitz overshadowing Wren's plan for St Paul's. The German-Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin is absent from this book, but his dictum sums up its presiding mood: "There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism."

Osborne's West wears a double face: creator and destroyer, bringer of order and beauty but - equally, and often more so - the author of cruelty, carnage and oppression for its poor, its slaves, its colonised peoples, its "others", and for the planet itself. Always engrossing, sometimes infuriating, a reading of Civilization becomes an increasingly contradictory experience. Osborne grasps that phases of self-criticism or self-disgust punctuate the Western narrative from Greeks to Greens. Yet towards the close, this student of cultural despair - and its endless battle with the ideals of "progress" - begins to sound like an embodiment of it. So we (typically) learn of the havoc brought by imported smallpox to 16th-century Andean peoples, but its late 20th-century eradication lies beneath the notice of this lofty jeremiad.

In general, Osborne takes a breathtakingly dismissive view of medical and technical advance. This is the sort of book that complains about corporate standardisation because "almost everyone uses Microsoft programs" without first having bothered to inform us of the development or benefits of near-universal cheap computing.

In short, a book that shows how "scepticism about progress" and a "deep fear" of the future recur in Western culture tumbles at the last lap into a repetition of that mindset. Future students of the early 21st century (if such exist) will find that Osborne's book channels the self-doubting, apprehensive spirit of his age in the West - just as it smartly takes the temperature of their times via Luther, Hegel or Einstein. For him, the West's "rational ways of organising the world" now lie "at the root of every human-made catastrophe".

Whatever ills the planet faces, this is ideology, not history - and a tract for our self-hating times. It wears a radical mask - anti-corporate, anti-colonial, earth-friendly - but hides a reactionary soul. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.