Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Apr. 1, 2012
Published on: Cosmos Magazine
6 min read
OPINION | The Long Decline

Are we approaching a tipping point in world history, when the power and pre-eminence of the West, which began with the Age of Enlightenment in the 1600s, is finally slipping away? Many experts think so.

By Wilson da Silva 

AT THE UNIVERSITIES Australia conference in March 2012, the keynote speaker was Michael Wesley, executive director of Sydney’s Lowy Institute, a highly regarded foreign policy think tank. And the picture he painted of the next 40 years sent a chill through the crowd.

He argued that the information revolution – the fifth industrial revolution since mechanisation – will profoundly reshape the 21st century’s politics, economics and society.

Preoccupied as we are with the consequences of the data deluge this revolution brings, we are failing to notice another tectonic shift: the Great Convergence. It’s a term coined by Lowy Institute researcher Mark Thirlwell to describe the rapid growth of the developing world and its eventual surpassing of the West. 

Put another way, the decline of the West and the rise of ‘the Rest’ – principally, the Third World.

It’s been happening for decades, but the trend is now undeniable. At its height in the 1970s, the West only had 26% of the world’s population, but 73% of global economic output. It has been in decline ever since, while Brazil, India and China have grown at a staggering pace into economic juggernauts. It’s forecast that by 2030, 50% of all economic output will come from what we today call the Third World.

The sunset we are seeing in the economies of Europe, Japan and the United States is a consequence of the Great Convergence, Wesley argued. “I think what’s happening is not cyclical but structural: the consequence of ageing societies that have hit their productivity frontiers, where generations of wealth have blunted the hunger to produce and achieve and innovate,” he said.

Meanwhile, in the developing world, the new sunrise is driven by “the hunger and ambition that thrums through the veins of billions of people ... The sheer motivation of the students there, the hunger to succeed and excel.

“There couldn’t be a greater contrast with the students we encounter on Australian campuses, who are provided with all their class readings in photocopied packs, and even then can’t be expected to have actually read them; who spend their time in lectures on Facebook and Twitter, but expect notes of all lectures to be provided by the lecturer.”

In the West, students now graduate with very high expectations. In the 1920s, only one in a million could dream of attaining the success of American industrialist John D. Rockefeller; today, anyone thinks he or she could be a Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire founder of Facebook.

Wesley argued that the West had grown complacent in its superiority. But a hurricane of competition is coming: tens of millions of graduates will pour out of universities in the Third World, ambitious and determined to achieve. 

They will get the best jobs, and perform admirably. Companies will start to prefer hiring them. And suddenly, the Facebook generation will face the full brunt of this shift in the balance of power between the West and the Rest.

“Western universities and their graduates will not be able to rest secure in a belief in the superiority of their degrees for much longer,” Wesley said. 

Sobering words. It’s certainly true that, at a time when universities and the research sectors of the West are facing declining funds, emerging economies are investing big. 

China has increased research and development funding by 10% each year for the last 10 years, despite the global recession. It’s estimated that China sank US$154 billion into R&D in 2011, surpassing Japan’s US$144 billion and becoming the world’s second-largest R&D investor. It might not be long before China overtakes the United States, the world’s largest.

The number of universities in China has leapt from 1,022 to 2,263 in a decade. China has added 30 million workers to the global economy every year for the past 30 years. India will have to build 1,000 new universities over the next 20 years just to cater to the surging demand.

What will happen in Australia? The knowledge economy is the most global of them all. We have a global reputation for excellence in innovation and academia, so we can either invest in this – as governments, companies and as citizens – or we can line up and join the sunset club.

It doesn’t seem that difficult a choice. We will feel the full brunt of globalisation and competition in the decades ahead, much of it coming from our region, so let’s make sure we ride that wave higher, rather than being swept away by it. 

Let’s all – as shareholders, parents and citizens – encourage more investment in, and more commitment to, education, science and research. And let’s think of innovation as a race for which we need to qualify, rather than just rest on our laurels.