Cover Image: The Ages of Globalization

The Ages of Globalization

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Jeffrey Sachs is one of those big picture thinkers one needs when tempted to focus in the minutiae of life. I first came across this in The End of Poverty, published in 2005, where Sachs wrestled with the steps needed to eliminate poverty throughout the world.

Here, he enlarges his focus to the whole 70,000 year expanse of human history. He traces seven ages of globalization, contending that the interplay of geography (including climate, natural resources, and biodiversity), technology (from hunting implements and stone tools to steam driven machinery to digital information systems), and institutions (religious, economic, and political) came together in each age to create scale enlarging transformations with global implications.

The seven ages through which he traces these interactions are:

1. The Paleolithic (70,000-10,000 bce): foragers arising from Africa to adapt to a variety of habitats, using tools to manipulate nature, and formal tribal societies.
2. The Neolithic ((10,000-3000 bce): The transition to agricultural societies across the temperate zones (“the. Lucky Latitudes”) allowing the rise of farming settlements with domesticated animals.
3. The Equestrian Age (3000-1000 bce): The domestication of the horse facilitating transport and travel, writing systems, accompanied by more sophisticated administrative institutions allowed for the first empires.
4. The Classical Age (1000 bce-1500 ce): The successive rise and fall of empires in Asia, the Fertile  Crescent and the Mediterranean, all aligned on travel routes and the Lucky Latitudes, including the rise of Islam. This was the period of the rise of  the major religions and the ideas and institutions multiplied the expansion of global reach.
5. The Ocean Age (1500-1800): The explosion of knowledge disseminated by the printing press, the development of sailing vessels into ocean-going ships led the most effective countries to extend their power into the Americas and East Asia,  resulting in the expansion of capitalism.
6. The Industrial Age (1800-2000): The steam engine and then the internal combustion engine, the massive growth in food production resulting led to global population growth and increasingly sophisticated financial and political structures and a parade of successive global powers: Great Britain, the United States, China and other East Asian countries.
7. The Digital Age (Twenty-First Century): The shift to an age of global information systems, highly integrated economies, resulting both in political rivalries and the necessity of global political institutions to address global crises such as climate change.

Sachs combines description with quantitative tables and statistics to illustrate trends. His argument is that we have always been a global family (albeit the Americas and Australia and the Pacific Islands being isolated from Africa and Eurasia until the Ocean Age) and human migrations, technological innovations and ever-more sophisticated institutions facilitated global connections, and increasingly global empires and systems. He argues that all these have brought us to a place where we face three major challenges: rising inequality, massive environmental degradation, risks from major geopolitical changes, including the possibility of devastating conflict. He contends for working toward sustainable development with a dynamic and adaptive process of planning on a global scale. He argues for a social-democratic ethos as has contributed to the success of northern European countries. Most fascinating, and a check on the consolidation of power, is his discussion of the importance of subsidiarity, of moving tasks to the most local level compatible with effective management.

I suspect some version of what Sachs proposes may be right. Yet the rise of authoritarian movements, the denial or overly simple explanations of poverty or environmental issues, and the breakdown of international cooperation seems a cause of great concern for me. Sachs offers us a tour de force treatment of the development of globalization through human history. But it seems idealistic in a way that seems to rely on us heeding the “better angels of our nature” if there is such a thing. I wonder if the failure of such optimism to deliver on its promises contributes to the rise of authoritarianism. I wonder if the only hope is a somewhat pragmatic and proximate politics without grand schemes, tyrants or visionaries, a politics of adults who realize all solutions are proximate.  Yet that doesn’t mean resignation. We can come up with less than perfect political arrangements, less than perfect environmental solutions, and less than perfect economic arrangements. We might do something more sustainable, more just, and more equitable, and probably different than our plans. And reading Sachs, we may have a better sense of the connection of the local and the global, and the ways geography, technology, and our institutions link us together.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
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Does the world really need another book about globalization? Economist Jeffrey Sachs sure thinks so. 

Already renown for his work in development economics, Sachs tries his hand at being a historian with the book The Ages of Globalization, which examines how geography, technology and institutions interact in bringing about large scale global change. Thus, in taking readers through the “seven ages of globalization”—the Paleolithic, Neolithic, Equestrian, Classical, Ocean, Industrial, and Digital Ages—Sachs hopes to let his readers appreciate that “[o]ne can [...] see the history of globalization as a series of scale-enlarging transformations.”

Filtering the historical record through the lens of globalization allows Sachs to provide a focused account unencumbered by the weight of key events. While not entirely omitting all of the latter, many more are glossed over for the sake of driving home the broader point about large-scale social change. As such, The Ages of Globalization is a history book that places a premium on the broader socio-/political-/economic- trend, a parsimony which makes for fascinating reading. To cite one example, Sachs makes the interesting case that the domestication of horses played a unique role in the annexation of territories from around 3000-1000 BCE. He also presents the befuddling conundrum of how the Chinese pulled back on their oceanfaring adventurism and influence at the very time that Western powers were beginning their transcontinental conquests. And there’s understated brilliance in Sachs’ observation that the modern age of globalization represented expansion by the then-powers across ecological zones (i.e., beyond the “lucky latitudes”).

Yet while globalization is at the heart of Sachs’ book, it merely serves as a framing device to draw more substantive insights that may prove relevant to the world today. “Let us keep our eye on five big questions,” he writes,

First, what have been the main drivers of global-scale change? Second, how do geography, technology, and institutions interact? Third, how do changes in one region diffuse to others? Fourth, how have these changes affected global interdependence? Fifth, what lessons can we glean from each age to help us meet our challenges today?

Though it may seem trite to emphasize, by presenting this historical perspective on globalization Sachs inevitably makes the case that the world has always been inherently interconnected. “Globalization,” he observes, “reflects the fundamental fact that the human journey, from our common roots in Africa until today, has always been a shared one.” The difference, if any, has been one of scale. Hence, the great challenge facing us all in this present age of globalization is how institutions must transform given unprecedented levels of interconnection, and what purposes those instructions must serve under the prevailing status quo. 

By bringing up this point, Sachs deftly brings his take on globalization’s history in line with his pioneering economic research on poverty. As he has argued elsewhere, putting an end to extreme poverty is already within the grasp of the world’s nations—assuming we all get our act together. With that in mind, he ends The Ages of Globalization on a hopeful note: that for all the uncertainty, populism, and complexity challenging the world today, shouldn’t we turn our energies during today’s globalization toward that noble goal of eliminating extreme poverty throughout the world?

Globalization has been a subject about which much has already been written and discussed; what more needs to be said about it as world events unfold is something pundits will argue ad nauseam. For his part, though, Sachs has made a fine contribution to the literature that readers can learn from for a long time to come.
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A decent informative read, although I did find my attention wandering a bit near the end of the book.
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I have my opinions on globalization. Everyone does. This book, though, made me revise these opinions I've held as true for so long. I held this world view that has remained static and oppressive but Sachs made me say, "Hold up. Wait a minute. Maybe the world isn't what I thought." I have become connected to my deeper awareness and must say this book revitalized my thought processes.
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This is a great account of the history of globalization from Paleolitic period to Digital age. The book is well written, easy to understand, and eye opening in many aspects.

While many may not agree with some ideas of the author here, the book was able to present ample evidence to support each claim and suggestion.

If you are someone who wants to know and get acquainted with the history, politics, and how other factors affect globalization as we know it today, this book will help.
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I just finished a book written in 2005 which said that if we abandon our fear of top-down government-led solutions, sacrificed, and all worked together to mitigate environmental catastrophe, we might just come out of this all right. Then, I read this brand-new book, which says the same thing.

The relative success of books by Jared Diamond, Niall Ferguson, Yuval Noah Harari and others seems to indicate that writing big-big-worldview books about the history of everybody and everything since the beginning of time is what all the kids at the cool table of the lunchroom are doing now. This is another contribution from that table. Going way way back at least relieves you of the need to guess what fresh type of shameful and appalling idiocy will engulf the present-day headlines next.

Sachs joins the three writers above in the stable of big-think writers whose books I've actually finished. There's a larger pool of big-think writers whose books I've failed to finish, because the prose did not hold my interest long enough to allow the ideas to penetrate my brainpan. I mention it only because I wish to complement the author on clearing the brainpan hurdle by writing a clear and readable book about a dense and difficult topic. This is no mean achievement, given that writing in a clear manner is almost like begging rival public intellectuals to come and joyfully harpoon your ideas until you and your ideas sink in a bloody mess before being engulfed by the next news cycle.

That's the praise. Now the criticism.

I'd love to know more about any number of topics, but it seems in our sad times that the debate on most topics consists of arguing about and/or changing the meaning of words, an activity of limited utility, in my sight. This book is another example of this discouraging trend. In this case, it seems to me, the author is attempt to redefine “globalization” as a phenomenon not new to our age but happening continuously since humanity gathered together in units larger than a single family. People headed out of Africa? Globalization. Adopted the agricultural advances of their neighbors? Globalization. Traded over longer and longer distances? Gl….. well, you get the picture.

What's the point of defining globalization this way? This is a sincere question! Maybe (I'm guessing here) the logic is that, if we define globalization as something that has been happy since the misty dawn of time, maybe it's less of a scary demon. Maybe we're supposed to think of it as something natural, like the change of seasons. Is that right? If so, who exactly is supposed to adopt this new mindset and feel less afraid of globalization?

I guess it just seems like, if you made a Venn diagram with two circles, and the circles were labelled, from left to right, “Probable readers of this book” and “People who demonize globalization”, the two circles wouldn't have even a slim little overlapping wedge in the middle. Or, to put it another way, the people who might need this worldview readjustment are likely to never receive it.

New topic: there should be some sort of public shaming for people who write books citing statistics from the People's Republic of China but don't include even the slightest hint that many pretty smart people believe that most statistics out of China are, to be blunt, lies. In this case (around Kindle location 2757), Sachs cites a lot of International Monetary Fund-generated statistics on Chinese growth. Of course, IMF statistics are likely to be most reliable than PRC statistics, but I believe that, at some point, IMF statistics have to be based on information assembled and distributed by the PRC, which pretty much poisons the well, as far as statistical reliability goes. I'm not saying that writers shouldn't go ahead and use them, I just think that the possible unreliability of such statistics should be at least mentioned in passing.

The book ends with some suggestions about how we can make things better. Generally, they are: forget about parochial interests in favor of the good of all on the planet. That's great, but I want to know – how do you do that? How do you get people to look past their narrowest short term interests? And not just people – how do you get the five permanent UN Security Council members to accept a vastly enlarged body that dilutes their power? I'm not trying to be a smart aleck – it just seems to me like every big thinker can point to the goal, but nobody can tell us how to get there.

Thank you to Netgalley and Columbia University Press for the free advance egalley copy of this book.
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In this book economist Prof.Jeffrey D. Sachs outlines the dynamics of six previous ages of globalization (The Paleolithic Age, 70,000–10,000 BCE; The Neolithic Age, 10,000–3000 BCE, The Equestrian Age, 3000–1000 BCE, The Classical Age, 1000 BCE–1500 CE, The Ocean Age, 1500–1800, and the Industrial Age 1800–2000) in order to shed light on the current Digital Age of globalization. He argues that each of these previous ages led to new forms of governance, and from this he, concludes that a new global form of governance is needed if we are to successfully overcome the world's three greatest challenges today: 1) the intensification and growth of inequalities of income and wealth, i.e. both the continued existence of extreme poverty across the globe and rising inequalities within rich societies that are worsening due to new technologies that displace workers from their jobs 2) the "violation of planetary boundaries" through human-induced climate change, loss of biodiversity, and increasing pollution 3) the threat of global war and the annihilation of the species through such a war. 

As a warning about the dire consequences  that will ensue from human-induced climate change if the nations of the world, in particular the United States, continue to ignore the recommendations and advice of technological and scientific experts, this book is an eye-opening treatise that deserves careful consideration. 

However, as a history, it is much less successful. Although the author carefully defines each of the terms that appears in the book's subtitle, i.e. geography, technology, and institutions, the author never clearly defines what he means by globalization. Given that no consensus exists among social scientists and historians about the start point of globalization (proposed starting times include: the industrial age in 1800, age of maritime expansion in roughly 1500; and the integration of Asia around 1000, as well as earlier historical markers) and that the author dates globalization to human ancestor's first appearance on earth, providing a definition of globalization and an explanation for his dating are critical. Instead, he assumes that the applicability of the term to "some seventy thousand years ago" when humans first began moving from Africa to other regions of the world is a matter of no controversy. Consequently, the book also includes no discussion of the dates assigned by other social scientists and historians to the process of globalization. This failure to acknowledge or engage with the existing literature on globalization raises some red flags for this book as a work of history that simply cannot be overlooked, despite the book's noteworthy discussion of contemporary challenges.
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