Review: The Ages of Globalization

ages of globalization

The Ages of GlobalizationJeffrey D. Sachs. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.

Summary: A study of seven ages of globalization, in which geography, technology, and institutions result in scale-enlarging transformations with global impacts.

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.