Tag Archives: history

if history = people x years

From Two thousand years in one chart | The Economist.

SOME people recite history from above, recording the grand deeds of great men. Others tell history from below, arguing that one person’s life is just as much a part of mankind’s story as another’s. If people do make history, as this democratic view suggests, then two people make twice as much history as one. Since there are almost 7 billion people alive today, it follows that they are making seven times as much history as the 1 billion alive in 1811. The chart below shows a population-weighted history of the past two millennia. By this reckoning, over 28% of all the history made since the birth of Christ was made in the 20th century. Measured in years lived, the present century, which is only ten years old, is already “longer” than the whole of the 17th century. This century has made an even bigger contribution to economic history. Over 23% of all the goods and services made since 1AD were produced from 2001 to 2010, according to an updated version of updated version of Angus Maddison’s figures.

The history of goods and services in some ways can be roughly considered as humanity’s impact on the planet. But that view assumes that economic activity has been consistent in its impacts on the planet.

Global history: Ian Morris and the Great Divergence

Two of the big questions of global history are why did the industrial revolution happen, and why did it happen in NW Europe?

I’ve been partial to the explanation offered by historian Kenneth Pomeranz in his 2000 book The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (here’s Cosma Shalizi’s review) that China and Europe were quite similar and industrial revolution in Europe is largely explained by the accidental discovery and then imperial conquest of new world by Europeans.

Stanford archaeologist and historian Ian Morris has a new popular world history book, Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, that similarly proposes that geography has been the main factor shaping history. He takes a longer view and argues that the aspects of geography matter depend on social development.

In the videos below he outlines the thesis of his book in a short publicity interview from Stanford and a longer lecture at the RSA . (Here’s a review from the Economist).


In response to comments.  Morris is concerned about fossil fuels and environmental degradation. Here is a quote from a review of his book by Orville Schell in New York Times:

Finally, Morris surprises us. … what really concerns him, it turns out, is not whether the West may be bested by the East, but whether mankind’s Promethean collective developmental abilities may not end up being our common undoing.

The competition that East and West have been pursuing for so long, Morris warns, is about to be disrupted by some powerful forces. Nuclear proliferation, population growth, global epidemics and climate change are in the process of radically altering old historical patterns. “We are approaching the greatest discontinuity in history,” he says.

… Morris counsels that we now need to concentrate not on the old competition between East and West, but on a choice. We must decide between what Morris, borrowing from the writer Ray Kurzweil, terms “the Singularity,” salvation through the expansion of our collective technological abilities, and “Nightfall,” an apocalypse from the old Five Horsemen aided by their new accomplices. He warns that this choice offers “no silver medal.” One alternative “will win and one will lose.” We are, he insists, “approaching a new hard ceiling” and are facing a completely new kind of collective historical turning point.

For the Singularity to win out, “everything has to go right,” Morris says. “For Nightfall to win only one thing needs to go wrong. The odds look bad.”

Because distinctions of geography are becoming increasingly irrelevant, Morris views the old saw that “East is East and West is West” as a catastrophic way of looking at our present situation. Like it or not, East and West are now in a common mess, and “the next 40 years will be the most important in history.”

Sidney Mintz on how Haiti’s history is ignored

In the Boston Review, John Hopkin’s anthropologist Sidney Mintz, author of the classic book, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, writes on about Whitewashing Haiti’s History:

Every medium of communication in the world is now overrun with pronouncements about Haiti. Many have been ill-informed, and a few maliciously intemperate. The extreme comments have the effect of making those that are mildly reasonable in tone seem more reliable; some, more so than they deserve. The New York Times, for instance, editorializes about Haiti’s “generations of misrule, poverty and political strife,” as if those nouns were enough to explain the history of Haiti. …

The New World’s second republic has indeed known political strife, bad leadership, and poverty. But to judge Haiti fairly, it is essential to remember that the country won its independence under the worst imaginable circumstances. The Haitians declared their freedom in 1804, when the New World was mostly made up of European colonies (and the United States) all busily extracting wealth from the labor of millions of slaves. This included Haiti’s neighbors, the island colonies of France, Great Britain, Denmark, and The Netherlands, among others. From the United States to Brazil, the reality of Haitian liberation shook the empire of the whip to the core. Needless to say, no liberal-minded aristocrats or other Europeans joined the rebel side in the Haitian Revolution, as some had in the American Revolution.

The inescapable truth is that “the world” never forgave Haiti for its revolution, because the slaves freed themselves.

By using the sword against their oppressors, the Haitian people turned themselves into Thomas Jefferson’s universal human beings. Yet they were feared and reviled for having done so. International political, economic, and religious ostracism, imposed by their slaveholding neighbors, followed and lasted for close to a century. Not until 1862 did the United States recognize Haiti. What country that profited from slavery could dare to be a good neighbor? The Vatican did not sign a concordat with the new nation until 1860.

After the Revolution, the Haitian people were left to build all the national institutions that a state requires. The term “institution” is used here in a simple way: organizations for the conduct of a society’s social life, whether economic, political, or cultural. This includes a postal system, a system of education, a health system, even a system of roads. Institutions in pre-revolutionary St. Domingue—the colonial name of the territory—served only the one-fifteenth of the population that was free.

After the Revolution, those institutions had to be created anew by Haiti’s citizens—slaves before and now free, perhaps two-thirds of them Africa-born. In their struggle to build a state, the Haitians were obliged to pay 150 million Francs in onerous “indemnities” to the French, on the grounds that the former slaves had until recently been the property of those they defeated. This added burden was backed by the threat of re-invasion. The indemnities were the price of diplomatic recognition by France; debt service would keep the Haitians in economic crisis until the twentieth century.

A country wracked by more than a decade of invasion and revolution, then faced with financial punishment and isolation for scores of years, could not build the internal framework a strong civil society requires. This new, impoverished nation, endowed with a deeply divided class structure and seeking to survive with only the feeblest of institutions, was befriended by no one. Over time, that comfortable phrase—“misrule, poverty, and political strife”—now used to explain everything in Haiti, became more and more applicable.