Rise of Who?

Doing Comparative World History. Pomeranz, Bayly and Lieberman under review

The books under review in this essay are studies of comparative world history. This relatively new field of historical study most notably proves the interconnectedness of human socities and lives. Isolationist historical concepts that only investigated Europe or the United States are crumbling as this new umbrella of analysis lift history to new hights of explanatory power. The unescapable realisation that modern society is global - not national, civilisational or regional - challenges the historian to write global history. The divide between rich and poor specifically asks for explanation. How come some humans are helpless, while others are extremely resourcefull? And, when did this happen?

First of all, this calls for a story of winners and losers. This story is told by Kenneth Pomeranz in “The great Divergence”. The second story is of global transformation into a new era in human existance. This story is told by C. Bayly in “The birth of the Modern World”. Then another method for getting to grips with modernity submerges: taking a less significant region, that has not stood in the eye of the storm and analyse its history at very close detail over a period of 1000 years.

Pomeranz adopts the demographic theory of Robert Malthus, in which all people are essential losers, for they have to live – or die – with several natural constraints that keep their society from growing. War, Epidemics and Famine are nowadays experienced as non-Western phenomenons. The West was the first to evolve away from the Malthusian constraints championing industrial society. In earlier eurocentric accounts, causes to this venture were dug up from Greek and Roman antiquity, through the Middle Ages, into the Rennaissance, the Enlightenment and the Reformation. Europeans became known as the hard-working, competing and calculating people who deserved to invent the steam engine.
But, as Pomeranz shows, the diverging path came quite unexpected and was based mostly on luck. “The Great Divergence” is subtitled “China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy”. The comparison drawn between China and Europe is actually, Pomeranz notes, mostly about the Yanzi-basin and Britain. Eventhough Pomeranz is frequently shaky in maintaining this comparison it does seem to hold as a scheme for taking a closer look into Eurasia’s economically most advanced societies before the dawn of the modern age.
In the first part of “The great Divergence” he analyses modes-of-production, divisions of labor, markets, products and agricultural and proto-industrial technology. There seems then to be little difference between each of the developed parts of Eurasia. The second part is an attempt to look behind the decision-making curtain of these societies, to see whether there is a grain of difference making Europe better consumers, better producers or having better functioning markets. All fails to be proven once again. The only difference being the British ghost acrages across the Atlantic Ocean. In the third part of the book Pomeranz goes deeper into the shared constrains that Western Europea and East Asia had.
In a brilliant fashion Pomeranz uses many statistics, calculations and ‘numbers’ to show the striking similarity between Asia and Europe. The causal reasoning to the Rise of the West is then to be reduced to the following: The premodern world could experience extensive per-capita growth, up to a certain point. This point has to do with the Land constraint. The Europeans had acquired more land, more resources, more slaves and more energy then had been given to them. The discovery and exploitation of The New World forms one part of the explanation why Europe breached the constraint: colonies.
Coal, being the second resource, geographically, was of plenty in England. So plenty, that combined with trial-and-error-artisanship and consumer demand, led to the developement of high-level expertise. Furthrmore, the steam engine was invented to improve coal-mining. Since the mines were so wet, the English needed a mechanism to automatically drain the mines.
Once Britain’s full-on potential has surfaced, exploitation, high living-standards, industrial capitalism, imperialism and all other joys of “the great divergence” occured spontaneously. Yet, it could easily have all happened in economically-developed China, were it not for the coal and colonies. Once industrial life has gained speed, the potential of imported goods and a seemingly unlimited supply of energy put Britain on a rollercoaster ride of growth the world has never seen before.
So winning or losing in the game we call “breach Malthus” is about luck first, and dealing with lucky windfalls second. As far as Pomeranz is concerned, these are forces outside the market and conjunctures beyond Europe. Thus Pomeranz remains within an economic-historic view of this issue, and a very well-researched case he makes. In essence, this book shows within an economic context how the economy has not been the prime mover in the making of the modern world economy. Perhaps one also needs to look into the political context. Having colonies, trading in slaves, protecting the merchants and waging war doesn’t just happen, it is decided. Peer Vries has shown during class the lack of political-economy and institutions in Pomeranz. We return to this after having looked at Bayly.

Moving on to C.A. Bayly, we encounter a different method of placing modernity in a chain of historical causality. Here we find a human dimension, neglected by Pomeranz. Next to economic growth, political centralisation Bayly reviews the flows of global religion and ideology. Bayly sets out to assess all contributions people around the world made in creating the global modern world. Not a question of who was first or what lay in the root of modernity, but how did all cope with the forces that controlled our planet in the long 19th cenutry.
Four mechanisms that provoked regional adaptation to global streams of money, people, ideas, religions and techonologies existed: industriousness, industriality, domestication and seaborne commerce. These are his causes for divergence. They cannot be seen as seperate developements as they all constantly cause each other. People in India only became industrious with the appearance of new products, brought by seaborne commerce, driven forward by greed for more consumption, etc. But the divergence is not the entire story of the origins of modernity, for Bayly also seeks to include the social change and conflict that came after the divergence and has been driven forward by the new pressures the world has experienced since the Rise of the West.
Three global responses are visible: Governmentality into centralisation, Competition into innovation and the steady spread of Ideas and knowledge. Bayly’s concept of the global birth of modernity is his bold attempt to be completely inclusive in his historical analysis, within the time-span of one century. This leads to the following explanation of the “divergence”:
It is the concatenation of changes produced by the interactions of political, economic and ideological change at many different levels that provides the key.
Once all the changes produced by the interactions of changes are put together at many different levels, a key to solve the riddle should appear. The key is multi-perspectivity, multi-centricity and multiculturality, but is rendered unusable for historians. The result is an amazing overview of the global, interconnected, history of the 19th century. Religious, Intellectual, Technological and Scientific ideas boomed across the globe, societies undertook profound changes, regimes collapsed in the line of uncompatible ideologies in the advent of modernity. But, why then, did Europe take the largest piece of the pie?
Bayly adopts the Pomeranz-thesis of coal and colonies, and adds a specifically European egotistical buoyancy of philosophy, invention, public debate and the efficienty in killing others. I find it a great pity Bayly proclaims he does not wish to enter the present historical debate about the globalisation, esspecially about Western Exceptionalism. Moreover, the reader is left with a world of electrifying hecticity and confusing change. No easy categories, no single explanation.

Perhaps Bayly’s story is too general to get to grips with what modernity really is, and how it came into being. Maybe Pomeranz theory is too simple in writing off cultural, social and political differences in how different societies were run. The longer time span that is under close historical investigation in Victor Lieberman’s “Strange Parallels. Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800-1830. Volume 1: Integration on the Mainland” provides historians with a unique window on a region that nine out of ten times plays a passive and victimised role in the grand narrative. Can this long-term approach solve some of the problems of Pomeranz quick-and-easy-answer? Can this approach make more sense of Bayly’s all-too-general and heavy birth of the modern world?
Yes, by showing a dull, ever-cylcling history of political economy, of expansion and contraction, the reader gets a better view of the system of government over a thousand years, focussed on one region. We however must wait to see what causality Lieberman finds when comparing Southeast-Asia to Japan, Russia and France in Volume 2. In one sense, the long term Lieberman chooses shows how long history actually is. The trick not to leave out anything brings reality closer, than when structuring history to a teleological thesis. The trick to stay on land and with the local news instead of excessive reporting on “breaking world-news” gives you a sense of a more realistic, and less chaotic context.
Yes, only in the long-term can we see the presence of cultural life, like the Buddhist power in the Southeast-Asian kingdoms. In the light of political-economic concepts such as capitalism, tax-pressure and state-formation, the culture is often taken for granted, as a constant known. In Lieberman we clearly see a transition, neglected by Bayly, from religous authority to state-power. Not a transition of social change and revolution, but of administrative cycles and evolution.
Yes, selective multi-perspectivity makes more sense than vague global unwillingness to demarcate geography, found in Bayly. Small strokes make a better picture than a description of the range of colour on a painting. Eventhough Bayly succeeds in confronting the reader with the globality of change, the stroke remains all too coarse.


Possibly the biggest question in the modern academic study of history concerns the how and why of the modern world. This is the world known to us best. This world contains fierce economic competition between global-scale enterprises. It is driven by large wars between mature states that operate heavy machinery weapons. It is populated by over six billion humans. There is an evergrowing gap between rich and poor and a global web of communication techonology is connecting various populations together. Surely all of these modern features have their roots in history. But what made them appear? What is the origin of modernity?
We have seen the possibility of mapping the origin of modernity in the hands of the lucky British and we have seen the general and global vision of one very turbulant century in which a massive recalibration of trade, power and thought occured. Yet, it seems this is just a bit too easy. Victor Lieberman’s approach is still unfinished. He seems to hold the best cards at hand, as all wait the release of “Volume Two: Mainland mirrors: Russia, France, Japan and the Islands”.

`Our Sensors Indicate...´

Humans vs. Earth on a collision course? How can Big History correct us?

On board of your typical Star Trek-vessel, an officer, when reporting status, always mentions that “our sensors indicate that...” If Leopold von Ranke has ever been right that any historian’s mission is to look at the sources, than that time has now come. Our environment has changed absurdely in the last hundred years, so do John McNeill’s sources indicate.

Environmental history is an excellent example of the possibilities of history. John McNeill’s “Something New under the Sun. An environmental history of the twentieth century” is one such highly original masterpiece. Unlike many ‘normal’ history studies, this one exposes and explains a change in the world that seems undeniable. The contrast with other studies is the truly global context. Life as we perceive it is changing and has changed in a profoundly different way, than for instance, the VOC, the American Civil War or the fall of the Roman Empire, because it affects and has affected the status of the entire globe. The careful balance that we live in, which we can increasingly extract from science, is changed by modern human history through pollution and distortion of all the spheres of the planet:

-The earth beneath us is depleted of minerals and intoxicated.
-The constant streaming water is managed by humans and polluted by toxic waste.
-The air above us is increasingly composed of carbondioxide and ozon-molecules are broken down by can emissions.
-The life around us is becoming less diverse,
-The energy we take from the total the sun gives us is approx. A quarter.

Historically, this is caused by the economic growth of the last 500 years, but the human need and creative use of energy had existed for longer period, since archaic time. David Christian calls this Human “Collective Learning”. So, what do we make from our collective deeds? We need an objective measure. In this way “An Introduction to Big History. Maps of Time” enhances the big claim John McNeill is making. David Christian makes up the balance, exposing how everything in and around us is made up of the occurance of the Big Bang.
A long and completely natural history is divided in several “Maps of Time”. The Universe has a very fast beginnging and spreads out, not alive. Life on earth starts in a coincidental combination of calibration of settings. Human history begins with ´many worls´, ´few´ worlds are left in the Holoscene and by the time the history has reached the modern world, there is only one world left. In this perspective it seems Humanity is choking itself, no doubt about that.

So what is change? And what change actually matters? Herein lies a moral question. And in essence, all moral considerations are completely personal, but shouldn’t every person consider his / her planet? I think McNeiill would like this idea, but not every person is embodied to stop this change. Everybody has contributed to the pollution, but all need cars, airplanes, plastic, electricity, satellites etc. In order for their life to work. And nobody would like to take the chance, anticipating it would bring little change. Some have disciplined principles, but most follow society. Still, through science in general, and environmental history in particular, awareness can be injected into politics. Even the super-polluter China has agreed to build a giant solar-powerstation in the Gobi desert in close cooperation with the World Wildlife Foundation.

Offcourse, every politician knows, this is not a hot issue. CFC has been combatted in a global campaign, and geologists have improved their monitoring and lobbying skills greatly since the 1970’s. So it is not all bad, but the general tone is that Nature is ours to exploit. Governments are actually pretty good in managing and maintaining the quality of their own piece of land, but the global issue will only be solved on a global governmental decision. Humanity quarrels over territory, but a deeper understanding that this problem is different, new and globally huge seems problematic. Perhaps a new educational perspective is needed?

“Maps of time” is validated as a modern creation myth in the beginning. The case made by J. McNeill proves the need for having a modern creation myth. Older traditional myth’s cannot longer provide us with a realistically progressive thought, like the environmental one urging humans to see the truth of pollution. The integration of various held-to-be-true sciences are brought together to form one large meta-history. In John McNeill’s Master-course a discussion has been introduced about whether or not is it usable to use “Maps of Time” in school. This is the other divide of the moral issue.

In the United States, and less public also in Europe and elsewhere, debates have risen over the content of schools’s creation myths. Science has previously been challenged by Creationism, upholding the God-created-in-seven-dasy story as an educational necessity. Is it possible that teaching Big History-creation myth would enhance appreciation for environmental history? Perhaps it has already done so implicitally.

The bigger picture is still present in Christian, as his story of modern humans takes on caricatural form. We are mammalous weed that is compelled into taking mind-altering substances. We, with our longetivity need to fortify our bodies with supplementals, injections, anti-biotics. Humanity has gone slightly mad, an observer would note.

I find the big history approach an excellent introduction for historians, so they can see the big picture and can relate the place of humanity in all existance without losing rationality. I find moral approach to modernity’s biggest problem –the environment - very useful for the historian, because it makes much more sense if history is to assist governmental policies (governments do pay historians after all). This makes more sense than historians digging up national histories, reviving national heroes and telling stories from a time unknown. Or are all our governements nationalistic institutes?

These two books enhance each other greatly. Environmental history is an excellent Big History-Case-Study. I support the modern creation myth as an education-tool, as problems with global matters such as the enovironment (energy, greenhouse-effects, etc.) are real problems, while other historical problems are more entertaining for one’s identity.

Meta-History vs. Entertaining Culture

Philosophical issues in world history

We humans are one of a kind. A mystery and an interesting question for historians lies in explaining this species and what it has done on earth. Are humans just another fase in evolution, a construction of amazingly complex systems based on amazingly simple cores? Are there certain rules of nature that have shaped our common evolution? Or are we not so easily structurable and always doing the unexpected? Two truly inspiring, beautifully written World-History books are under review in this essay.

The “Maps of Time. An Introduction to Big history” of David Christian is an attempt to compose a grand narrative of meta-history. Not a specific place in history is under examination; no intruiging puzzle of diplomacy; no personal dilemma’s of historical figures. All that has happened until today has followed a path over time. These paths are mapped and the resulting world history forms an impressive overview of all knowledge. Another impressive overview is gathered by John Wills in “1688. A Global History”. This book takes a snapshot of humanity. In the resulting picture several historical trends can be seen, but it is the diversity of culture and anecdotal fascination that grabs the reader the most. One has less difficulty relating to another persons biography, than the chemical processes that have created the Universe. Furthermore, culture encapsulates life from a human perspective that may be less scientific, but is certainly realistic.

Now, how and why does “Maps of Time” need more attention to Culture? In order to answer this question properly a further definition of the term “Culture” and a further inspection into the methodology of “Maps of Time” is needed.
The term Culture is a very slippery one for the historian. It is mostly used to divide specific groups of people from others. Most compromise exists on the following definition:
The system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviours, and artifacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning.
Culture is intrinsically human. Trying to know one’s surrounding by communicating and sharing world-views with other members of your group is a part of the survival of our species. In a sense, humans cannot exist without culture and all possess one way of culture. The dark side of this is that there is no objective observation possible of culture. If all of us have our definitions of the world, how can one of us sense reality?
David Christian summarises his meta-history as a modern creation myth. The set of beliefs globally adapted since modernity are scientific. And so, science too has the job to explain our origin.

Here lies the first problem. “Maps of Time” is an outstanding example of meta-history, yet it does not tackle the main philosophical issues, or “Big Ideas”. This time around the forward dynamics of history are not divine, nor materialistic, and certainly not human considering the blip our common existence is in the Universe, but natural. Not only does this show by the spelling of Nature with a capital letter, but also in the narrative. It would be fair to dub this book Naturalistic. Yet structuing all history still does not automatically reveal a system that exposes the future in all nudity, at least not the visible future. Cultural world-views think up Future. History does not show it. Thus it doesn’t seem to add much to the understanding of history, as long as it only describes all known mechanisms in a fairly dry fashion. Not one feature of history is left problematic and this may run 180º contra the artistic and intruigingly unsolvable charachter of history. David Christian however does seem to collect all systemaized knowledge into an overall framework and he manages to structure all of history, doing away with other concepts of meta-history.
Another problem lies in the translation from the sciences to the reader of big history. In one sense David Christian is doing is his best to represent scientific values that are linguistically so diverse, as they range from biology, astronomy, anthrolpology, sociology to cosmology and even religion and arts. This he does in his own language, searching for consensus every other sentence. Finding artistic solutions for mathematical problems. How does this work with world history?
For example, Christian boasts a concept he calls the “social law of gravity”. Gravity, in its formulatic fashion cannot explain the appearence of cities and their evolution easily, and since this book is just “an introduction to...” Christian does not attempt a further experiment. Christian also anecdotes the trees migrating north after the last Ice Age. This kind of language thus remains descriptive, and in one way, cultural, as it tries to appeal the human imagination. This book’s various Maps of Time contains a story of difference.

Time, like pattern, means difference, if no more than the difference between then and now. So this story, like most creation storiesm is really about the emergence of difference from an original sameness. In this version, as in many creation myths, difference begins with a fundamental clash of oppposites. (p. 19)

Another way in which Christian did have Culture on his mind was in explaining to the reader the scales and proportions by making comparisons to everyday-measurements, typically your “top of the Eiffel-tower”-argument. A complete historical study must contain some form of space-time framework in order to cultivate historical awareness. David Christian tries to tackle this issue by introducing a set of differently scaled time-tables, being the pages of his Maps of Time. Each page contains its own system of change:
-the cosmoc – 13 billion years
-the earth, the biosphere and “Gaia” – 4.5 billion years
-multicellular organims – 600 million years
-human evolution – 7 million years
-human history – 200,000 years
-history of agrarian socities and urban civilizations – 5,000 years
-modernity – 1,000
So what happened to the need for eye-witnesses? Well, having “big history’ has really diminished chance any historical witness can bring news. Any cultural experience ever recorded by man is substitutional and carries no explaining power, making it obsolete. All study of history is offcourse praised for the collective value, but – and he is no the only historian thinking this way – here lies a new paradigm history needs to take. Intellectual modesty is unnecessary and harmful, he claims.

How does the cultural analysis of “1688” provide the insight needed for world history?
John Wills gives colour to the first, basic level of world history, in which historians simply globalise their physical scope. The globe of “1688” is a vibrant globalisation, which is there, almost breathing. This creates a unique sense of the history of the world, more specifically of our shared history. In contrast with the more popular era’s studies in world history being great transformations -from Hunting to Settling and from Working the land to Working energy - this book is a one-year virtual road-trip from one person to another and from one society to another. The reader can taste the diversity of culture, but can also sense how close all these cultures actually are related to one another.
Wills does the cultural tour of one earthly year. Culture is diverse, communicating, feels alive and entertains the imagination. The absence of logic makes a 1688-world-view feel exciting and adventureous. But what does this book do to the research of World History? It certainly makes a lot of points on globalisation, gender studies, migration history, earlymodern capitalism and entreperneurship, the rise of science, religious persecution. But then again it doesn’t name these processes, it does not conclude or sum up any of the described events in discussable terms. Yet, it is excellent history. It brings faraway and static events in the past close to the mind of the reader. The style that is chosen in the book is a very enjoyable ride of beautiful words, as the literary capacity of the author provides the read with fascinating space to think.
Furthermore, the picking of 1688 is remarkable. Seemingly, this is a balanced and fair world. No European dominance or arrogance, but Baroque! Flowering cultural expression seems to fit this Global Culture History. I do think is a pity that the author did not conclude this snapshot of humanity.

To conclude this odd comparison I would like to categorise “Maps of Time” as complete and absolute theory, with interactive concepts, mechanisms and systems based on a single division in the Universe: Energy and Matter. “1688” is a fascinating account of human practice. No logic rules in this sphere of humanity, but unmeasurable cultural concepts as emotion, admiration and art.


Questions from the audience #4

A person from Andhra Pradesh, Hyderabad, India has searched google to:
explain the impact of the internet on mother nature

A person from Uganda has asked msn.com to:

I find these extremely fascinating questions any I trust many zero and ones have ordered themselves around the globe to seek the most accurate linguistic answer possible. So here goes.

Mother Nature, or Gaya, is a fantasy tale. It is mostly a naturalistic ideology that construts moral safety for a human being, such as God. However, Mother implies a different set of human emotion. Where as God is a creative regime, the Mother suggest humans are born, in stead of created. As the religious folk say Man was created in the eyes of God. Mother Nature was in labour and had her eyes shut because of the pain. And to naturalists, she is a constant caretaker. Mother Nature endures impact from Human Kind, being the only kind to consume 25% of all energy our planet can receive from the sun. (source)
Internet is a form of human communication, but like the invention of press it is also a technological change for society. Internet is the new authority, and unlike Television it is not zombifying to endure, but exciting to explore.

The most important impact internet has on Mother Earth is the globalisation of communication. The freedom of ideas, most notably "naughty" ones, has joined a big part of the world population closer together. Modern Terrorism is unimaginable without the internet, for it is opening up so much knowledge. Young Gaming folk join into "clans" and an unending resource of discussion platform on top of this. Racism, Anti-Semitism, Fans of Britney Spears, Nationalists, Politicians, Artists, Film Directors, etc., etc. can now communicate fast and easy. The very fact that Mother Earth can be viewed as a whole in Google Earth is amazing and proves the sociological impact, or perhaps the intrintic human progressiveness towards more communication. (source)

As for the person from Uganda's question, I don't know what your Ideal is. If you desire good and freedom for all, as humanist would do, you would be best of with an independant, codified and democratic rule of law. If you desire orde and controle, you would be best with an authoritarian and discriminating rule of law.


France and the positive past

In 1830 French armies in Algeria started what was to be a long history of imperialism. Algeria was to become a full-on French province, much like Normandy. Indeed, the new colony attracted many French people. Algeria soon developed a new French population that considered itself indigenous. The process of decolonisation, however, is perhaps one of the horrors of the decade, resulting in an eight year struggle, ending in a popular referendum that declared Algeria an independant state. Now a law has been passed in French parliament that notes that "school programs recognize in particular the positive character of the French overseas presence, notably in North Africa." Although President Jaques Chirac has called the law a "big screw-up", it maintains.

Background Information


Frantic Peace and Loving

This last weekend The Hague hosted a new Film Festival called Shoot-Me. Unfortunately I only had time to visit one movie, but it was really worth it. I went to Michael frantic "I Know I'm Not Alone" and was confronted with the situation in Baghdad and in Israel/Palestine. This time it wasn't about History. It wasn't about politics. It wasn't about oil. It wasn't about money or about "Clash of civilization". Instead, this movie portrayed humans who have feelings. Humans who suffer. Not only the occupied, but also the occupier. It was truly a very moving movie. I love Israel and find it at various times difficult to maintain this, due to the politics in the media.
Michael Franti is an American Musician who decided, being frustrated with the twisted media, to go and take a look with his own eyes what was going on in Iraq and Israel. In this movie you sense Franti's enthusiasm and peacefulness. In Baghdad he is taken to families who live in very poor conditions (no electricity for most of the day), he is driven around by taxi-drivers who cannot drive through town, afraid. In Terror. He takes us to Iraq's Metal Band the Black Scorpion and to independent Radio Station. The situation in Baghdad is confusing, chaotic, unsafe, unsecured and most of all: unreasonable. American forces are the Occupiers, no doubt about that. The liberation is through, the insurgents want freedom, etc.
Franti then goes to Israel and talks to Palestinians, Israeli Soldiers and Former Soldiers. He visits Hippie Tel Avivians and seeks hope in this desperate situation. Talking about History has no point, one can see a IDF-soldier going mad over the exact location of the Green Line. Franti tries another approach. Why not forget history and talk about the feeling. This is productive. The Palestinian explains to the soldier how he feels unfree, occupied. The soldier tells the Palestinian how he cannot feel safe, his mother does not feel safe and how does not want to let the country he believes in down. Then the second, obviously more pragmatic soldier steps in. He and the Palestinian agree. Religion must stay out of politics.

This movie moved me very much, making me realize how fragile I am. How lucky I am not to have served in the Israeli Army. This movie gives hope, exposes fear and has but one very simple conclusion: If you are moved by the movie, you are on the side of the peacemakers. Be sure to watch this enlightened piece of documentary about one of the worlds most avoided problems. Go to the website.