The web had closed
Around most of the globe
By 1500 AD:
What would the next half-Millennium see?
The Rise of the West
From un-cleared forest
To unrestrained behemoth
In just nine centuries
In the process, initiating
Great waves of change
On every continent,
In every domain
William H. McNeill and J.R. McNeill co-authored The Human Web: A Bird's Eye View of Human History (2003), which we met in Act II, and which follows the progress and impact of the webs of interaction among humans as they spread around the planet. The years around 1500 were an important milestone, not only for the fusion of the Old World and New World webs into the first 'Worldwide Web', but also for the thickening of the webs as long-distance oceanic voyages became more frequent and their cargo more voluminous.
The only exception among complex agricultural societies by this time was the highland region of Papua New Guinea, which was not discovered by outsiders until the 1930s, when aviators observed farmlands there from above.
'Nine centuries' refers to the period roughly from 1000-1900 AD. Act III picks up the story from c. 1500, when Europe was beginning to 'catch up' with, but was still considerably less sophisticated than, other major Old World civilizations.
Europeans had taken home
The learnings of Rome,
Greece and Islam,
Not to mention
Began to expand
Touching every land
From ocean to ocean
Disturbing old notions
Early in their journeys
Purely by luck
Two enormous lands
Now called American
Divided by treaties
Full of new species
And even some cities
At first through Spain
Came global distribution of the gains,
We called it the Columbian Exchange
William Bernstein's A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World (2008) spends a few concise pages turning the myth of Christopher Columbus as a great navigator on its head. Famously, we are told, Columbus sought a westward route to China, but landed on a Caribbean island instead, inaugurating the discovery of the Americas, which were then unknown to Europeans*. But we might pause for a moment to ask - what would have happened if the Americas were not there? Columbus and his crews would have all starved, lost at sea. And they should have known this - Bernstein explains that the circumference of the Earth had been calculated as long ago as c. 200 BC by the ancient Greeks, with a high degree of accuracy; Columbus cherry-picked his data and deluded himself that the westward route was possible. Unfortunately, the Portuguese royal court was well-stocked with learned men who could check Columbus' maths and point out his fatal errors - that's why he had trouble gaining royal sponsorship! The courts of Spain, England and France also rightly rejected his plans before the Spanish Queen somehow changed her mind. See also James W. Loewen, Lies my Teacher Told Me (1995), for more revision of Columbus myths, including an account of the brutal savagery he meted out on Amerindians.
*'Viking' settlers in Greenland visited Vinland, their name for what is now north-east Canada, once a year to collect supplies especially charcoal, but knowledge of these lands does not appear to have been widespread in Europe, and by 1492 the Greenland colonies were cut off from shipping by the Little Ice Age. In any case, no-one could have guessed that those shores were the edge of two contiguous continents stretching literally to the other end of the Earth. No-one had any clue that there was anything but 12,000 miles of ocean between European and Chinese shores. It could therefore be argued that Columbus' discovery of the Americas was therefore the greatest stroke of fortune in history
The phrase, 'Columbian Exchange' was first coined by Alfred Crosby in 1972, to describe the enormous range and volume of people, goods, species, techniques, ideas, diseases, etc. which travelled in both directions between the New World and the Old World, over several centuries. William H. McNeill and J.R. McNeill's The Human Web (2003) is of course about interaction in general; the Columbian Exchange followed the fusion of the first fully 'Worldwide Web', to use their terminology, from the existing Old World and New World webs, and is therefore treated at length in its wider context.
I have a copy of, but have not yet read, Charles Mann's 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (2012), which is the most recent treatment of the subject, but if his 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005) is anything to go by, it will be excellent. 1491 describes the human history of the Americas from the Ice Age colonisation c.15,000 years ago, until the eve of the European intrusion.
Peanuts chilli and maize
Enriched the diets
Treasures of silver and gold
Helped market trades flow
Medicines, like quinine
To combat malaria
And open all areas
In the other direction
Diseases of course,
Cattle and the horse
Millions of people
The book and the steeple
The flow of exchange did not happen overnight; many of the important crops took several centuries to take root and flourish in foreign continents. Quinine was exported as a medicine for several centuries before the plants that produced it were themselves exported. Around 1850, plantations of the Cinchon tree, native to Peru and from which the powerful anti-malarial drug quinine is derived, were established in what is now Indonesia. Their output lowered the world price of the drug and finally opened tropical and sub-tropical Africa first to exploration and later conquest; previously the death rate among Europeans was too high to maintain a presence beyond small port communities.
At the end of Act II, we saw how disease devastated indigenous Amerindian peoples, their states and societies, and literally cleared land for white European conquest. But diseases would continue to arrive, including yellow fever and malaria from Africa, which would turn the disease gradient against fresh white European arrivals in widespread areas, particularly the tropics. J. R. McNeill's Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (2010) is a masterful account of the continuing role of disease in the Americas, from the ecological changes associated with forest clearance and plantation agriculture, which facilitated the spread of the pathogens, to their impacts on political events of the first order.
Ever wonder how the growing naval behemoth that was 18th-Century Great Britain singularly failed to pick off any of the glittering prizes of the declining Spanish Empire? Locally-born citizens of Spanish descent acquired resistance/immunity (or died) in early childhood, so the besiegers of say Cartagena in 1741 would be laid waste while the defenders were not. Meanwhile, black Africans, who enjoyed greater resistance and immunity, were therefore (unfortunately for them) the only reliable source of labour which could work Caribbean sugar plantations once the diseases had established themselves during the 17th-century, greatly increasing demand in the African slave trade.
More surprisingly, the Haitian slave revolt (1790-1804), the American War of Independence (1776-83), the Latin American wars of Independence (1815-20), United States wars against Mexico, and France's failure to build the Panama Canal were all shaped in very significant ways by Yellow Fever and Malaria. Finally, c.1900, the American constructors of the Panama Canal mastered the management of these diseases and their vectors.
From coast to coast
We're at a crossroads
At the centre of the network
Stood London and Lisbon,
Amsterdam and Antwerp;
Hence the concentration
Of new information
Wealth and innovation
In a narrow location
What's on the horizon inspired
New phases of evolution:
Scientific, and industrial revolution
David Christian, in Maps of Time (2004), makes the powerful argument that the reasons why the Industrial Revolution happened in Great Britain when it did were similar to why the breakthroughs to agriculture and the formation to states happened 5-10,000 years earlier in the Middle East: both were 'a bottleneck and a hub', i.e. both an area of relatively intense overlap of network paths, and a centre of gravity.
It is interesting to compare Christian's line of reasoning to Vermeij's observations in Nature: An Economic History (2004) that larger and warmer (more energy-dense) ecosystems tend to be centres of innovation, from which species of superior power tend to emerge and migrate into peripheral regions.
Jack Goldstone's Why Europe? The Rise of the West in World History 1600-1850 (2009), offers another important perspective on why the Industrial Revolution happened when and where it did. Goldstone surveys various competing theories, in most cases finding that European exceptionalism is exaggerated in many respects (e.g. urban economic development, liquid capital, long-distance trade and credit, technical skill, religious tolerance, tariffs and taxation, private sector freedom from regulartion, etc.), before concluding a number of points:
1. The IR is best understood as a very long-term period of accelerating innovation, centred in Great Britain for c. 150 years from 1700-1850;
2. The immediate cause was the emergence of a social milieu of interacting natural philosophers, technical experimenters and financiers;
3. Crucial for this was the scientific community comprised of the Scottish Universities and the Royal Society headquartered in London (not Oxbridge, for all its self-importance!);
4. These movements had their roots in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century, which had its own origins in the wave of new knowledge and information washing over Europe since 1500 from the Voyages of Discovery, the findings of astronomy, and the supernova event of 1604 which was visible to the naked eye; together these new data helped break the rigid authority of the medieval European worldview and liberate scientific enquiry;
5. Also the absence of impediment from and lack of reliance on the central political authority was important.
For me, Goldstone's arguments are persuasive and important, but they are even more powerful when considered in the context of David Christian's analysis described in the previous point. The following verses explore some of these points further and offer my own conclusion on the question, 'Why Europe?'
Great Treks across the sea
Voyages of discovery
Collecting grand libraries
Had already been tried
By Cheng-Ho and Al-Razi
But their movements died
By the distinguished
In Europe too,
Popes crushed hopes
Bound thoughts with ropes
Offered Galileo the rack
But why no turning back?
Slipping through the cracks
The spirit of Francis Bacon
To sustain the game
Of invention and knowledge retention
David Abernethy's The Dynamics of Global Dominance
(2000) presents the 15th-Century Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho's great fleet and voyages as far larger and technically more impressive than Christopher Columbus' small caravels. The careers of Cheng Ho and the Chinese navy were unfortunately cut short in 1430 by an Imperial court more concerned by the overland threat from horseback warriors of the steppe, than by the profits of naval exploration and commerce. Compare this to the Genoese Columbus shopping around the royal courts of Portugal and Spain until he found a sponsor for his crackpot scheme. More on The Dynamics of Global Dominance
Islamic science flourished in the 9th and 10th centuries AD, absorbing Greek and Indian influences and adding much to human knowledge before declining in the 11th, but not before passing it all on to an emerging, peripheral and culturally backward Europe. McNeill's Rise of the West
(1963) and Albert Hourani's A History of the Arab Peoples
(1991) offer concise summaries of medieval Islamic science, but perhaps the best place to start is the Wikipedia page.
These lines represent my own arguments which were original (to me at least) when I first wrote about the importance of Europe's political fragmentation (and the geographical basis of the fragmentation) in a practice dissertation in Easter 2003. McNeill's The Shape of European History (1976) and possibly Venice: The Hinge of Europe (1974) were influential in noting that the same forces were gripping Europe, also The Pursuit of Power (1990), which discusses the importance of weapons development and procurement across borders; I read all of these later. At thte time, David Landes' The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998) was unsatisfactory; it seemed merely to enumerate technical innovations and attribute this to an amorphous culture of innovation across Europe. David Abernethy meanwhile, in the outstandingThe Dynamics of Global Dominance (2000) stressed the relevance of central authority vs. fragmentation in the context of overseas expansion.
For me, the crucial distinction is that non-European explorers, entrepreneurs, scholars and scientists were subject to the mercy of the interest and whims of singular central authorities much more precariously than their European equivalents. European authorities were indeed willing to stamp out unorthodox thought with ruthless brutality (see for example the Spanish Inquisition), but were unable to influence thought beyond their own borders.
We might also consider that the outlets on population pressure afforded by temperate, disease-cleared lands in the Americas and Australasia (and to a lesser extent in South Africa), may have helped Europe, and in particular Great Britain, avoid a crippling internecine conflict like China's Taiping Rebellion (1850-70), and/or a renewed orthodox movement like the earlier Counter-Reformation referred to here.
Science and it's appliance
In pursuit of finance
An unholy alliance
Of crown and capital
Fighting their battles
For markets and supplies
While volumes rise and rise
Growing so quick
Under pressure from vested interests, the state pursued foreign policies which secured supplies and export markets, and protected them from rivals, while also protecting domestic markets from superior imports with tariff barriers where applicable.
These arguments apply to several countries in Western Europe, but it struck me, when studying 18th-Century Europe at university, that Great Britain was compelled to invest in the sea for reasons of national security over and above the profit motive, in a way that did not apply as strongly to any other country. By 'national security' I mean not just protection against seaborne invasion by the much larger continental armies, but also the protection of vital supply lines, the ability to export goods and people, to grow rich by trade and to relieve population pressure. This applied from perhaps as early as 1650 until at least 1950. Only with Britain's eclipse by the rise of the USA, the Cold War and the end of military rivalry in Western Europe, did this 300-year strategic imperative finally diminish.
I do not feel that I have yet discovered an adequate general explanation for economic growth. Comparison with the concept autocatalysis in chemistry and biology is my own suggestion. My idea is probably influenced by, I think (it was c. 2003), Eric Jones' argument that economic growth just happens, if unimpeded, and it is more telling to identify the impediments to growth in history (perishable goods, difficulty of transport, danger of confiscation/theft by force, etc.). I came across Jones' argument in, I think, Human History and Social Process (1989), which he co-authored with Goudsblom and Mennell, but have not read any of his more comprehensive works such as Growth Recurring (1988).
The flame of knowledge became
A furnace burning in earnest
Not wood but coal, oil and gas
Ancient reserves are vast
Allowing production in mass
Inventions coming thick and fast
Steel ships, aviation
Communication in an instant
The modern web:
All the World's knowledge in bed
We broke organic constraints
On population capacity
With new audacity
Of 7 billion people alive today
Half would die without the supply
Of synthetic fertilizers
From the land of Kaisers
The labour of Bosch and Haber
Our creator and saviour
In high-school chemistry, we are taught the chemical reaction and temperature/pressure conditions for the Haber-Bosch process, which converts atmosphere nitrogen into ammonia, and that this output is used in the manufacture of fertilizers and explosives. But we are not told the scale of Humankind's current dependency on the process, nor the dangers of its disruption to natural nitrogen cycles; Vaclav Smil's Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch and the Transformation of World Food Production (2001) sets us straight on these points and more. As is customary of Smil, it is a masterful blend of history and science, technical detail and quantitative analysis, rooted in context.
Europe wasn't the first
But what volume and variety
Of techniques in infiltration,
Domination and exploitation;
By Nineteen-Hundred, barely a few
Had not succumbed yet
I think I first heard the phrase 'expanding society' used to describe European imperial expansion by John Darwin in a lecture in 2003. It refers to a society which projects itself on others societies and lands politically, economically and demographically, i.e. explores, colonises, subordinates them. William H. McNeill's Plagues and Peoples (1976) identifies the phenomenon recurring throughout history from ancient times, and adds disease gradients as crucial mediators of the process. Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel (1997) is another celebrated comparative approach, while David Abernethy’s Dynamics of Global Dominance (2000) illuminates the role of disease (amongst other phenomena such as religion) in shaping the geographical patterns of European expansion and conquest.
On a side note, McNeill's Plagues and Peoples also finds similarities in demographic trends among the ancient and modern worlds, such as the tendency for the expanding society to eventually decline in fertility and import people from marginal and/or subordinate societies where reproductive rates are now higher. McNeill notes this can be seen as a manifesto of the Biblical adage 'the meek shall inherit the Earth'. In ancient times dense urban societies were susceptible to catastrophic pandemic in a way that (we hope!) the modern world will be protected from by medical science.
The 'survivors' were Japan, Thailand, Afghanistan and Abyssinia (Ethiopia).
Trading guns and spades
In Africa for slaves
Across the waves
To lands of freedom
To harvest the cotton
That industry feeds on
There is much debate about the economic significance of black slavery in the Americas, but for me it is of central importance: the 'triangular trade' in the 18th century as a driver of shipping and manufacturing export, production of the sugar which powered early industrial labour and supplied so much wealth to European states, and in the 19th century for the production of cotton. The importance of cotton manufacture is in the next verse.
To complete the acquisition
And monopoly on opium
Pushing it on Canton
A trade to be counted on
Until the prices got better
For textiles from Manchester
Just as irresistible
David Abernethy's The Dynamics of Global Dominance (2000) was probably the third most important influence on my early historical career, after William H. McNeill and Jack Goldstone (I discovered Chaisson and Christian much later). The Dynamics considers why European overseas empires were so strikingly successful from 1500 onwards, and finds the answer in a powerful alliance between state, private commerce and church. He then examines the nature of the non-European lands and states that Europeans found, and explains how their strengths and weaknesses helped shape the extent and timings of European penetration. One such weakness came from internal political division, the exploitation of which by European invaders was important in the conquests of the Aztec Empire and the successor states to the Mughal Empire in India.
See also David Washbrook's excellent essay, Progress and Problems: South Asian Economic and Social History c. 1720-1860 in Modern Asian Studies 22 vol 1 (1998), which reveals how conflict among the emerging, modernising successor states to the Mughal Empire drew the British into India.
The British East India Company, i.e. the government of British India, enforced a monopoly for itself on the production and export of opium in India in 1781. The main market was China, where, despite Imperial prohibition, it commanded a high price and was widely consumed, causing the sort of social disruption associated with narcotic use.
This trade became of central importance to Great Britain until at least c. 1850 for two reasons:
1. It provided enormous revenues to the colonial government of British India; and
2. It balanced the trade deficit between Great Britain and China.
Britain imported large quantities of Chinese tea and porcelain, which she had to pay for in bullion because Chinese markets were not interested in any British exports; such an imbalance is potentially very economically damaging. It was not until the 1830s in India and 1850s in China that British textiles were of a sufficient quality and price to flood local markets and devastate their domestic industries.
It is not often remarked that the early British Empire and Industrial Revolution were born on the back of slavery and narcotics.
Imposing Unequal Treaties
On Far Eastern peoples
Their domestic wares
Can't compete in fares,
So they disappeared.
Now economists will disagree
But every major modern economy
Grew up behind tariffs and barriers
Until among the leaders
They no longer needed them
And no longer believed in them
This is true of Britain, Germany, France USA, Russia and China, at different times from 1700 (Great Britain prohibiting import of Indian calicoes before launching the industrial revolution based on textile manufacture) to the present (China).
These were my own thoughts as I inadvertently came across the relevant facts studying European empires at university.
Japan is an exception that proves the rule: unable to erect tariff barriers until military equals of the West, they developed skilfully and painfully under masterful central planning, mass-mobilization and conditions of heavy over-work for the labouring classes. They sent a delegation around the world to learn from other countries, and imported foreign (Western) specialists so long as they were required.
So how did the rest of the World
React when they heard
The knock of Europe as it neared?
Of assembling armies
Took on new urgency
Modern supplies and weaponry
Required larger bureaucracy,
Education and industry
Some were adaptable
In, say Japan
Less so for Islam
William H. McNeill, in The Rise of the West (1963) and later works, identified two main impulses to borrowing between societies: admiration and reaction to threat; we see the latter in action here. It quickly became apparent to would-be military modernizers that military strength in the age of machines required sweeping reforms to the economy, education, society and even culture. Given that the West had already 'worked out' many of the 'answers', wholesale importation of the Western way of life was often commenced (and this is still true of the world at the turn of the 21st Century, although not without reaction now as then). Such changes constituted threats both to the aspects of people's identity linked to their local cultures, and to the fortunes of those who enjoyed power, wealth, influence etc. in the old system. John Darwin also explores these points in his excellent After Tamerlane: The Rise & Fall of Global Empires 1400-2000 (2007).
This process is also what McNeill meant by 'Rise of the West' - forms of political, cultural, social and economic organisation that were first developed in Europe and North America being transplanted on, or adopted by, the rest of the world.
McNeill explicitly made this contrast between Japanese and Islamic societies' differential abilities to adapt to the challenges of modernisation. I think I first came across it in A World History (1967).
Of problems of subsistence
Reinforced by credit crises
Threatened by all this
Elites might resist
But internal disorder
Could open the door
For hostile takeover
An important dimension to add to the account of the challenge posed by the rise of the West, the rest of the world's reactions, takeover and resistance etc., as outlined in the preceding sections, comes from the emerging branch of historical study called Cliodynamics that we met in Act II.
Jack Goldstone in Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (1991) and Turchin and Nefedov in Secular Cycles (2008), and the journal Cliodynamics, explore the role of demographic cycles (or waves) in historical events as diverse as the English (1640), French (1789) and Russian (1917) revolutions, crises in the ancient Roman Empire, and the Taiping Rebellion (c. 1850-70). The last of these devastated China and paved the way for dismemberment into 'spheres of influence' dominated by competing European powers (and the USA).
The picture shown here is of the Battle of Tel-El-Kebir, which marks the final seizure of British control over Egypt in 1879. The fortunes of Egypt in the 19th century illustrate many of the themes in this and the preceding verses.
With all this novelty, turmoil and change
Thinkers needed new ways to explain;
New philosophy, or ideology
Highlighted with subtle refinement,
The irrationality of monarchy
Denied its divinity,
And advocated liberty
And pursuing their dreams.
This meant just men of means
Led to the emancipation
Of slaves, women and whole nations
An obvious contradiction in the history of the United States of America is the fact that her Declaration of Independence (1776), with its famous lines about liberty, equality, unalienable rights, etc., echoed in these verses, did not lead to the end of slavery for another 90 years. Further, the descendants of slaves did not enjoy basic rights of citizenship for another 100 years after that, suffering segregation, discrimination, arbitrary violence without adequate protection by law, etc. Compounding the irony is the fact the Declaration was written and signed by slaveowners. The position of the Declaration's main author, Thomas Jefferson, on slavery was contradictory but he remained a slaveowner while some Virginians freed their slaves. Similarly, the treatment of Native Americans and immigrants from non-Anglo Saxon, white ethnic groups fell far short of the ideals of the Declaration.
James W. Loewen Lies my Teacher Told Me (1995) explores the more nuanced realities behind popular myths in American history as presented in High School textbooks, finding that what actually happened and why is often very different to the official stories. And much more interesting. See also Howard Zinn's classic, A People's History of the United States (1980). Finally, David Bryon Davis' Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2006) is the most recent account of slavery, racism, their connections and their importance in the development of the USA.
Loewen's criticisms may or may not be out of date 18 years later, but his point certainly stands more generally, in that popular Western perceptions of history remain somewhat myopic and self-contragulatory. University-level history is professionally critical of the Western past, but professors have made only limited steps to expand their undergraduate syllabuses beyond the introspective.
So Smith and Ricardo remarked it:
Allow freedom too in the market
Prices of food and labour
Subject to the favour
Of supply and demand
The invisible hand
Can give and it can it take
The earnings you make
Might not be a living wage
A different kind of slaves
With nothing to lose but their chains
Adam Smith and David Ricardo were late-18th and early-19th Century thinkers credited with formulating the central tenets of classical economics such as the mutual benefits of free trade, comparative advantage, etc., which remain part of orthodox economic theory today. The 'invisible hand' is Smith's famous metaphor for the action of market forces.
Adapted from one of the closing lines of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel's Communist Manifesto (1848).
That's why it was heard
All over the world:
The manifesto of Marx,
Read aloud, in town squares and the parks
And where the old regimes collapsed
We saw red on the maps
But only where they collapsed
The Communist experiments
Industrialised whole continents
Building socialist utopia
Driven by ideals and paranoia
They pursued with zeal
Enemies, imagined and real
Performed wonders and great blunders
Defeated the Nazis
In the greatest war in history
Unlocked the energy
Of millions of people and atoms
Put the first man in space: yes it happened!
And it was Yuri Gagarin
While Lenin, Mao and Stalin
Filled up the gulags
And manufactured famines
Orlando Figes' The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia (2007) gives some idea of the enormous energy, commitment and sacrifice unleashed from the working and administrative classes trying to build the Soviet Union from the rubble of war and famine. Robert Service is the main authority on Stalin and the Stalinist Era among English-speaking writers, although I have not yet read any of his works. Simon Sebag-Montefiore's analysis of the workings of Stalin's inner circle in Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2003) leaves no doubt as to who was ultimately responsible for the great Ukrainian famine and various other disasters and disruptions. Sebag-Montefiore's Young Stalin (2008) is a fascinating portrayal of the evolution of the monster and genius, his skills, paranoia and brutality, from poverty-stricken youth in Georgia to a co-leader of the world's greatest revolution.
Barber and Harrison's The Soviet Home Front: 1941-45 (1991) is a masterful account of one of the Soviet Union's greatest achievements: the survival, re-organisation and re-building of the war economy, including the famous relocation of vast heavy industries 1,000s of miles to the east; the economy was nearly destroyed by the invading Germans in 1941 and nearly collapsed from overstrain in 1942.
Frank Dikotter's recently-published Mao's Great Famine (2010) is an account of the event more commonly known today (even in the West) by its contemporary misnomer, the 'Great Leap Forward', during which c. 30 million Chinese perished needlessly. I have not read Dikotter's work, but the episode is well-presented in Jung Chang's laborious Wild Swans (1991).
Whatever the political model
We had some things in common
War, health and education
Had new roles to fill
Required minds and skills
That the state tried to create
From a blank slate:
Loyalty and patriotism
Were bred in the school system
Teaching their own histories
That won't tell you rhymes like these
While we worship at the altar
Of nation and culture
Oh what a glory!
Pro patria mori
These final lines are adapted from Wilfred Owen's famous poem Dulce et Decorum Est (1917). Owen was a British War Poet who fought and died in the Great War (1914-18).
Photo by Edward B Armour, published here.
Before the 20th Century
More men in armies
Fell to disease
Than to their enemies;
Now germ-free and clean
They faced machines
New ways and means
Of death and destruction
Charged guns and tanks
Trenches gassed and shelled, it's hell,
Silence the bells
Fill the skies with death that flies
Over cities and countrysides
Home from the front,
The front's come home
Fire storms, napalm and A-bombs
We have powers to rival gods
This claim has been made by various authors; I think I first read it in J. R. McNeill in Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (2010). Disease was certainly a major source of casualties in most armies in history; I believe it was McNeill who remarked that the slaughter of the trenches in the Great War was made possible by advances in medicine and hygiene permitting such large concentrations of men in close contact.
Jonathan Glover's Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (1999) charts the gradual changes in strategy and attitude that led to civilians and civilian economies being directly target in modern war. It had its origins in the British naval blockade of Germany 1918-19 (which helped force Versailles), but developed rapidly during World War II.
Initially in World War II, civilians were supposed to be 'off-limits' (in the Western theatre at least), but 'area bombing' was later introduced as a solution to the problem of how difficult it was to bomb industry or infrastructure with any accuracy. Eventually huge bombing deliberately destroyed whole cities and their inhabitants, whether by conventional explosives (many German cities), firestorms (e.g. Dresden and Tokyo), or atom bombs (Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Hitler had planned to starve tens of millions of people in Eastern Europe and Russia, and the Nazis of course did kill millions of Soviet civilians and POWs, on top of 6 million Jewish Holocaust victims, and the mass-murder of homosexuals, the disabled, gypsies and other minorities. Meanwhile the Japanese army in China killed c. 20 million civilians.
In the U.S.-Vietnam War (1965-73), the Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian countrysides were extensively carpet-bombed. Military planners considered, and in some cases tested, even more grandiose schemes of targeting civilian populations, including chemical, biological and radiation weapons (see Jacob Darwin Hamlin's Arming Mother Nature (2013)). During the Cold War, the USA and the Soviet Union famously produced and stockpiled enough nuclear weapons to destroy civilization as we know it several times over. Vaclav Smil, in Catastrophes and Trends (2008) cites these stockpiles as one of the greatest threats to humanity today.
In times of peace planning didn't cease
Military got enormous investment
Invented computers and the internet
The arms race reached into space
Led to financial ruin
For the Soviet Union
There was a great course on Coursera
by Charles Severance about Internet History
. It took over three decades of investment and research by military and university computer scientists, along with developments in processor and fibre optic technology, for the Internet to reach a level of scale, bandwidth and robustness to allow the World Wide Web to take off, which it began to do so in 1993. See comment on MOOCs near the end for more on Coursera.
China under Chairman Mao
Had been laid low
But since the 70s
Results have been heavenly
A Politburo of engineers
Nurtured and steered
A mixed economy,
That doesn't work in theory
While the world's manufacturing centre
Stands on the Yangtze
And flows out of its delta
In the name of consumption
And industrial production
And climate change
Decreasing the range
Of plants and animals
They're not infallible
The sixth great wave of extinction?
Blink and you'll miss them
While we're busy
Raising billions of incomes
J. R. McNeill's Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century
(2000) surveys the impact of human activity on the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere (rivers, lakes, seas, etc.) and the lithosphere (soil and Earth's crust). It is an arresting alternative history of the last 100 years. It mentions the sixth great wave of extinction
but does not explore it in detail.
Vaclav Smil's Catastrophes and Trends
(2008) also considers the state of the environment, as well as contemporary economic, demographic and political trends, and their strategic relevance for states. Smil also attempts to quantify the level of risk we face from a range of possible catastrophes, from supervolcanoes to asteroid impacts to terrorism, an ambitious project.
Photo: G.M.B. Akash - www.gmb-akash.com
And yet billions more
Will remain on the floor
Amid poverty, famine and war
Of problems of subsistence!
While corporates enjoy freedom
That most can only dream of
And some will never conceive of
Let me abrupt:
Is there anything
that isn't corrupt?
Reading the news magazine Private Eye
and other news media here in the UK over the past 5-10 years, it has become increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that corruption, in various forms, is rife at the highest levels of UK politics. The most common is perhaps the device by which a minister or civil servant signs a deal with the private sector to outsource some service or sell off an asset on terms unfavourable to the taxpayer (i.e. all of us), but very lucrative for the company involved. Excuses and buck-passing are rolled out as prices rise and quality declines, or the asset's true market value is revealed when sold on. Lo! 2-3 years later, the same minister is employed by the same company (or perhaps by their investors or a closely-linked supplier) on a six-figure salary. Lately, 'lobbying', a euphemism for bribery, is a growing scandal. Not to mention corporate tax avoidance, PFI scandals, the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, MPs expenses
the list goes on.
, Noam Chomsky described the USA as "a 'failed state'. It has formal democratic institutions, but they barely function". Steven Harper's Canada and the recently-elected (Sep 2013) Tony Abbott in Australia represent the triumph of carbon
resource-extraction corporate interests in those countries. These are some of the largest supposedly liberal democracies.
I am less well-informed to comment on continental Europe or elsewhere in the world, but we might consider Berlusconi's Italy or Greece's record of defrauding the EU out of billions since 2003. The former Soviet Union appears to have been succeeded by mafia states and oil empires. As for India, the world's largest democracy, a study
conducted by Transparency International in 2005 found that more than 62% of Indians (population = 1.2 billion) had firsthand experience of paying bribes, as reported on Wikipedia
Map by Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRIP-Arendal
And all this time,
It's getting hot in here!
It's getting hot in here
So turn up the air conditioning
And put more demand on the electricity system
Are we nearing
The time for Geo-engineering?
Growth without pollution -
What's the solution?
Can we turn to
The wonders of technology?
Printing in 3D
Computers you wear
With big data to share
There's plenty opportunity
In connected communities:
I'm an MC
MOOC stands for 'Massive Online Open Course'; in the last 2-3 years several hugely popular platforms have been set up offering university-level modular online courses, devised and presented by university professors, free to anyone, anywhere in the world. They typically consist of video lectures, forum support, weekly quizzes, sometimes more demanding written assignments and perhaps a final quiz. The first large MOOCs began with computer science courses and content has gradually spread across many disciplines. Today there is a bewildering array of courses available and yet it is fair to say the phenomenon is still in its infancy.
Will they stay free forever? Don't wait to find out! The biggest platforms are Udacity, Coursera, and edX, but there are other smaller websites and the space is rapidly evolving. I personally use Coursera
, and cannot recommend it enough. At the time of writing there is fantastic course in progress entitled The History of Humankind
by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari; if you miss it this time round (Aug-Nov 2013), you can sign up for notification of the next time it runs.
You never know what you might find
From so many minds
I hope you enjoyed this trip
Through olden times
History don't repeat,
But it rhymes.
Adapted from a quote attributed to Mark Twain.
- feedback welcome