Friday, August 10, 2018

The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Environmental Narrative from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-First Century (World Social Change) Third Edition by Robert B. Marks (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers )

This is a superb book about world history, but it doesn't read like a history book. It has 2 primary arguments: 1. Contrary to popular opinion, "the West" (Europe and the United States) didn't dominate world history until about the 1850's. In contrast, "common knowledge" casts Europe, especially Spain, England, and Portugal, (and later the United States) as hegemonic since at least the time of Columbus' voyages around 1500. Mr. Marks' argument is both convincing and approachable because he provides a wide variety of metrics to demonstrate the East's (China, India and other Asian empires) superiority in areas such as technology, sophistication of trading networks, population, standards of living, and even sophistication of unwritten international contracts.

2. Second, Mr. Marks argues for magnifying the role of environment in world history. As with the the East/West thesis above, his argument is coherent and fact-based. From the initial point of departure (First Americans in the New World including Mesoamericans such as the Incas and Aztecs suffered up to 90% population loss due to diseases brought by the Europeans), and continuing forward (arguing that the production of synthetic nitrogen was among the most important events in human history, fueling the growth of Europe and the United States and making possible their rise over India and China, and that industrialization came first to England's in large part thanks to luckily being close to easily accessible sources of coal), luck and the environment helped accelerate the "rise of the West" more than many people think.

Given the recent rise of China as the world's premier economic superpower and the worlds' manufacturing center, a resurgent 4 Asian Tigers of the Southeast, and the possibility of India rising anew, the book may leave American readers wondering if we happen to be living at the end of a Western Golden Age, lasting from about 1850-1970, where the West happened to be dominant. This book is enlightening, interesting, and doesn't read like a "boring world history book

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