In a nutshell

What a good timing to read a book on globalization! Indeed, Covid19 crisis has strongly challenged the relevance of globalization and has raised the following questions:

  • Is globalization over?
  • Is open trade too dangerous?
  • Should we revert to closed borders and national self-sufficiency?

“The Ages of Globalization” by Jeffrey D. Sachs, published in the midst of the Covid19 crisis, seeks to understand the complexities of globalization through an historical perspective of the long experience of global interconnectedness since 70 000 BCE.

For J. Sachs, a globalization supporter, it is “important to understand the threats arising from globalization (disease, conquest, war, financial crises and others) and to face them head on not by ending the benefits of globalization but by using the means of international cooperation to control the negative consequences of global scale interconnectedness” . Disease control is not the only area where global cooperation is vital today. The case for global cooperation extends to several global issues including climate change, internet control and the loss of biodiversity. Sachs acknowledges that the book does not provide concrete answers to these issues. The author rather offers in the last chapter broad guidelines to benefit from globalization while minimizing its downside.

All in all, I feel that the book did an wonderful job in analyzing globalization historically combining insights from agronomy, economics, anthropology, archeology and engineering (although fully embracing evolution theory in the second chapter).  However, I personally expected more from J. Sachs with regards to the evolution of globalization going forward as the proposed insights at the end of book are somewhat generic (cf. below).

The seven ages of globalization

Sachs defines globalization as “the interlinkages of diverse societies across large geographical areas. These interlinkages are technological, economic, institutional, cultural and geopolitical. They include interactions of societies across the world through trade, finance, enterprise, migration, culture, empire, and war”  

Sachs believes that “humanity has always been globalized”. In fact, globalization has only “changed its character” throughout seven distinct ages:

  • The Paleolithic age when humans were still foragers
  • The Neolithic age when farming first began
  • The Equestrian age when the horse and development of proto-writing enabled long distance trade and communications 
  • The Classical age when large empires first emerged
  • The Ocean age when large empires first expanded across the oceans and beyond the accustomed ecological zones of the homeland
  • The Industrial age when a few societies led by Great Britain ushered in the industrial economy
  • The Digital age when the entire world is instantaneously interconnected by digital data

The author notes that changes “have come at a rising rate with the largest changes occurring in the very recent past”. Three examples cited in the book illustrate this exponential pattern: World population, urbanization rate and global output.

The interplay of Geography, Technology and Institutions

To understand the historical evolution of globalization, the author frequently relies on the geography, technology and institutions framework.

James Watt’s steam engine, one global innovation cited in the book, is an illustration of the dynamic interaction of geography, Technology and Institutions that made possible the development of such an invention in Britain.

  • Geography : Availability of coal in England that could be mined and transported at low cost
  • Institutions : Britain offered legal protection for ideas and a global market to sell the product
  • Technology : James Watt leveraged and improved existing steam machine innovations (albeit imperfect) in Britain

Globalization going forward

The current digital age has three enormous challenges: Rising inequalities, massive environmental degradation and risks arising from major geopolitical changes.

According to J. Sachs, one major takeaway from globalization’s history is that major technological changes create new inequalities of power, which in turn leads to wars.

The author argues that humanity cannot afford a global war and proposes several orientations to manage globalization and to avoid devastating conflicts, including:

  • Sustainable development : A holistic approach to governance that combines economic, social and environmental objectives
  • Social democracy: An inclusive and participatory approach to political and economic life.
  • Subsidiarity and the public sphere: Setting the right boundaries between public goods and private goods. Solving problems related to public goods at the proper governance level (local, national, regional and global)
  • A reformed United Nations because the existing institution that does not fit anymore with the realities of the new multipolar world.

One thought on “Book review : The Ages of Globalization by Jeffrey D. Sachs

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