By Rajeev Malik
One of the fallouts of the coronavirus pandemic is a growing list of commentators writing requiems for globalisation. This is ironic given that scientific research on finding vaccines and their subsequent distribution has been greatly facilitated by the multi-disciplinary and dynamic globalisation that we are all part of.
It is in the above context that The Ages of Globalization: Geography, Technology, and Institutions by distinguished economist and bestselling author Jeffrey Sachs is a timely read for anyone — student, businesswoman, policymaker — trying to make sense of the current genre of globalisation. The big-picture assessment is a sweep of progress over the past 70,000 years cogently condensed into seven key transitions.
The definition and birthdate of globalisation remain contentious. The word has been in use in varying contexts since the early 20th century, but became popular only in the 1980s. It then exploded into public consciousness in the 1990s, thanks to the technology-driven buzz about the stepped-up global interconnectedness. Sachs doesn’t bother defining globalisation or debate its origin. According to him, humanity has always globalised due to the interplay of geography (location, climate, mineral resources), technology (communication, and production and distribution systems), and institutions (political, cultural, and economic-related). Thus, foraging in Paleolithic Age progressed to farming in Neolithic Age, followed by reliance on horse power in Equestrian Age. Classical Age was marked by empire building, and was followed by Ocean Age characterised by oceangoing vessels and the birth of global capitalism. Industrial Age led to creation of the modern world, and paved the way for the present-day Digital Age. The book convincingly captures the underlying essence of each age, and underscores that each contributed to enlarging the scale, altering the nature, and speeding up the pace of transformation.
It is useful not to lose sight of how things were at the dawn of human history. There were hunters and food gatherers, with no assimilation into village or cities — these emerged much later. But the foragers, who learnt to adapt to new realities (different predators and changes in weather and altitude), still had long-distance interaction with other groups because of migration, and shared their experience and knowledge.
There’s a two-way interaction between the ages of globalisation and the growing scale of global interactions. Thus, each boost in scale led to emergence of new technologies that contributed to expanding population and production, which, in turn, altered governance and geopolitics.
The closing chapter (Guiding globalisation in the twenty-first century) is disappointingly relatively light on tangible policy recommendations. With world population forecast to rise to 9.7 billion by 2050 and the scale of human activity already raising serious worries about climate change and pollution, Sachs warns that it isn’t clear we can sustain the progress to date. Undoubtedly, global cooperation on an unprecedented scale will be important for resolving the equally unprecedented challenges.
Curiously, while the understandable need for reforming the UN Security Council is well articulated, the same urgent need for reforming the World Bank and the IMF, multilateral institutions within the UN ‘family’ he’s surely familiar with, is overlooked.
Frankly, it is hard to disagree with his view that the key to well-being isn’t a single goal of, say, pursuit of wealth but “…a combination of prosperity, lower levels of inequality, and environmental sustainability”. However, sorting out the details will be a gargantuan task, partly because of the greater pro-growth bias in developing countries for poverty alleviation and to improve their standard of living relative to that in developed economies.
We are currently in the Digital Age, which, like prior ages, will recalibrate the economic reality, lifestyles and geopolitics, but under increased challenges of inequality and sustainable development. As in prior ages of globalisation, a palpitation-inducing shift in the balance of power — this time from the US to China — is playing out via an unwritten script.
Sachs offers a timely reminder that each age of globalisation has given rise to new tensions and wars as balance of power shifted, but each age has also “…invented new forms of governance, and that can give us hope”. That is a reassuring message that can be a catalyst for swifter policy response as delays or mishaps could be catastrophic.
The Ages of Globalization: Geography, Technology, and Institutions
Jeffrey D Sachs
Columbia University Press
Pp 224, Rs 952 (hardcover)
Rajeev Malik is founder & director, Macroshanti, Singapore