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Book Excerpt: The Ages of Globalization

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

Geography, Technology and Institutions

Jeffrey D. Sachs

New book by

Jeffrey D. Sachs

The Ages of Globalization by Jeffrey D. Sachs


The COVID­19 epidemic hit as this book was going to press. A most global phenomenon—a pandemic disease—was suddenly provoking the most local of responses: quarantines, lockdowns of neighborhoods, and the closure of borders and trade. In just three months, the virus spread from Wuhan, China, to more than 140 other countries. In the fourteenth century, the bubonic plague spread the Black Death from China to Italy in the course of some sixteen years, 1331 to 1347. In our time, the pathogen arrived within days by nonstop flight from Wuhan to Rome.

This book is about complexities of globalization, including the powerful capacity of globalization to improve the human condition while bringing undoubted threats as well. The interconnections of humanity across the globe enable the sharing of ideas, the enjoyment of diverse cultures, and the exchanges of diverse and distinctive goods across vast geographies. I savor my morning coffee, which arrives not from the coffee shop across the street but from the sloping tropical hillsides of Ethiopia, Indonesia, and Colombia, thousands of miles away. I delight in having visited these places as well, and have enjoyed their rich cultures and great natural beauty. I have learned from such visits and my work that human kindness, our aspirations for our children, and our enjoyments of life are common to all humanity, no matter how diverse our backgrounds and our material conditions.

The new coronavirus reminds us yet again that the benefits of global trade and travel have always been accompanied by the global spread of disease and other ills. In this book, I will discuss how Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, viewed the voyages of discovery of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama. He wrote that the discoveries of the sea routes from Europe to the Americas and to Asia were the most important events of human history, because they linked all parts of the world in a web of transport and commerce, with vast potential benefits. Smith also wrote, with dismay, that the new sea routes occasioned a massive repression of native societies by European conquerors and colonizers.

Because Smith lived a century before Robert Koch, Louis Pasteur, Giovanni Grassi, Ronald Ross, Martinus Beijerinck, and others who elaborated the bacterial and viral transmission of disease, he did not realize the key role that Old World pathogens played in devastating the Native American societies. Columbus brought to the Americas not only conquerors but also a massive biological exchange. The Europeans brought horses, cattle, and other plants and animals to the Americas for farming, and also many new infectious diseases, including smallpox, measles, and malaria, while bringing back to Europe the cultivation of the potato, maize, tomatoes, and other crops and farm animals. This “Columbian Exchange” united the world in trade while dividing the world in new kinds of inequalities of wealth and power.

The excess mortality of Native Americans caused by Old World diseases was devastating. The native populations were “naïve” to the Old World pathogens, and hence unprotected immunologically. In the same way, the world population today is immunologically naïve, and hence vulnerable, to the new coronavirus sweeping the planet. It is highly likely, thank goodness, that the illnesses and deaths caused by COVID-19 will be far less severe than the epidemics that ravaged Native American societies in the sixteenth century. Nonetheless, the current pandemic will influence global politics and society as other diseases have in the past.

In fact, we don’t have to go back to the fourteenth-century Black Death or the sixteenth-century Columbian Exchange to recognize the profound role of diseases in shaping societies and economies. Until late in the nineteenth century, Africa’s heavy burden of malaria created a kind of protective barrier against European imperial conquest. West Africa was known as the “white man’s grave,” since European soldiers succumbed in such high proportions to malaria. This barrier fell when the British learned to extract an antimalarial treatment, quinine, from the bark of the Andean cinchona tree. Gin and tonic (containing quinine) thereby became the beverage of British imperial conquest. Since then, Africa’s malaria burden has stood as an obstacle to child survival and economic development, though new drugs and preventative measures are enabling humanity to fight back against this age-­old scourge.

More recently, another killer pathogen circled the globe and caused devastation and havoc: the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, the cause of AIDS. HIV, like COVID­19, is a zoonosis, that is, a pathogen of animal populations that jumps to human populations through some kind of inter­ action and perhaps genetic mutation. AIDS entered the  human  population most likely from West African apes that were killed for bushmeat. COVID­19 entered the human population most likely from bats. In the case of AIDS, the virus apparently spread among Africans for decades in the middle of the twentieth century, then was transmitted internationally in the 1970s and early 1980s. HIV/AIDS was diagnosed for the first time in San Francisco in the early 1980s, decades after its first introduction into the human population. By that time, many millions of Africans were already infected by, and dying from, the HIV virus.

AIDS marked another major event of globalization, at both its most devastating and its most inspiring. The deaths from AIDS quickly mounted into the tens of millions, with vast attendant suffering. Many of those with HIV infection were from socially marginalized groups: the very poor, ethnic minorities, the LGBT community, intravenous drug users, and others. This delayed the response of many governments, but civil society groups, led first and foremost by people infected with HIV, demanded action and step by step moved the world’s governments, although after costly delays.

Impressively, the scientific community sprang quickly into action, making rapid and fundamental discoveries about the nature of the virus, the causes of disease, and the ways to fight both. Within roughly a decade of the identification of HIV as a new zoonotic disease, scientists discovered a number of antiviral medicines that could turn the HIV infection from a nearly certain deadly ailment to a chronic and controlled infection. In these breakthroughs and the subsequent distribution of the new medicines, globalization played a huge role. The science of discovery was global, with new scientific knowledge moving rapidly across all continents.

The distribution of the new medicines was also a coordinated global effort. A notable initiative was the launch of a new Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, in which I was thrilled and honored to play a role during its early formulation and development. The speed of policy implementation and health interventions was greatly spurred by rising public awareness and the crucial activist leadership of civil society.

COVID­19 similarly provokes the reckoning of the balance sheet of globalization, and the policy challenge of promoting the positive sides while limiting the negative consequences. The early steps in fighting COVID­ 19 have involved closing down international trade and travel, and even restricting the movements of people between and within cities of single nations. Quarantines are back, the word itself referring to the forty days (quarantagiorniin Italian) that Venetians held ships away from the port when the ships were suspected of carrying plague. The policy of quarantine dates back to the late fourteenth century. As did the AIDS crisis, the COVID­19 pandemic will require great attention and sensitivity to social justice in implementing measures to confront the disease.

Some concerns are being raised once again in our own time: that open trade is simply too dangerous, that we should revert to closed borders and national autarky (self­-sufficiency). This is an illusion. While quarantines may indeed limit the spread of disease, they rarely stop the spread of the pathogens entirely. And their successes surely come at very high cost. Closures of trade bring their own kinds of miseries, starting with the massive losses of economic output and livelihoods. Throughout history, it has been 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 inter­ national cooperation to control the negative consequences of global­-scale interconnectedness.

This has entailed the invention of new forms of global cooperation, one of the most important themes of this book. From the late eighteenth century onward, philosophers, statesmen, politicians, and activists have sought new ways to govern globalization in order to promote its benefits while controlling its many potential harms. The fight against pandemic disease has loomed large in the efforts at cooperation. Indeed, the International Sanitary Conferences that began in 1851 and continued until 1938 were among the first modern efforts at intensive global scientific and policy cooperation. These efforts at disease control gave rise to the World Health Organization in 1948, one of the first major agencies of the new United Nations, which was founded at the end of World War II in 1945. WHO, of course, is currently at the center of the global fight against COVID­19. WHO has helped to coordinate scientific information about the pathogen and how to control it, and to coordinate and monitor the global push to contain and end the pandemic.

Globalization enables one part of the world to learn from others. When one country shows successes in containing the spread of COVID­19, other parts of the world quickly aim to learn of the new methods and whether they can be applied in a local context. The development of new drugs and vaccines to fight COVID­19 is also a global effort, as was the case with HIV. The clinical trials to test the new candidate drugs and vaccines will involve researchers spanning the world. The distribution and uses of the new drugs and vaccines will also require cooperation on a global scale.

Disease control is not the only area where global cooperation is vital today. The case for global cooperation and institutions extends to many urgent concerns, including the control of human­-induced climate change; the conservation of biodiversity; the control and reversal of the massive pollution of the air, soils, and oceans; the proper uses and governance of the internet; the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons; the avoidance of mass forced migrations; and the ever-­present challenge of avoiding or ending violent conflicts. All of these challenges must be confronted in a world that is too often divided, distrustful, and distracted, and now, preoccupied with a new zoonosis that has suddenly become a new pandemic.

This book will not provide simple answers or antidotes to these ills and threats. The history of globalization is a history of humanity’s glorious achievements, cruelties, and self­-inflicted harms, and of the great complexities of achieving progress in the midst of crisis. Globalization, we shall see, involves the intricate interplay of physical geography, human institutions, and technical know­how. COVID­19 is at once a physical phenomenon, a sudden intruder into our politics and social life, and a target of scientific discovery. It is, therefore, the kind of phenomenon of globalization that has been part of human experience from the very start of our species. I hope this book will shed light on that long experience of global interconnected­ness, and on the role of globalization in shaping our humanity and lives.

Excerpted from The Ages of Globalization: Geography, Technology, and Institutions Copyright (c) 2020 Jeffrey D. Sachs.  Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.



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