Saturday, October 26, 2013

Global History

Until recently, big picture, or global history was an unfashionable approach. The ambitious grand scale histories mostly fell out of favor in the Twentieth Century. Historians turned new tools instead on the particular, writing books on the smaller scale phenomena of life, down to and including the American refrigeration industry.

My introduction to global history was William H. McNeil's The Rise of the West, widely considered a classic, as well as the inspiration for some later efforts. Global historians try to look at the big picture of human history, and that means seeing common threads across time and cultural boundaries. The second great classic that made a huge impression on me was Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. Of course Diamond is geographer and phsyiologist, not a historian, but perhaps that outsider's perspective facilitated his insights. He puts heavy emphasis on geographic factors in the development of civilization.

Yuval Noah Harari is unwilling to place himself in any particular "school of history," but he credits Diamond, and his aforementioned book, with making him a global historian. Global historians are pretty quick to acknowledge that global history would not be possible without the work of the more particularly inclined, and most of them have spent some time in the trenches themselves.

Harari's big theme is the rise of a global civilization, with a global economy, global culture, and global ideologies (or religions, as he prefers to call them) as well as global problems, especially the global environmental problem. The emphasis on the big picture means that kings, nations, and individual cultures rarely make an appearance in his lectures, and then only as examples of larger trends. The many debates on culture and human development get a mention, but he concentrates on articulating his interpretation. His lectures are not beltway style "opinions on the shape of the Earth differ" type of reporting.

I find the big picture he describes insightful and mostly persuasive, but recognize that opinions on the shape of that planet are going to differ, and differ radically. In particular, he challenges a lot of the conventional wisdom on many subjects. Regular readers have already taken exception to some of them.