The period of the modern global history since 1750 has been characterized as a period of major transformations, which happened with a great speed and on a great scale, affecting all parts of the world and turning it into one interconnected and globalized unit. The three key phenomena of this period can be identified as technological development (induced by the industrial revolution), population growth, and economic expansion. These phenomena are also examined in Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules – For Now1 and J.R. McNeill’s Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World.2 Although Morris and McNeill both examine the positive and negative outcomes of the technological development, economic expansion and population growth, Morris emphasizes the resulting positive social development while McNeill highlights the environmental and social costs as its main outcomes.
The social costs associated with the Western powers’ imperialist activities, spurred by the technological advancements starting in the late 18th century, are emphasized by both Morris and McNeill. While focusing more on environmental changes, McNeill does emphasize that the cost of the global economic expansion, “in the form of people enslaved, exploited, or killed…is enormous.”3 Morris shares a similar idea and states that “Technology transformed colonization.”4 While he emphasizes the social development as a result of the technological advancements, he also describes the great extent to which the industrial revolution enriched Western powers with military equipment and accepts that such military advantage “turned the West’s lead in social development into Western rule.”5 While both authors focus on different aspects of the transformations of the modern world, they both address the topic of the Great Divergence of the Western powers and the rest of the world and emphasize how it would not have occurred without the West having access not only to natural resources, specifically coal, but also to cheap human capital and land, which they gained through their colonies.6 To further explain the negative impacts of the Western colonial rule and to provide a counter-argument to the claim that the East industrialized later due to cultural differences, Morris provides two points – regions with relatively high levels of social development prior to the Western rule and the ones that avoided being under direct colonial rule industrialized earlier than the ones of the opposite characteristics.7
Secondly, the technological advancements of the modern global history, closely connected to the enormous economic expansion, are described by both authors as catalyzers of social development. For Morris, “the industrial revolution was unique in how much and how fast it drove up social development,”8 which is an argument that he provides evidence for throughout his essay. Slavery gradually stopped being profitable as the use of machines based on steam engines, despite initially having a relatively low efficiency, became more profitable. With the rising productivity and wages, employers were willing to compromise, states legalized trade unions and provided free education, some even ‘retirement plans, public health programs or unemployment insurance.’9 Later on, technology development also led to an improved status of women as many of their housework was completed with the help of machines.10 McNeill also recognizes the social development that technology brought about and calls it a “great achievement of the human race over the past 500 years” that the average income per capita is nine times higher than it was in 1500.11 However, McNeill also emphasizes that as much as the technology advancement and economic expansion were phenomena transforming the entire planet, they impacted certain regions in a much greater extent than others, leading to widening inequalities among different parts of the world.12 Therefore, although both Morris and McNeill recognize the social development that the invention of the steam engine and the following technology advancement brought about, the latter identifies more of its imperfections and thus forms more of a critical judgment.
The relationship between the population growth and the technological advancement of the historical period since 1750 is also addressed by both Morris and McNeill. However, due to the distinct focuses of their works, social development in the case of Morris and the environment in McNeill’s case, each uses this relationship to make a different argument. In the very beginning of his piece, McNeill argues that the twentieth century is ecologically a peculiar century because of the scale and intensity with which many processes that spur ecological changes happened, rather than because of the novelty of such processes.13 The scale and intensity of such processes would have been impossible without the technological developments, but were also driven by the population growth which, as Morris mentions, led to the world’s population nearly quadrupling during the twentieth century.14 McNeill further demonstrates the scale of population growth and life expectancy by adding that even though the “twentieth century accounts for only 0.0002 of human history…, it has hosted about a fifth of all human-years.”15 Leaving figures aside, each author analyzes the relationship between rapid population growth and the technological advancement in a different way. Stating that in the last hundred years, humans probably used 10 times more energy as they did during the thousand years prior to 1900,16 McNeill demonstrates how ecologically peculiar the twentieth century was. Additionally, he mentions that the rate at which the world’s population grew in the twentieth century also cannot continue for much longer17 – technological advancement allowed great economic expansion and population growth in the last two hundred years or so but that is not sustainable, simply because of the limited resources of this planet. On the other hand, Morris, focusing on the social development in the modern history, offers a different perspective. Looking at the increased population growth rate in Britain between 1780 and 1830, resulting in Britain’s population doubling, Morris argues that even though the industrial revolution had its flaws, the alternative scenarios – mass starvation and death – were much worse.18 Using similar logic, Morris uses the example of the modern China’s development. Morris acknowledges the environmental costs of their path to progress and literally states that “China paid a terrible price,” however, he also chooses to mention that such path meant eliminating starvation and increasing people’s incomes.19 These two arguments do not necessarily dispute each other but McNeill’s perspective offers an evaluation of the current world situation and draws the attention to the limits of technology in being able to sustain the growing world population in the future.
To conclude, both Morris and McNeill tackle the key phenomena of the modern global history – technological advancement, economic expansion, and population growth and their arguments together form a more holistic analysis on the long-term impacts of these phenomena than when considered separately. Although both authors agree on Western imperialism and the exploitation of land and human capital connected to it to be a major social cost of the Western industrialization, they diverge in evaluating other social impacts of the process. While Morris focuses the positive character of the social development related to industrialization, namely enhanced social policies and improved status of women, McNeill emphasizes the negative aspect in the form of widening disparities between different parts of the world. Furthermore, Morris describes the major technological advancements as a factor crucial in enabling the high population growth rates occurring since the beginning of the industrial revolution. On the other hand, McNeill examines the population growth rate in the context of the environmental history, emphasizing the impacts of the intensified usage of energy resources on the environment and suggesting that there are limits to the carrying capacity of this planet.
1 Ian Morris, Why the West Rules – For Now; Farrar, New York: Straus and Giroux, 2011.
2 J.R.McNeill, Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.
3 McNeill, Something New under the Sun, 7.
4 Morris, Why the West Rules – For Now, 509.
5 Morris, Why the West Rules – For Now, 515.
6 Kyle Burke, Lecture Great Divergence, 01/12/2018.
7 Morris, Why the West Rules – For Now, 522.
8 Ibid, 498.
9 Ibid, 513.
10 Morris, Why the West Rules – For Now, 540.
11 Mcneill, Something New under the Sun, 7.
12 Ibid, 17.
13 Ibid, 4.
14 Morris, Why the West Rules – For Now, 538.
15 McNeill, Something New under the Sun, 9.
16 Ibid, 15.
17 Ibid, 9.
18 Morris, Why the West Rules – For Now, 505.
19 Ibid, 552.