The World We’re In

History has no course. It thrashes and staggers, swivels and twists, but never heads one way for long. Humans who get caught up in it try to give it destinations. But we all pull in different directions, heading for different targets, and tend to cancel each other’s influence out. When trends last for a short spell, we sometimes ascribe them to “men of destiny” or “history makers,” or to great movements—collectively heroic or myopic—or to immense, impersonal forces or laws of social development or economic change: class struggle, for instance, or “progress” or “development” or some other form of History with a capital H. But usually some undetectably random event is responsible for initiating big change. History is a system reminiscent of the weather: the flap of a butterfly’s wings can stir up a storm.

Because history has no course, it has no turning points. Or rather, it has so many that you might as well try to straighten a tornado as attempt to sort them out.

Random mutations, however, sometimes have enduring effects in history, rather as in evolution. Evolution generally makes a bad model for understanding history, but in some ways it offers useful analogies. In evolution, a sudden, uncaused, unpredictable biological mutation intersects with the grindingly slow changes that transform environments. Something works for a while—a big, reptilian body, a prehensile tail, an expanded cranium—and a new species flourishes for a span before it becomes a fossil. Similar changes happen in human communities. Some group or society acquires a distinctive feature, the origins of which we struggle—usually unsuccessfully—to explain. It therefore enjoys a period of conspicuous success, usually ending in disaster, or “decline and fall,” when the society mutates unsustainably or when the environment—cultural or climatic—changes, or when people in some other place benefit from an even more exploitable innovation. We scour the past to spot those moments of mutation, to try to identify those random convulsions that seem briefly to pattern chaos. It’s like looking at a seismograph and seeing the first lurch.

The lines in the current pattern are conspicuous enough. We live in a world of demographic explosion. Western hegemony (which the United States exercises now virtually single-handedly and without much chance of keeping going, at present costs, for much longer) crafts the world, along with global intercommunication and, increasingly, global economic interdependence. Other features we can probably all perceive include cultural pluralism and the tensions it generates; competing religious and secular values—with consequent intellectual uncertainty; culture wars, which threaten to become “clashes of civilizations” rapid technological turnover; information overkill; hectic urbanization; pellmell consumption; growing wealth gaps; expensive but effective medical priorities; and environmental angst. The nearest things we have to universal values—apart, perhaps, from obsessions with health—are varieties of individualism, which favor some widespread trends toward, for instance, representative forms of government, codified human rights, and liberal economics. At the same time, ours is a ditherers’ world, tacking without much sense of consistent direction, oscillating between addictions and antidotes. Wars alternate with revulsion from war. Generations alienated from their parents bring their children up to be their friends. Spells of social and economic overplanning are interspersed with madcap deregulation. People satiated with permissiveness go “back to basics.”

This world already looks doomed to extinction. Western power is going the way of previous dinosaurs. The United States—the last sentinel of Western supremacy—is in relative decline, challenged from East and South Asia. Pluralism looks increasingly like a path to showdown instead of a panacea for peace. Population trends on a global level are probably going into reverse. Capitalism seems to have failed and is now stigmatized as greed. A reaction against individual excess is driving the world back to collective values. Fear of terror overrides rights; fear of slumps subverts free markets. Consumption levels and urbanization are simply unsustainable at recent rates in the face of environmental change. The throwaway society is headed for the trash heap. People who sense that “modernity” is ending proclaim a “postmodern age.”

Yet this doomed world is still young: 1492 seems, on the face of it, too far back to look for the origins of the world we are in. Population really started to grow worldwide with explosive force only in the eighteenth century. The United States did not even exist until 1776, and only became the unique superpower in the 1990s. The tool kit of ideas we associate with individualism, secularism, and constitutional guarantees of liberty really came together only in the movement we call the Enlightenment in eighteenth-century western Europe and parts of the Americas, and even then they struggled for survival—bloodied by the French Revolution, betrayed by romanticism.

Most of the other features of our world were barely discernible before the nineteenth century, when industrialization empowered Western empires and made a genuinely global economy possible. Much of the intellectual framework familiar in today’s world was new in the early twentieth century—the first era of relativity, quantum mechanics, psychoanalysis, and cultural relativism. Individualism had to fight wars against collectivism. Democracy, pitted against totalitarianisms, won a solid-looking victory only when the twentieth century was nearly over. Environmentalism has emerged as a powerful worldwide ideology only in the last forty years or so. Some of the science and technology that make the way we think and live and fear distinctive are of more recent origin—nuclear weapons, micro-IT, the genetics of DNA, the currently fashionable techniques of disease control, the food-production methods that now feed the world. These sudden and rapid new departures are reminders that “modernity”—which, allowing for the variety of more or less equivalent terms, is every generation’s self-description—never starts, but is perpetually renewed.

In any case, it is a fallacy to assume that origins are always remote, or that historical events are like big species—with long ancestries—or big plants with long roots. One of the lessons of our time, for those as old as I am or older, is that changes happen suddenly and unpredictably. Long-running pasts crunch into reverse gear. We who are middle-aged—who have not even seen out a normal lifetime—have watched the British Empire collapse, the Cold War melt, the divisions of Europe heal in “ever-closer” union, the Soviet bloc dissolve. Supposedly autochthonous national characters have self-transformed. The English, for instance—my mother’s people—whom my father described after World War II, with their stiff upper lips and umbrellas as tightly rolled as their minds, have turned into people he would no longer recognize: as mawkish and exhibitionist as everybody else. The stiff upper lips have gone wobbly. The Spanish—my father’s people—have changed just as much, in an even shorter time. The values of austerity, sobriety, quixotism, and lividly, vividly dogmatic Catholicism, which I knew as a child, have vanished, conquered by consumerism and embourgeoisement. Spain is no longer—as the tourist slogans used to say—different. Almost every community has undergone similarly radical changes of character.

Structures based on class and sex today are unrecognizable from those of my childhood. Moralities—usually the most stable ingredients of the societies that adopt them—have metamorphosed. Gays can adopt children—an innovation my parents’ generation could never have imagined. The pope has prayed in a mosque. Almost every morning brings an awakening like Rip van Winkle’s into a transmuted world. I struggle to understand my students’ language: we no longer share the same cultural referents, know the same stories, recognize the same icons. When I search in class for art we all have in common, it seems that we have hardly ever even seen the same movies or learned the same advertising jingles. The most bewilderingly abrupt changes have been environmental: a melting icecap, desiccated seas, diminished rain forests, engorged cities, perforated “ozone,” species extinguished at unprecedented rates. The world we live in seems to have been made in a single lifetime. It is so mutable, so volatile, that to reckon its gestation at half a millennium or so, and date it from 1492, seems almost quaint.

The big change, I think, that has overtaken my own discipline in my lifetime is that we historians have more or less abandoned the search for long-term origins. What we used to call the longue durée has collapsed like a tidied-away telescope. When we want to explain the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, we no longer do as Edward Gibbon did in his classic on the subject and go back to the age of the Antonine emperors (who were doing very well in their day), but say that migrations in the late fourth and early fifth centuries provoked a sudden and unmanageable crisis. When we try to explain the English Civil War of the 1640s, we no longer look back as Macaulay did to traditions supposedly traceable to the “Germanic woods,” or even to the supposed “rise of Parliament” or of “the bourgeoisie” in the late Middle Ages and Tudor period, but see English government strained to the breaking point by a war with Scotland that started four years before the breakdown. To explain the French Revolution we no longer do as Tocqueville did in his unsurpassed history and look at the reign of Louis XIV, but see the financial conditions of the 1780s as crucial. To understand the outbreak of the First World War we no longer do as Albertini did and blame the deficiencies of the nineteenth-century diplomatic system—which was actually rather good at preserving peace—but at the relatively sudden collapse of that system in the years preceding the war, or even at the intractabilities of the railway timetables of 1914, which, according to A. J. P. Taylor’s notoriously seductive theory, made the mobilization of armies irreversible once it was under way.

Still, it has long been the vocation of historians to thumb back through time, looking for the previously unglimpsed origins of what is conspicuous in every age. With surprising unanimity, the quest for the origins of most of what is distinctive in the modern world has led back to the fifteenth or sixteenth century and to Europe. Most textbooks still make a break—the start of a new volume or part—around 1500. Some of them still call this the beginning of the modern world. Historians—even those who disapprove of traditional periodization—loosely call the few centuries prior to about 1800 the “early modern period.”

The intellectual movements we call the Renaissance and Reformation, for instance, have become associated with claims or assumptions that they made modern social, political, cultural, philosophical, and scientific developments possible. The work of European explorers and conquerors around the globe makes a convincing starting point for the modern history of imperialism and globalization. The date textbooks used to treat as “the beginning of modernity” was 1494, when a French invasion of Italy supposedly unlocked influences from the Renaissance and began to spread them around Europe. A few writers have claimed to trace such supposed constituent features of modern thought as skepticism, secularism, atheism, capitalism, and even ironic humor to medieval Jewish tradition, and have argued that the absorption of these ideas into the European mainstream began with the effectively enforced conversion of Spanish Jews to Christianity.1 These claims are untrue but are suggestive in the present context, because the biggest bonanza of conversions almost certainly occurred in the year 1492, when all Jews who refused conversion were expelled from the Spanish kingdoms.

So dating the beginnings of the modern world to a time close to 1500 or thereabouts has a long tradition behind it. I reject the thinking that underpins the tradition. In the breakers’ yard of history, supposedly cosmic events get pounded into fragments, reduced to a series of local or individual significance. What once seemed world-shattering revolutions are reclassified as transitions. Almost all the claims made for the Renaissance and the Reformation, for instance, have turned out to be wrong. The supposed consequences in our own world—deism, secularism and atheism, individualism and rationalism; the rise of capitalism and the decline of magic; the scientific revolution and the American dream; the origins of civil liberties and shifts in the global balance of power—all appear less convincingly consequential as time goes on. In recent years, revisionist scholarship and critical thinking have loosened the links in these chains of consequence, one by one.

In any case, Renaissance and Reformation were, in global terms, small-scale phenomena. The Renaissance was, in part, a product of cultural cross-fertilization between Islam and the West. It was not a unique “classical revival” but an accentuation of uninterrupted Western self-modeling on ancient Greece and Rome. It edged the West only a little way toward secularism: most art and learning was sacred in inspiration and clerical in control. It was not “scientific”: for every scientist there was a sorcerer. The Reformation was not a revolution: most reformers were social and political conservatives, whose movements were part of a general trend among the godly of Christendom toward the communication of a more acutely felt, actively engaged form of Christianity to previously underevangelized or unevangelized reaches of society and regions of the world. The reformers’ work did not inaugurate capitalism or subvert magic or promote science. Western imperialism, though it started in a conspicuous way in 1492, was not a world-transforming phenomenon until the eighteenth or nineteenth century.

Nevertheless, the world did change in 1492. Events of that year started to change the balance and distribution of power and wealth across the globe, launching communities in western Europe across oceans, empowering a mighty Russian state for the first time, and prefiguring (though not of course producing) the decline of maritime Asia and of traditional powers around the Indian Ocean and its adjacent seas. Until the 1490s, any well-informed and objective observer would surely have acknowledged these regions as homes to the planet’s most dynamic and best-equipped exploring cultures, with the most impressive records of long-term, long-range achievement. In that fateful decade, rivals from western Europe leapfrogged ahead, while the powers that might have stopped them or outstripped them remained inert.

At the western end of the Indian Ocean, for instance, the Ottomans were confined or limited by their geographical position. The Egypt of the Mamluks, similarly, exchanged embassies with Gujarat, exercised something like a protectorate over the port of Jiddah, and fomented trade with India via the Red Sea; but, because of that sea’s hostility to navigation, Egypt was ill placed to guard the ocean against infidel intruders. Abyssinia ceased to expand after the death of the negus Zara-Ya’cob in 1468; after defeat at the hands of Muslim neighbors in Adel in 1494, hopes of revival dispersed; survival became the aim. Persia was in protracted crisis, from which the region would emerge only in the new century, when the boy-prophet Ismail reunited it. Arab commerce ranged the Indian Ocean from southern Africa to the China Seas, without relying on force of arms for protection or promotion. In southern Arabia, yearning for a maritime empire would arise later, perhaps in imitation of the Portuguese, but there were no signs of it yet.

In the central Indian Ocean, meanwhile, no Indian state had interest or energy to spare for long-range expansion. Vijayanagar maintained trading relations all over maritime Asia but did not maintain fleets. The city that housed the court underwent lavish urban remodeling under Narasimba in the 1490s, but the state had ceased to expand, and Narasimba’s dynasty was doomed. The Delhi of Sikandar Lodi, meanwhile, sustaining traditionally landward priorities, acquired a new province in Bihar, but the sultan bequeathed to his heirs an overstretched state that tumbled easily to invaders from Afghanistan a generation later. Gujarat had a huge merchant marine, but no long-range political ambitions. Its naval power was designed to protect its trade, not force it on others. There were of course plenty of pirates. Early in the 1490s, for instance, from a nest on the western coast of the Deccan, Bahadur Khan Gilani terrorized shipping and, for a time, seized control of important ports, including Dabhol, Goa, and Mahimn, near present Bombay.2 But no state in the region felt the temptation either to explore new routes or to initiate maritime imperialism.

Farther east, China, as we have seen, had withdrawn from active naval policy and never resumed it. In Japan in 1493, the shogun was under siege in Kyoto as warlords divided the empire between them. Southeast Asia was between empires: the aggressive phase of the history of Majapahit was in the past; Thai and Burmese imperialism were still underdeveloped and, in any case, never took on maritime ambitions. There had been maritime empires in the region’s past: Srivijaya in the seventh century, the Java of the Sailendra dynasty in the eighth, the Chola in the eleventh, and King Hayan Wuruk’s Majapahit in the fourteenth all tried to enforce monopolies on chosen routes. But at the time Europeans burst into the Indian Ocean around the Cape of Good Hope, no indigenous community felt the need or urge to explore further, and nothing like the kind of maritime imperialism practiced by Portugal, and later by the Dutch, existed in the region.

Europe’s conquest of the Atlantic, in short, coincided with the arrest of exploring and imperial initiatives elsewhere. This did not mean that the world was instantly transformed, or that the balance of wealth and power would shift quickly to what we now call the West. On the contrary, the process ahead was long, painful, and interrupted by many reversals. Yet that process had begun. And the Atlantic-rim communities that had launched it—especially those of Spain and Portugal—retained their momentum and continued their dominance in exploration for most of the next three centuries. The opening of a viable route to and fro between Europe and productive regions of the Americas ensured that the global balance of resources would tilt, in the long run, in favor of the West. The balance of the global distribution of power and wealth would change. In preparing that change, or making it possible, 1492 was a decisive year.

In 1492, with extraordinary suddenness after scores—perhaps hundreds—of millions of years of divergent evolution, global ecological exchange became possible: the way life-forms could now overleap oceans, for the first time since the break-up of Pangaea, did more to mold the modern environment than any other event before industrialization. Events of 1492 assured the future of Christianity and Islam as uniquely widespread world religions, and helped to fix their approximate limits.

Though the Indian Ocean is no longer an Islamic lake, Islam has clung tenaciously to most of the rim. Islam cannot, by nature, be as flexible as Christianity. It is consciously and explicitly a way of life rather than of faith; except in marriage discipline, its code is stricter, more exclusive, more demanding on converts than Christianity. It requires adherents to know enough Arabic to recite the Quran. Its dietary regime is unfamiliar to most cultures. Aspects of today’s emerging global culture are particularly inhospitable: liberal capitalism, consumerism, individualism, permissiveness, and feminism have all made more or less easy accommodations in Christendom; Islam seems full of antibodies that struggle to reject them. It may have reached the limits of its adaptability. Buddhism, the third great global religion, has so far achieved only a modest degree of diffusion, but it has established thoroughly flexible credentials, subsisting alongside Shinto in Japan and contributing to the eclecticism of most Chinese religion. It has never captured whole societies outside East, central, and Southeast Asia, but it now demonstrates the power to do so, making converts in the West and even reclaiming parts of India from Hinduism. Hinduism, meanwhile, despite a thousand years of quiescence with no proselytizing vocation, also appears to be able now to make significant numbers of converts in the West and perhaps has the potential to become a fourth world religion.

As well as events that refashioned the world, we have glimpsed others that represent vivid snapshots of changes under way: the ascent of mysticism and personal religion; the transformation of magic into science; the spread and increasing complexity of webs of commerce and cultural exchange; the increase of productivity and—still very patchily until the eighteenth century—of population in most of the world; the retreat of nomads, pastoralists, and foragers; the growing authority and might of states at the expense of other traditional wielders of power, such as aristocracies and clerical establishments; the realism with which artists and mapmakers beheld the world; the sense of a “small world” every bit of which is accessible to all the rest.

So in a way, the prophets in Christendom who predicted that the world would end in 1492 were right. The apocalypse was postponed, but the events of the year ended the world with which people of the time were familiar and launched a new look for the planet, more “modern,” if you like—more familiar, that is, to us than it would have been to people in the Middle Ages or antiquity. The world the prophets knew vanished, and a new world, the world we are in, began to take shape.

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