The main problem with the world today is how we see it. Too many people in the United States and the world at large believe that we’re in trouble. It’s becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. The world is actually in pretty good shape, but scared people are doing crazy things, which really do put the world in danger. The best way to fight this is to know more. The following books have helped me do exactly that.
Why The West Rules For Now by Ian Morris
This book is kind of ridiculous in its scope, ambition and execution, but it’s also a fun read that makes everything make more sense. Ian Morris, the author, managed to royally tick me off with his follow-up book, but I think this one is still valuable. He explains the rise and fall of civilizations over thousands of years of history in a fun, breezy, amusingly nerdy way. This perspective is valuable because it shows just how far we have come, and provides a nice corrective to the idea that certain civilizations are something special. He’s also very good at underlining just how much the Industrial Revolution has changed everything, and just how quickly, which is what the next selection gets into in detail.
The Birth of the Modern World: 1780-1914 by C.A. Bayly
This book, more than anything else I’ve read in my 30s, and probably my 20s, has changed the way I see the world. Bayly lays out the way that industrialization changed everything. Prior to the 1780s it was still possible to talk about separate regional histories rather than one unified world history. After 1780, not so much. The exponential economic growth that industrialization allowed has changed absolutely everything about the human race, from religion, to the way we dress, to the way we think. I would have listed this book first, but it is quite long and a bit dry. The more I read though, the more inspiring I found it. In a lot of ways, human history is about 200 years old. It’s all kind of fresh and new, and the possibilities are endless. We’ve certainly used our new powers for considerable evil, but we’ve also been able to add a lot of positive to the balance as well. Many insist that history is a never-ending catalog of catastrophe. Prior to 1780 that’s certainly true. But the Modern World provides an incredible opportunity to do better. In fact, we already have…
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
by Steven Pinker
With this book Steven Pinker completely punctures the standard panicked view of the state of the world. He collects comprehensive data to prove that we are now living in the safest, most peaceful and non-violent era the world has ever known. If that sentence surprises you, you need to read this book. He goes into great detail on the end of war, and the “civilizing process”, that has resulted in lower levels of violence within societies, and many other topics, including animal rights and racism. Pinker is careful to say that there is more work to be done, but he also focuses on the dangers that fantasies about the world’s horror bring.
On the same topic, The Fallen of World War II, one of the most well-done videos on the Internet, provides a stark picture of how much better off we are today.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Pinker’s views haven’t changed significantly since the publishing of his book in 2011. Syria and Cecil the Lion don’t change his statistics much, according to this Guardian article from 2015.
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
This book is much more optimistic than it sounds. It is fascinating to watch the profession of history circle back to an older theory of politics. This book was a fantastic read, filled with a wealth of historical facts. It has been blurbed by all the right people, and is a “cutting edge” interpretation of the history of development. What is hilarious about this is that it is a ringing endorsement of the “great man” theory of history. Good institutions have to be crafted by people, and the “contingent” nature of history they keep talking about is very much something that can be influenced by individual actors. The authors compound their sin against social historians by barely hiding their conviction that England’s Glorious Revolution of 1689 is the most important thing that ever happened. There is little here that Edward Gibbon would disagree with. I Loved it. It’s optimistic because it emphasizes that by designing our institutions carefully, and taking care of them, we really can change things for the better.