Phase 2 in brief: globalisation and the rise of civilisation

Since the beginning, our species has been knocked about by climate changes that make today’s global warming look like a spring rain (see chart). Phase Two started when – for scientific reasons that are still unclear – the climate started warming about 20,000 years ago and stabilised about 12,000 years ago.

temperature difference to today

Climate change since the first Homo sapiens

Humans evolved 200 millennia ago in a climate similar to today’s. The planet cooled for 70 thousand years before spiking up around 130,000 BCE. The subsequent millennia saw a bumpy, downward trend that inverted from 20,000 BCE and stabilised around 12,000 BCE. Humans left Africa around 125,000 BCE (but genetic evidence suggests that they did not survive) and again around 83,000 BCE.

Modern “global warming” is the upward tick at the far right, but remember there are 7 billion humans on the planet now. There were less than a million when temperatures spiked 130,000 years ago.

Source : Author’s elaboration of data from Arctic Dome C ice cores, Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center.

Human population density was limited by food, and food was limited by climate. The climate warming thus triggered a transformation of human society directly, and globalisation indirectly. Population density rose in regions with long growing seasons and reliable water sources. With lots of people and lots of food clustered together, humans gradually learned how to move food production to people rather than having to move the people to the food as they did when they were hunter-gatherers. This was the agricultural revolution.

The world economy was, in other words, “localised” in the sense that production and consumption occurred in fixed locations.

Globalisation in this Phase meant ‘localising’ the world economy.

the four ancient production-consumption clusters

Production and consumption were first localised in four river valleys that were in the crop-growing “sweet zone” (about 30 degrees north - not too hot, not too cold). The rivers were critical since the annual flooding solved the major problem facing ancient farming, namely soil exhaustion (without fertiliser, farmland loses much of its ability to grow crops in just a few years).

Historical Narrative

If the modern world were a house, Phase Two would be its foundations. All the trappings of civilisation took their modern forms during this Phase—everything from writing and worship to governments and gunboats. The foundations were built in three stages that may remind readers of the basic outline of a classic Greek tragedy. Every Greek tragedy starts with a hero (Asia in this case) rising to greatness through a combination of determination, hard work, and good fortune. In the history of pre-modern globalisation (i.e. Phases One and Two), this is:

  • The rise of Asia (10,000 to 200 BCE).

The ancient Eurasian civilisations arose: Egypt, Mesopotamia, India /Pakistan, and China. Some trade happened among the three western-most clusters (Egypt, Mesopotamia and India), but it was limited to missing raw materials and elite goods since transport technology was so primitive. Importantly, China was not involved in this trade which had been going on since about 2500 BCE outside normal trade routes.

In the next segment of a Greek tragedy, the hero’s wish to achieve a great goal leads to an overextension. In the case of globalisation’s history, this was the uniting of the entire Eurasian continent via the Silk Road, namely:

  • Eurasian Integration (200 BCE to 1350 CE).

For 15 centuries or so, the four original clusters (Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China) were connected by land and sea. Trade was regular, but scarce. To give an example, it took the famous traveller Marco Polo 3 years to travel overland from Venice to China. He returned by sea, a voyage that took 2 years.

The key moment in any Greek tragedy is the downfall of the hero brought about by hubris, fate, or divine intervention. When it comes to the history of globalisation, the downfall came with the Black Death (bubonic plague). This stage is:

  • The rise of Europe (1350 to 1820).

The Black Death killed up to half of all Europeans in just 3 years, and had a similarly terrible impact on the Islamic World (which had come to dominate three of the four clusters of ancient civilisation).

For reasons that historians still argue about, the shock shifted Europe onto a positive-growth path, but did the opposite for the Islamic world. For unrelated reasons, China decided to close itself off from the world, even though it had been an important trader for centuries. This opened the door for the North Atlantic global domination that we are so familiar with.

Western Europe, which had always been a primitive backwater (apart from the Greco-Roman civilisation during a few glorious centuries), transformed itself into an economic entity that would soon tower over the world economically, militarily, and culturally.

The key features of this reversal of fortunes were i) new thinking (the Renaissance and Enlightenment), ii) new lands (the Age of Discovery brought the Americas into the Eurasian world system), and iii) new foods (for example, potatoes and maize) that were critical in raising Europe’s population density. The Industrial Revolution, which was a small English bushfire at the end of Phase Two, became a global firestorm in Phase Three.

For more detail, please see :

Baldwin, Richard (2016), The Great Convergence: Information technology and the New Globalisation, Harvard University Press (Part I).

O’Rourke, Kevin and Ronald Findlay (2008). Power and Plenty: trade, war, and the world economy in the second millennium, Princeton University Press.

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This article is from the free online course:

International Affairs: Globalisation

The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies