Essay: Robert Marks’ ORIGINS OF THE MODERN WORLD

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  • Subject area(s): Environmental studies essays
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  • Published on: February 6, 2019
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  • Robert Marks’ ORIGINS OF THE MODERN WORLD
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Marks tells us that he will base his book around four interrelated topics and themes, the first, industrialization, the second, political organisation and the creation of nation states, the third, the gap in power and wealth between these nation states, which arose with industrialization and finally the environment.
To begin, Marks argues that the West portrays itself as progressive. This is shown through different periods of great change in Western culture. The conquest of the America’s was seen as being the result of superiority due to their Christian beliefs, this being the period of the Italian Renaissance, because those conquered were not Christian. Then during the Enlightenment, ‘they attributed their superiority to a Greek heritage of secular, rationalistic and scientific thought’. Then, eventually the Industrial Revolution saw Adam Smith and the capitalist system enforce their ideas upon the world due to their belief that it was inherently progressive. Marks points out however that the rise of Europe was piggy-backing off of the accomplishments of others through their exploitation. Marks will argue in his book, how our Eurocentrism, our outlook on the world from a European viewpoint, is shortsighted and does not fully reveal all the underlying elements for the rise of the West. This eurocentrism leads to ethnocentrism; a belief that your own culture is the best. This European version is that Europe is superior and its culture should be spread further than the borders of Europe. Contingency is the idea that the rise of the west was inevitable and that moreover, it is the only way that it would’ve evolved. However, as we look at the wider world, we can observe several events independent of Europe that greatly influenced the rise of the west. So there is an agency that other nations or cultures had influence upon the West’s development. These specific points of agency are historical accidents. Such points include, the location of minerals due to geological processes, this random placement of valuable resources greatly affects the affluence of regions and many other knock-on factors. Conjuncture adds the local developments that contributed to a wider global impact.
Marks directly defines the biological old regime as the ‘balancing act of people fending off or dying from macro- and microparasites’. Climate change has been one of the greatest influences on the growth of the human population on earth. Generally warmer climate meant a better harvest, which meant more food. In 1400 most people lived in Eurasia (mostly in China, India and Europe). The 15 most densely populated countries in that time shared several important features, of which the regulation of food was one of the most important ones. People from the countryside produced food, and the harvest surpluses were consumed in the cities. Generally, mostly elite lived in the cities, who could take the food surpluses by force of with the use of a tax system. The cause of these food surpluses was the agrarian revolution. Surpluses of food meant that not everyone had to grow their own food anymore, so new social groups were able to arise: nomads, priests, warrior, rulers, etc. Since they didn’t have concerns out harvesting, they could use their time for other things, like making clothes and weapons. This happened in places where generally more people lived; places that evolved into cities. In these cities people also started to read and write. If we look at size and number of cities in a country as an indicator of wealth, most wealth in 1400 was concentrated in China. A threat to cities in that time was wildlife; in Europe pacts of wolves and in China tigers. In Africa there was less of a threat of wildlife since animals and humans were developing simultaneously, and so animals learned to stay away from humans. Another threat were diseases, which spread quickly throughout the world because of the intensifying trade. A well-known epidemic that was caused by animals and trade was the ‘Black Death’, killing around 40% of the world population in 1400. The new agrarian world wasn’t however created by the ruling elite, it was a result of a series of interactions, agreements and appointments made by state agents, landowners and rural peasants. Rulers saw trade as valuable and thus encouraged and protected it. The world in the 14th century was polycentric: it consisted of several regional systems with a wealthy ‘core’, which was surrounded by a periphery which produced agrarian products and delivered raw materials to the ‘core’. These regional systems had relations to one another because of worldwide trade. These relations made it possible for nations to specialize, which made trade more effective and made production grow bigger and bigger.

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