Macro History Quest

Apr 11, 2022

This is a long essay in four parts. The first part is my framework, making sense of the 40-over books I’ve gone through. The second part I give short descriptions of each of the books. The third part is a reflection of the process, and the fourth part is the actual list of books. Enjoy! Contributors to the Patreon get to see a cool image! If you want to get in touch, you can join the Telegram channel here! Why not make it a New Year’s resolution to go through some of these books mentioned here?

Do people learn from history? The idea is that, if only societies or countries can learn from history, then we would be able to go through global developments with wisdom and avoid the worst consequences. So the idea goes, that people have not learnt sufficiently from history, and so we are doomed to repeat the failures.

Readers might be surprised that there’s no mention of Toynbee and Ibn Khaldun — the reason is just that of focus — there’s just really been a flowering of texts that take up the challenge in different ways. Besides, many of these books now take Toynbee (very much so) and Ibn Khaldun (slightly less?) as starting/reference points. This also has not a lot to do with David Christian’s Big History as in, I do not go all the way back to the Big Bang.

With the kinds of scholarship that we have today, both academic and in popular press, it is now, increasingly possible to do a survey of historical approaches, and try to integrate or synthesise across different versions of these kinds of historical work. Specifically I want to focus on “Macro History” — works that try to go across 500 years, and across different geographies and different subject matters.

These Macro Histories are not just narratives of a chronology in the historical-rigorous form. These Big Histories often want to make BIG POINTS often about human development or some other points of interests often with the expectation of a predictive element on what could unfold next. These practices are often not part of academic history.

The reviews here are also not meant to be analytically rigorous — they are meant to be short capsule summaries; many of them are just too long and rich to do any justice to them. I want to offer a framework that’s based on the books (and beyond) I’ve read in this list as well.

This is going to be an essay in two parts; the first part is a framework for how to think through the big ideas of how humanity as a civilisation is going to continue on.

The second part is my take on some of the big history books that have contributed to this thinking.

There are two other sections: a third section is a short reflection, and this ends with the list of books I looked at.


Having gone through the 40+ books (and many more outside this) it is possible to create a high-level framework to describe human civilisations, especially in the industrial era and beyond. I am keeping the term industrial era because this is where we are — humanity is still making and producing things on a large scale, and these physical processes are driving changes in the biosphere. Impacting the biosphere in such a significant way is the driver for many of the disruptions we are facing. All these climatic disruptions might be new to us, but looking at the span of history, we know what these disruptions will result, and how they will degrade the quality of life for many of us.

The framework starts with the state, the market, and society. The state is the hierarchical bureaucracy with the monopoly of violence; the market consists of the economy and economic aspects of our lives; society consists of everything else — individuals, families, civic society and so forth. What I can’t show in the diagram, but which I think is important, is the notion that these actors ought to be constrained, and that their mutual pushing and pulling is what creates tensions in society to moderate each other. This idea of “constraints” comes from Acemoglu’s and Robinson’s The Narrow Corridor (TNC), which describes the “shackled Leviathan” — the state which should not be too powerful, but not too weak either. TNC already covers the first two aspects, but I am reinterpreting society as well, and adding the economic sector.

  • As TNC already put its, a state too strong becomes despotic; a state too weak leads to social instability;

  • A society too strong leads to instability; a society too conservative leads to stagnation; a society too open to change leads also to instability;

  • A market sector too strong leads to exploitation; a market sector too weak or constrained leads to stagnation.

However, this diagram is incomplete. What’s the source of change? Here, I included technological innovation, a shorthand for the techno-science complex in advanced societies. Technological developments drive changes in markets, societies and politics, as we have become aware. It is the foundation for a whole range of things, from societal welfare, market innovation, military advantages, and so forth. At the same time, societies need to integrate these meaningfully into society or risk instabilities as the three bullet points express.

Yet even this diagram is incomplete because the biosphere is absent. Widespread technological diffusion has enabled human global civilisation to enact large changes to the biosphere by impacting ecological systems. This is where thinkers such as Raworth (and Rockstrom too), Smil, and other big history thinkers with an ecological/climatic bend are relevant. They bring in the ecology and climate, reminding readers that human civilisation is dependent on nature.

The next iteration of this diagram continues with the recognition of the geophysical and the cosmological. Geophysical is the broad term that covers volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. These things have enacted civilisational change on human history before, and could very well do so again. Within this diagram is a consideration for the cosmological — this refers to anything from solar flares (which could cause outages of our communications systems and GPS), impactors (one of which led to the extinction of the dinosaurs), and extinction-level events such as gamma ray bursts (GRBs). Solar flares are already recognised by power companies, and with more satellites monitoring the sun, we can prepare for them. Impactors are being monitored — there are various ground-based telescopes looking at things that could cause city-wide devastation — we need more funding for those. GRBs are very low probabilistic events; it might look like no star in our immediate neighbourhood might emit one, but when we look over the span of many more thousands of years, if we are hopeful and determined about the survival of human civilisation over thousands and millions of years then even these events will have to be considered. However even these considerations should submit to the immediate crisis of what we have rendered on our biosphere.

There are just a few more modifications to make to this diagram. We live in different countries, with major differences in our political systems. At the same time, technological developments are nearly global — they are kind of, a good that everyone in the world will get to experience at some point.

So updated, the diagram should look something like this.

It is a sign of our impact and consciousness that we can now enact massive changes to the world and are now considering being a multi-planetary civilisation. We are now also aware of the array of risks that human civilisation has to deal with. May we have the wisdom and will to get through this century and one day settle down in the stars.

The biggest risk we have today is that of the economic sector being too powerful, and subverting the political system from managing national, international and global structures in dealing with civilisation risks, and subverting society with exploitation — burnout, weakening social capacity, pollution, and ultimately destroying the biosphere that we rely on. This is a far more serious and actionable threat that we need to deal with, and we need to be conscious about how we want to steer the direction of the economy in relation to politics, society and the biosphere.

I leave you with the theme of fragility. The human civilisational construct that we have today is extremely fragile. If we fail the existential tests before us, we will become just a few millimetres of hydrocarbons, metal, cement, and radioactivity in Earth’s geological history. Or, we could get through this period and flourish in the stars. I wish very much that we would be wise enough to become the latter.

Thank you for reading through the first part! Contributors to the Patreon get a special gift! If you want to get in touch, you can join the Telegram channel here! Three more parts below, if you are up for it!

The Big History Book Tour

The section below contains the reviews of the various Big History texts that I went through. It was only going through the material below that I could come up with the material above.

Rise and Fall

People who work on these Big History titles tend to ask questions about the rise and fall of empires and countries and try to discern the important drivers, with the ultimate aim of applying them to contemporary circumstances. After all, we cannot be the only people struggling with geopolitical, technological, socio-cultural, and other kinds of changes, right?

Another aspect that people like to think with is the concept of “cycles.” There are ups and downs, and they can seem sort of predictable, and people can use rules-of-thumb (intuition, heuristics) to try to figure out what part of say, the business or political cycle they are in and make decisions based on those intuitions. Then, there are people who try to put those intuitions into quantifiable terms, and try to determine if there are cycles.

For instance, we want to know, what socio-political cycle is the United States in, at this time? And the same for China? We want to be able to discern if there are patterns in how there are political and social conflicts within major countries, to try to grasp at their politics.

Within this big category of “rise and fall” there are books that take a qualitative descriptive approach, and there are those that take a quantitative “horse race” approach.

Rise and Fall — Qualitative

Fernand Braudel was a historian who took the long view, and in a way, created the tradition of going through long histories spanning periods. Our concept of “civilization” probably owes a debt to him, in thinking that some of the cultures today do have continuous roots from the past. The entry here from is A History of Civilizations.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s Civilization’s discussed civilisation with ecology. It is not about “rise and fall” per se, but it does describe adaptation and change, and eventually decline. Reading it from the 2020s, his arguments about how the environment would become one of the greatest issues of concern seem prescient.

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (GGS) broke through to the public imagination with the audacious theme that part of why the world is the way it is because of the geographical structure of the world — in a way, luck. Diamond brought to the public the idea that natural endowments matter more than we think and that human agency was shaped in some part by the cards nature dealt early humanity with.

Guns, Germs, and Steel continues to fascinate readers. It’s now become a popular classic. Diamond had a “luck”-based theory about how it was that Eurasia became the basis for civilisation and not Africa, and it was just the simple fact of ecology. There were just more options for domestication for both crops and animals. Early mortality rates might account for how civilisation might not have started in the tropics. This early start in civilisation also led to new adaptations to animal-borne pathogens. The presence of geographic boundaries in Europe led to the rise of inter-state competition, which became the impetus for global exploration for resources to out-compete others. The concatenation of these reasons led to the world we see today, structured by countries from the northwestern “mega-peninsula” of the Eurasian supercontinent.

Jared Diamond would then write Collapse, The World Until Yesterday, and Upheaval. Many of the stylised facts in Collapse have been contested.

Much of the information in Collapse, a subsequent book, has since been contested or just outdated. Ecological collapse on the various examples have been challenged. It is no longer a simple story that Easter Islanders deforested their habitat for the sake of large monuments, for instance. Nor is Collapse the only narrative. Collapse has moral tones to it as well that are unhelpful for analysis. The overall argument is nonetheless clear, societies do have an active choice on how they want to manage their environment, and must somehow find the political resources to do so, or risk some kind of catastrophe. Nonetheless, the core idea that societies should manage their environments in ways that do not undermine their own survival still seems pretty uncontroversial.

The World Until Yesterday (TWUY) is Diamond’s earnest attempt to understand what features of ‘traditional’ society might be useful if not superior to our ‘modern’ ways. I have put the terms, ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ in quotation marks. They are shortcuts, conveniences for resilient peoples that have survived in their environments for many generations. There is something to be said about the more informal practices of conflict resolutions about the concept of restorative justice that ought to have greater influence in our society. That would be just one of several concepts that Diamond brings up in TWUY.

Upheaval is about adaptation. I included this here among Jared Diamond’s other works because there is a sense of continuity here. It’s about the wrenching changes that societies make to adapt to adverse circumstances. Upheaval has also a lot in thematic commonalities with Scatter, Adapt and Remember by Annalee Newitz; the cases that Diamond uses are mostly from the past 200 years, many of them from the post-World War Two era. I suppose I included here because of the thematic continuity from Collapse, so together they form a mini-part series that could stand on its own.

Francis Fukuyama’s (FF) two-volume work on Origins of Political Order (OPO) and Political Order and Political Decay (POPD) would be an example of the qualitative approach, in detailing the dynamics across different social groups.

FF has been a leading political scientist for the past two decades and more. I interpret this two-parter as a way to get back to his theme on historical trajectories, on which End of History was a significant entry. In these two volumes, FF traces back why political orders exist at all, going through the narratives of clans to bureaucratic empires, to the nation-states we see today. In the process, he writes about the struggles of sustaining bureaucracy, and why they are so prone to capture. In POPD, he describes how political orders can decay, owing to corruption and patrimonialism, which is a constant exercise.

In OPO, I was struck by the transcendental nature of the concept of the “rule of law”, and how that was absent in China and India even in ancient times. The vaguest conception of the rule of law was the “mandate of heaven”, but even then, there was no anchor to latch on to. Any victorious leader could claim to rule with the “mandate of heaven” unlike the Judaeo-Christian tradition, in which there were values seen to be outside of human constructs.

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail and The Narrow Corridor are descriptive as well, showing how the nature of the differences across national institutions can make or break a country’s development. I know that this description of Acemoglu and Robinson’s works might be strange, given how their works are full of rarefied mathematics in their academic profession. Here, I am referring only to their public works, where they have outlined in prose form the descriptions that they must have formalised in their academic papers.

The two books describe the how initial conditions can have very powerful effects and lead countries onto path dependencies and development trajectories. They describe inclusive institutions vs extractive institutions as the two main kinds of political institutions that determine whether economic progress can happen.

That’s not to say that agency is not possible. They cite Costa Rica and Botswana as countries where political leaders coming out of a crisis or critical juncture, decided on different pathways to enable peaceful development for their country.

In The Narrow Corridor, they create the idea of a “Shackled Leviathan” — the idea that the state should be a powerful actor in society, but not so powerful they become despotic. The various historical examples they use seem to describe this see-saw between a state that is too despotic, and a state that is too laissez-faire. It is difficult to be in the Goldilock’s position of “just right” governance.

Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of The Great Powers is also a great example of such kinds of work, with a framework of overextension to how great powers decline. Paul Kennedy covers the European powers and focuses on the Cold War as it was written in its time but the historical perspective is still important — to know that scholars have been thinking about the global order and succession for a long time.

Michael Mann, a political sociologist based at the University of California Los Angeles created a model of power across human civilisations, which has three main categories: ideological, economic, military, and political power. Ideological refers to the ideas and rituals that shape and regulate social life. Economic power refers to the influence over matters of resource allocation. Military power refers to the ability to conduct violence. Political power refers to the power of the state in organising various activities. Across four volumes of Sources of Social Power, he traces the trajectory of development in all of these categories. His section on climate change towards the end of the fourth volume makes for sober reading. There he describes how capitalism might need to be reformed drastically, and perhaps so, as the climate crisis unfolds.

Linda Weiss and John Hobson have a volume on “States and Economic Development” — categorising how states organised themselves to bring about economic development. Strong states can lead in creating strong economic growth by working with industrial champions. Such an approach is also a different way to look at political development from a simplistic “states vs markets” sense. Nowadays, one could read Marianna Mazzucato’s The Entrepreneurial State in the same way, recognising that states have an important role in shaping markets. Weiss and Hobson’s volume is here owing to the extent of how far they have reached back, and for their comparative approach.

Niall Ferguson’s Civilization is a comparative work with a focus on why the “West” would ultimately outcompete other regions of the world and develop empires. The six reasons were, internal competition, the Scientific Revolution, rule of law, modern medicine, consumer society and the work ethic.

William McNeill’s The Rise of the West is less combative than Niall Ferguson’s Civilisation and deals more with the influences of the world on the “Western” civilizations. Rather than establishing how one region “won out” over others, the book describes the flow of ideas from one part of the world to another.

I have to include Charles Tilly here. His historical sociology book on European state formation — Coercion, Capital and the European States gave led to the idea of how war-rmaking and state formation were deeply connected. Charles Tilly had made other significant contributions to how we understand socio-political processes, and his work on social movements is especially significant.

These books provide qualitative descriptions of how civilisations emerge, and the various ways they decline.

Rise and Fall — Quantitative

Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules for Now and The Measure Of Civilization are clearly in the quantitative domain, for how they have broken down and given scores for different aspects of social development. The problem with Ian Morris is how its definitions of “East” and “West” changes. I’m not convinced of the geographic argument. Still his framework provides a way for thinking in concrete terms how we might measure development across different domains.

Peter Turchin (and Nefedov) in Secular Cycles, is an attempt in trying to construct a mathematical model for human history — a new academic practice called “cliodynamics”. In some ways, one can read this as on a parallel track with what Ray Dalio is trying to do. Turchin’s model tries to get at some mathematical formulation; we don’t have details into how Dalio’s millions of time series are interacting with each other — I take it that there are some black box processes, or some kind of machine learning algorithm with millions of parameters. Regardless, Turchin tries to show, with historical information, relationships between inequality, elite cohesion, and socio-political stability.

Ray Dalio’s Principles for Dealing With A Changing World Order almost wants to do the “horse race” approach, but stops short, but his readouts at the end already gives a sense of the formalisation that his thinking has gone through. Perhaps one day, those early algorithms might be open-sourced.

Ray Dalio tries to put together an argument, based on historical comparisons, how we are seeing in the US-China relationships, a moment of history where a world order might change. That is, that the American-constructed world order might give rise to one where China might be ascendant.

To do that, he constructs a framework, not unlike that of Ian Morris’s social development index or Peter Turchin’s secular cycles, and describes the interaction between these different factors.

Ray Dalio states that his investment company, Bridgewater Associates, churns through millions of time series for investment activities. I have no questions about that. His book makes very excellent critiques of the various deficits of advanced societies, about the nature of social divisions, and of course, the profligate irresponsibility in deficit spending and quantitative easing.

However, his critiques are all absent when he starts to look at China. There is an obvious explanation for this. His company is heavily evolved in China, and he wants to make sure that his business can operate there. Being open about the deficits in China — socially, economically, and politically could mean a loss of business. That he is reticent to put in writing critiques about China is understandable.

In this regard, the reader would be better off reading scholars such as Michael Beckley and Ang Yuen Yuen, two scholars whom I think have a lot more work in assessing geopolitical primacy and the political economy of China’s socio-political governance.

Ray Dalio himself is in an interesting position. He clearly is in a position of influence financially and politically in the world of finance, and in the United States. He, together with his Wall Street associates, could put their thumb on the scale in US politics and society. How have they done it? They too, are part of the system, and they are too, in the system that they critique so well. Do they want to move things politically? Can they do so? Have they done so?

They cannot be “neutral” and be apolitical actors. They are clearly political actors, whether through their individual actions, or through their donations to Political Action Committees. It would be interesting to see how they want to actively shape societies and politics.

What I have tried to do here is to describe how some writers have tried to quantify the various qualitative models described above. There usually is a point in this, a predictive point, which then becomes the framework for some other kinds of prospective ability.

Materials Across Time

There is a sub-genre in these kinds of Big Histories to follow something material across time. Vaclav Smil is probably the best example of this, and the focus on energy and material flows is incredible. He might even be peerless in how he has accumulated so much statistics on the various resource use. Having read several of his books, he argues that there is no real resource constraint, although the biosphere will probably impose some limits on the pollutions that are tolerable. Energy and Civilization is very good, as is Power Density.

I find that Power Density is supremely underrated. It is a short volume, focused solely on energy density in different energy sources. This book for me, puts together in one volume the difficulties of the energy transition. It is difficult because there are just very few other kinds of energy sources with the density of oil or gas with relatively non-toxic externalities. Compare with say, fission energy, which we are still at a loss of trying to deal with long-term radiation. It would be fascinating to imagine U(Uranium)- or PU(plutonium)- or Atom-punk and the kind of world we would be (in the vein of steam-punk).

Smil’s Making the Modern World would also be here. There he examines the usage of material resources from steel and concrete, and describes how difficult it would be to change the processes of creating them. Despite being more efficient in per unit of energy or materials used, these have often rebounded — the net amount of materials used have still increased. Dematerialisation in the absolute sense is a pipe dream. The world is not physically short of elements and materials to use; it is just that the rates of consumption might hit biospheric limits, and that is the concern.

Energy and Civilisation is about the inter-relationships between sources of energy and the sophistication of socio-political order. The more energy we can harness through our own muscle, crops, animals, and subsequently various energy sources, the more sophisticated our civilisation could be. Our contemporary civilisation has gotten much better with the use of energy, and it will be up to us on how we can develop without violating our biosphere.

In Grand Transitions, Smil examines the breakthroughs and progress made in food, energy and resource use. I was familiar with what he had written on energy and resource use, and I know that he had written on food before. Here he summarises his knowledge on these three areas into a single volume. It is astounding again, the rapid development in all three areas, contributing to the fourth — the dramatic rise in population. As with all his other resource and energy books, he makes the point that resource has become more efficient but still large in absolute amounts. Any transition away from fossil fuels will be dramatic and gradual.

For this piece, I have not included single-category works here, because as rich as they might be, they don’t have the same breadth. I am sure the stories are just as fascinating, but just for conceptual purposes, I have not included them. I am thinking of something such as Mark Kurlansky’s many works, such as Cod and Salt, and there are many examples that focus on one historically-important commodity.

Idea Across Time

A related sub-genre of Big Histories is to follow an idea across time. I have included Margaret MacMillan’s War as an example, as an activity that seemed to be following people across time.

William McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples is about the co-evolution of diseases and people, and how they have influenced each other, especially in critical moments of history. Several diseases are in the spotlight. Parasites were significant in early human civilisations. Outbreaks of disease were significant throughout various empires. The book covers the plague, the various mosquito-borne diseases, and the other usual suspects — typhoid, syphilis, and smallpox.

In The Pursuit of Power McNeill here focuses on the inter-relationship between commercial prosperity and the military. Having acquired some wealth, the problem would be in safe-keeping it. Industrialisation changed the face of war drastically. The need to conduct war at larger and larger scales also required changes in state bureaucracy.

Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy is a very good read on strategies — the conceptualisation of plans for achieving goals. He examines how strategies have been developed across time, looking at the influential authors, and also across the market and social domains. Even though Freedman is an expert in military and geopolitical strategies, he has also deliberately gone beyond areas familiar to him.

MacMillan in War writes about how war has shaped various aspects of human societies, describing the various ways it advanced state-building and technological development. War also necessitated ideologies,creating nationalism. War has influenced much of our culture.

David Rothkopf’s Power, Inc. is a fascinating read about the interactions between the corporate sector and government. Both need each other. Governments need resources to fuel national goals and so need big corporations with the resources to tax from; corporations need governments to provide stability. The end result is that both parties want to over-extend and impinge on each other.

James Gleick’s The Information might be a surprising entry here, but it is an example of how to follow a topic across time, and to look at the ramifications of its development. Information isn’t just about the technologies, but about language, writing, biology, and so forth. It might not be about civilisations or empires per se, but it does give food for thought about how we might organise our knowledge and make use of it.

Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens is also similar, looking at various ideas and how they have become the main fictions that people hold on to. This idea might seem simple, but it is astounding in its implications. It would mean that the job of societies and politics is to constantly render the credibility of these fictions together, without which we cannot have a single reference to determine where we are and what we heading towards.

His sequel, Homo Deus is also here. I have included it here because it seemed to be a natural successor, a “history of the future.” He extends his thinking about the unifying features of human civilisation, this time I think, putting too much emphasis on the power of data and computing. His third book is not here owing to the more contemporary focus.

Thomas Piketty and his frequent translator Arthur Goldhammer’s on inequality and capitalism would also fall under here.

Thomas Piketty’s first book was groundbreaking in its depth of research in attempting to describe the trajectory of wealth inequality over a long period. Although one could still debate about the assumptions of the data and how fragmentary the sources and speculations about the reconstruction process, the main theses of the argument still stands, and that inequality is socio-political issue. Unless states conduct redistributive policies, inequality will create social instabilities.

Capital and Ideology builds on the previous volume, including more countries this time. As this second volume has a wider scope, Piketty (and Goldhammer) can add more descriptions to the societies they refer to. This time round, they describe “ternary societies” — referring to how three different social groups provide services to society. They describe the clergy, the nobility and the common people.This is a high-level framework, and the differences between distinct groups are consequential. Still, this broad level framework is what the authors have gone with as a shortcut for the diverse societies they cover across different parts of the world. The reason they have stuck to this is also that there are patterns from the past that surprise surprise, still relevant today.

Graeber’s Debt and (with Wengrow) Dawn of the New Everything is also here. The two books force a reconsideration of our ancestry and how we construct our lives around ideas of economic value.

Debt was excellent in its reframing of financial history on how debt was a fundamental issue for societies, and how intertwined debt is with our socio-political order. Essentially, debt reduces human worth to monetary value.

In Dawn of the New Everything, Graeber and Wengrow describe a different origin story of human social development. Rather than the linear story of development, Graeber and Wengrow offer a story that humanity had actually been more symbolically complex and more egalitarian than the conventional story of clans and hierarchies developing. Early societies, Graeber and Wengrow argue, were highly conscious of political power, and sought to live in more egalitarian relationships with each other. Part of it might be suggestive of Graeber and Wengrow’s politics, but they are nonetheless provocative. Graeber and Wengrow’s entry here is a reminder that there will always be divergent thinking in the way we view ourselves and how we will proceed with our political choices. It is not that we have things handed down to us and follow, but we can always choose a different path in how we want to manage ourselves.

The Ascent of Money from Niall Ferguson is a work on financial history, and the birth of modern banking, usually attributable to the novel financing schemes for the far-flung spice voyages made by sailors and traders of the European empire. Financing, as we read, contributes to the rise and fall of countries.

Conceptual Principle/Repeated Pattern

The fourth kind of sub-genre is more conceptual; ideas that might apply across large swaths of time.

There is David Ronfeldt’s series of papers on social development. Ronfeldt posits that there are four social forms — tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets, and networks, each with their own set of properties. The paper can be found on the RAND webpage here.

The Square and the Tower is a different book from what Niall Ferguson writes about. He uses his historian lens to look at the tensions between network and hierarchical social structures in history. He looks at networks across different domains of historical topics, such as the those of imperial power, the Rothschilds, and the Scientific Revolution.

Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants gives an overview of the evolution of technology, which could be read together with Brian Arthur’s The Nature of Technology. It might seem strange to ascribe a direction or teleology to technology and I think co-development would seem to be a better phrasing. It is certainly an intriguing thought that technology could be thought of as a different “kingdom of life” — according to Kelly. Arthur has less expansive claims, but no less provoking. Technology’s richness is because of its combinatorial nature. We create technology from technology — we use the parts of old things to make new things, and so forth.

I have put Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics here. It might seem strange to put this here, but I feel that Smil’s works intersect with the ideas of physical limits; Raworth’s contribution is to integrate the physical limits with social limits as well. Her doughnut diagram seems to borrow also from Rockstrom’s diagram on the biospheric flows. Her contribution is that humanity should stay within the torus — bringing humanity to an optimum level of consumption of resources, but staying within the limits of the biosphere. It is a valuable contribution to how we should think about socio-economic changes.

Smil’s Growth is in this section, because Growth is not concerned with following a chronology, but across different scales. Growth concludes with Smil’s contention that humanity might do well to moderate consumption, because the growth of consumption will ultimately threaten the integrity of the biosphere.

Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies is here as well. There are difficulties with Tainter’s use of various archaeological evidence, but the concept comes through — overextension of problem solving leads to resource depletion and eventually some kind of reduction in complexity. Tainter thinks the resource depletion is energy; but it could be other things, financial, socio-political, other factors.

Annalee Newitz’s Scatter, Adapt and Remember should also be here, because it follows on from situations of reduced social complexity. People will move from the scene of disaster, and/or adapt to new situations they find themselves in, and pass on memories of the disaster. “Collapse” is too heavy a term. The phrase, “reduction of socio-political complexity” might be a mouthful, but it is also more accurate, and without the moral judgment that it implies.

In the event of a large-scale catastrophe, people will be moving about finding different ways to survive or even thrive. Newitz takes us on voyages beyond Earth for our survival. It might not be a conventional entry in the sense of the big history like the other books, but it is a history of our future — how we will survive and exist in forms and places that will be very different from present circumstances.

For me, The Precipice is a different take on the same issue that Newitz covers. For Ord, humanity could be at a critical juncture, and the pressing need to manage the global civilisation and prevent humanity from going down a path of self-extinction.

By way of conclusion

One might ask how are the “Idea Across Time” and “Conceptual Principle” different?The former is usually a lot more chronological that is, they follow an idea as it changes across different eras, usually in a sequential sort of way. There is almost to say, a continuous flow in how they have worked through the idea. The latter is more episodic and discrete, usually using a principle and using it in particular instances. The latter offers frameworks to explore, while the former follows through with an established concept. One could argue that I am splitting hairs here, and you are free to disagree.

Do we learn anything? It would not seem so. Events constantly overwhelm the extant generation of leaders and most succumb, in the language of the Prisoner’s Dilemma — mutual defection — the worst outcome in the game. What we do see is repeatedly how leaders over-emphasise the short-term and the expedient over the long-term and principled view.

Finding, developing and electing social leaders — politicians, business leaders, activists, who can rise about the muck of political and social fights and pull along each other and the rest of society to try to get to globally-optimal outcomes (global in the abstract solutions space encompassing the entire situation and global in the literal world-encompassing sense) will be important. Or we must find another way to all work together in the struggle for a better world that endures beyond the present moment.

These Big History titles force us to contend with the idea that events plod forward, step by step, decision by decision. Although there are trends and momentum that we have to deal with, there are still opportunities for agency. On the other hand, there are other forces that are almost beyond our ability to control, but we can adapt. The climate and environment represent powerful forces that we have to adapt to. The climate we now understand we can influence, as we already do with the gigatonnes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; the environment — such as the pandemics — which we can adapt to, if we are wise enough.

These titles should put to rest any simplistic argument of a silver bullet to address any policy issue. I have chosen several of Vaclav Smil’s books, because they confront policymakers and activists about the enormity of the challenge to move the world away from fossil fuels. We need to do as much as we can wherever we are.

Thank you for reading through the second part! If you want to get in touch, you can join the Telegram channel here! Two more (much shorter) parts below, if you are up for it!


Someone asked me if it was worth reading all these big history books. They are usually very long, and there is, truth be told, a kind of tedium to be going through them all. What would one gain from this experience?

The first thing is one would gain a new awareness, perhaps the literary version of the “overview effect” that astronauts say they gain from viewing Earth from outer space. There is a strange awe and awareness at knowing where we stand today across time (and across space). The books cover all the geographies, multiple domains of knowledge, and how they interact with each other. It is like having an overview effect across time. One gets a sense of humility and urgency about what to do.

The second thing follows from the first. Now that you have a sense of positioning across time and space, you are now confronted with questions about what to do next? What does it mean to be genuinely concerned about society and the country you belong to? What does it mean to hear political discourses about “security for the long-term”? You now have an imagination that stretches back eons and stretches forward eons. We do live in a precarious time, as Ord argues, and how we manage our human civilisation is the question to answer in the years ahead. While our individual actions might not matter in and of themselves, we do have a responsibility to nudge systems however we can, wherever we are, and to bring other people along.

As I mentioned in the overview essay, the theme that crops up again and again is fragility. Human civilisation is either going to become a few millimetres of hydrocarbons, metal, cement, and radioactivity in Earth’s geological history. Or, we could get through this period and flourish in the stars. I wish very much that we would be wise enough to become the latter.

Things that could have made the cut

A bit of intellectual honesty is required here. As I’ve mentioned, this is my list, and this is how I have seen things in this way. There might have been other authors and writers of big history that I might have included. Perhaps in an expanded series, I might include them, just not for now. I have read most of these titles, and for some of them, I have sped-glanced them.

Niall Ferguson’s work on the Rothschilds and their influence in European and global power is definitely interesting, and I just had not read them. I did consider The Cash Nexus, but felt it might be too repetitive given the The Ascent of Money.

There are a variety of books that were of interest to me but I had not included them due to their narrower topical scope.

The 1491 and1493 is a two-parter by Charles Mann are examples of the narrow geographical scope. He describes the world before and after the European colonisation of the Americas.

Jurgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World is a really nice book that describes the tumultuous changes of the nineteenth century.

Vaclav Smil’s two-parter on Creating and then Transforming the Twentieth Century summarises the important technical breakthroughs that made the world today.

Charles Tilly and other political sociologists have given us several frameworks and studies about how society interacts with politics to give us the political structures we have today. Barrington Moore, and Theda Skocpol are others.

The Little Ice Age, by Brian Fagan and Nature’s Mutiny by Philipp Blom are excellent reads for how a period of global cooling changed the world. Their chronologies are different. According to Fagan the cooling period started from the 1300s, while Blom focuses from the 1600s. The causes of these might be volcanoes; another might be the reforestation after the European conquest of Americas led to depopulation there (because of smallpox). These two books impressed upon me the knife edge that human civilisation sits on. A sequence of just two or three volcanic eruptions spaced out over some years might trigger climate change and cooling.

The father-son McNeills are wonderful historians. I have included three of William McNeill’s books; of J. R. McNeill, I thought the scope was limited to environmental histories — and covers the modern period and so have left those out. They are nonetheless very good.

Deep History, edited by Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail is very good, and I just could not fit the entry into the text. It is highly conceptual, also a commentary across the historical endeavour.

Histories of sciences are very good, but they are often about topics that started from the development of science — itself a modern thing. I might do a “history of science” approach, and do some classification there. Philip Ball, Oliver Morton, Steven Johnson, and Dava Sobel are just four great writers of science and on technical topics. They deserve more attention than a minor note here.

There are very many books about geopolitics and the arrangements of global power. John Mearsheimer looms over this series with this The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, but his focus on geopolitical competition is narrow (but important!). In this vein, one might be surprised why Graham Allison’s Destined For War is not in this. The reason is that its scope is narrow, and also contentious.

Thank you for reading through the third part! The last section with the list of books is below, if you are up for it!

The list of books:

​​ Rise and Fall — Qualitative

- Braudel, Fernand. 1995. A History of Civilizations. Trans. Richard Mayne. Penguin Books.

- Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe. 2002. Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature. Free Press

- Jared Diamond. 2017. (First published 1997). Guns, Germs, and Steel. W. W. Norton.

- Jared Diamond. 2011. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition. Penguin Books.

- Jared Diamond. 2012. The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? Penguin.

- Jared Diamond. 2020. Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis. Back Bay Books.

- Fukuyama, Francis. 2010. The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution.

- Fukuyama, Francis. 2015. Political Order and Political Decay. Profile Books Ltd.

- Acemoglu, Daron and James Robinson. 2012. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. Currency.

- Acemoglu, Daron and James Robinson. 2019. The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty. Penguin Press.

- Mann, Michael. 1986. The Sources of Social Power: Volume 1, A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760. Cambridge University Press.

- Mann, Michael. 1993. The Sources of Social Power: Volume 2, The Rise of Classes and Nation-States, 1760–1914. Cambridge University Press. (2nd edition 2012)

- Mann, Michael. 2012. The Sources of Social Power: Volume 3, Global Empires and Revolution, 1890–1945. Cambridge University Press.

- Mann, Michael. 2012. The Sources of Social Power: Volume 4, Globalizations. Cambridge University Press.

- Kennedy, Paul. 1989. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and MIlitary Conflict from 1500 to 2000. Vintage books Edition

- Weiss, Linda and John Hobson. 1995. States and Economic Development: A Comparative Historical Analysis. Polity.

- Ferguson, Niall. 2011. Civilization: The West and the Rest. The Penguin Press.

- McNeill, William H. 1992. The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community. Illustrated by Bela Petheo. University of Chicago Press. (First published 1964)

- Tilly, Charles. 1992. Coercion, Capital, and European States, A.D. 990–1990. Wiley-Blackwell. (Revised Edition 1997)

Rise and Fall — Quantitative

- Morris, Ian. 2010. Why the West Rules — for now: The patterns of history, and what they reveal about the future. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

- Morris, Ian. 2013. The measure of civilization: how social development decides the fate of nations. Princeton University Press.

- Turchin, Peter and Sergey A. Nefedov. 2009. Secular Cycles. Princeton University Press.

- Dalio, Ray. 2021. Principles of Dealing with the Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail. Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster.

Materials Across Time

- Smil, Vaclav. 2013. Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization. Wiley.

- Smil, Vaclav. 2021. Grand Transitions: How the Modern World Was Made. Oxford University Press.

- Smil, Vaclav. 2017. Energy and Civilization: A History. The MIT Press.

- Smil, Vaclav. 2016. Power Density: A Key to Understanding Energy Sources and Uses. The MIT Press.

Ideas Across Time

- McNeill, William H. 1976. Plagues and Peoples. Anchor.

- McNeill, William H. 1982. The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society Since A.D. 1000. The University of Chicago Press.

- Freedman, Larence. 2013. Strategy: A History. Oxford University Press.

- MacMIllan, Margaret.2020. War: How Conflict Shaped Us. Random House.

- Rothkopf, David. 2012. Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government- and the Reckoning That Lies Ahead. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

- Gleick, James. 2011. The Information. Pantheon.

- Harari, Yuval Noah. 2014. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harper. (First published in Hebrew in 2011)

- Harari, Yuval Noah. 2016. Home Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Signal. (First published in Hebrew in 2015)

- Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. First published in French 2013. Belknap Press.

- Piketty, Thomas. 2020. Capital and Ideology. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. First published in French 2019. Harvard University Press.

- Graeber, David. 2011. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Melville House.

- Graeber, David and David Wengrow. 2021. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

- Ferguson, Niall. 2008. The Ascent of Money: A Financial HIstory of the World. The Penguin Press.

Conceptual Principles/Repeated Pattern

- Ronfeldt, David. 1996. Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks: A Framework About Societal Evolution. RAND.

- Ferguson, Niall. 2018. The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook. Penguin Press.

- Kelly, Kevin. 2010. What Technology Wants. Viking.

- Arthur, W. Brian. 2009. The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. Free Press.

- Raworth, Kate. 2017. Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. Chelsea Green Publishing.

- Smil, Vaclav. 2019. Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities.The MIT Press.

- Tainter, Joseph A. 1990. The Collapse of Complex Societies. Princeton University Press.

- Newitz, Annalee. 2013. Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Doubleday.

- Ord, Toby. 2020. The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity. Hachette Books.

Thanks for persevering to the end! If you want to get in touch, you can join the Telegram channel here! Happy 2022 to you!

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