Over the past few years I happen to have read a number of books and listened to a number of podcasts that deal with the progress of humanity through the centuries. I’ve always been interested in history (I love a good story), but I realized that what I like are stories about how human society organized itself, then evolved and changed over the centuries. I love trying to understand the major reasons why things happen the way they did, why history unfolded in any given way. I love to get a detailed picture (well, detailed enough) of what life was like for humans during various important periods of history, and getting some expert analysis on what the driving forces were for massive societal change.
I’m fascinated with this topic for the same reason I like to watch the news: because history is unfolding every day around us, and we get to witness it first hand. We may even be participating. And maybe, just maybe there is an infinitesimally small chance that we can actually influence it.
Some of the best historical books I have read and listened to include:
- In the Name of Rome (Adrian Goldsworthy) – Roman history through the lens of their major military battles.
- Persian Fire (Tom Holland) – Persians vs. Greeks. The birth of democracy. The real “300”. ‘Nuff said.
- Rubicon (Tom Holland) – The history and fall of the Roman Republic
- The History of Rome (podcast by Mike Duncan) – Mike Duncan has two great talents: making history accessible, and a sharp, dry wit.
There are also a few books that attempt to draw large conclusions about the state of humanity from an economic point of view, and I think these are worthy of their own list as often the political and economic spheres are inseparable:
- The Origin of Wealth (Eric Beinhocker) – Just the best book ever written on the topic. Academic, dense, and utterly awesome.
- The Ascent of Money (Niall Ferguson) – Fascinating history of the development of modern finance
- Capital in the 21st Century (Thomas Piketty) – Right wingers love to hate this book, but you can’t argue with facts
Another category of content that I think deserves its own list is the books I read and podcasts I’ve listened to that specifically focus on the development, or large-scale change, of civilization:
- Guns, Germs and Steel (Jared Diamond) – Attempts to understand the entire arc of all human civilization since the advent of farming. Amazingly ambitious.
- Collapse (Jared Diamond) – Examines why civilizations fail, primarily from an ecological viewpoint.
- Revolutions (podcast by Mike Duncan) – Examines the details of how major political changes came to be in various time periods.
- Why Nations Fail (Daron Acemoglu, James Robinson) – This is my new favorite book in the whole world. A great political economy framework married with good story telling.
When I think about what I see in the news today, I am simultaneously encouraged and disheartened to see that it is the exact same struggles that have plagued humanity from the very first switch from hunter-gatherer to farming: Competition for scarce resources, the constant battle of how humans organize themselves into political entities, and always the never-ending cascade of base human emotions like greed, lust, love, hate, and fear. There’s something reassuring about the commonality between the struggles of humans in the Rome republic of 150 BC, and in the United States of America in 2015. The fundamental message is: people are people.
But societies change. Norms change. Values change. Technology changes.
The world changes.
Technological advancement causes massive change in our daily circumstances, and these changes end up slowly affecting our society. If you take a look at only the material difference in our lives now compared to fifty years ago, you will see that homes are better built, cars last longer and drive further on less gas, communication is mind-bogglingly more frequent, cheap, and effective than it ever was, the jobs that people do are different. Attitudes change. What we are allowed to say on TV and show in movies (and do on stage, thank you Miley Cyrus and Janet Jackson) has changed. What we consider fair, and unfair, has changed. For example, a majority of people in America now believe it is unfair to discriminate against people because of which sex they prefer.
And yet there is still war. There is still fighting over who gets what economic (or physical) gains. There are still people willing to kill others who they disagree with.
And in some places, we’re going backwards. Just as America is finally coming around to the idea of treating all its people fairly regardless of whether they like boys or girls, radicals in the Middle East have created their own medieval utopia where they throw homosexuals off of tall buildings and behead women in the street.
I often like to ask people where they think the world is going, what they think will happen in the future. It’s interesting to see what people care about, and what they think the future will be like. And then there’s the question that I rarely ask but is the logical conclusion to all of this:
“Where SHOULD the world go?”
What should we be trying to get to? What kind of world should we be creating?
Now, let’s be clear, this is a luxury problem. A vast percentage of the world’s population would laugh at this question and say, “I’m just trying to figure out how my family and I don’t die today.” For arguably a significant portion of the world’s population the primary concern is satisfying their basic survival needs. Then, there are the masses of people who might not need to worry about their physical safety, or having enough food to eat, but they still live in objective poverty and their main concern would be to improve their quality of life. My gut tells me that this group encompasses something around half the people on the planet.