Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Andrew Marr’s ‘Age of Plunder’ is now

with 2 comments

‘Age of Plunder’ was the title of Episode 5 of Andrew Marr’s History of the World (which was first broadcast in the UK on Sunday).  Regular readers of this blog will by now be aware that, whilst I like Marr’s presentation style, I am more than a little suspicious of his political bias.  For those who have not read them, I would recommend you first read my posts about episodes 1 and 2  and episodes 3 and 4.  However, because of its synchronicity with the current state of global business and politics, I have decided to write about Episode 5 in isolation.

In Marr’s epic attempt to cover the whole of Human history in 8 hours, Episode 5 represents the opening part in the second half of the 8-part series.  Having concluded the previous episode in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper, Episode 5 begins in 1492 with the story of Christopher Columbus.  I am therefore sorry to have to say it, but, let’s face it, Columbus was an idiot.

Given that Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī had accurately determined the circumference of the Earth in the ninth Century (see Episode 4), why did Columbus think the Earth was much smaller?  I suppose you could argue that we should be grateful he did not still think the Earth was flat!  May be so but, was he, in fact, an early example of a contrarian thinker who, unlike Galileo, turned out to be wrong?  Galileo based his thinking on decades of careful observations by others; whereas Columbus appears to have rejected any evidence that conflicted with his preconceived ideas.  Does this remind you of anyone?

Marr’s next topic was Martin Luther’s rebellion against the hypocrisy of the Roman Catholic Church in 1517, which was selling indulgences (i.e. forgiving the sins of people and their dead relatives) in order to raise money for the replacement of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Obviously, this was just one of many objections that Luther had but his bravery in taking on his employer was I think another pivotal event in human history.  Not least because of the 11 million people that died in the 125 years of religious war his actions triggered.  No wonder British historian Lord Acton concluded that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  It was true 500 years ago – and it is true today.

In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas (revising the papal bull of 1493), gave an automatic right to Spain and Portugal to claim any new lands found west and east of the chosen line of longitude.  Unfortunately, due to lands already claimed, the diving line did not pass between Africa and South America (such as 30oW) and was not even a sensible number – it was decided by picking a point a certain distance west of the Cape Verde Islands – which is why people speak Portuguese in Brazil and Spanish in the rest of that continent.  Marr skipped over this historical accident to focus on the disgraceful entrapment by the Spanish of the Incan emperor Atahualpa (1497-1533): Despite the fact that Atahualpa had never seen a book before (and could not read), the Spanish used his rejection of a Bible as an excuse to kill thousands of his people and take him prisoner…  It is a disgraceful period of Christian history – one people tend to forget when watching movies like The Missionary and singing hymns like Amazing Grace

Other subjects covered in this episode included an examination of the events leading up to Shogun’s decision to order all Christians out of Japan in 1587; and the long history of trouble between England and Holland arising from the discovery (in 1512) of Nutmeg in the Banda Islands in what is now Indonesia.  However, my attention was caught by Marr’s rendition of the two other main stories he chose to tell:

1. Ivan the Terrible, who ruled Russia at a time when Europe was going through what is commonly known as the Little Ice Age (another favourite meme for those who dispute the modern consensus regarding anthropogenic climate disruption).  At the time, Russia was fairly insignificant but, thanks to Ivan the Terrible’s conquest of Siberia, Russia made a fortune out of trading furs with Europe (and Siberia also turned out to have been a fortuitous conquest when huge amounts of coal oil and gas were discovered – that of melting permasfrost is not so welcome I suspect).

2. The invention of commodity speculation in Holland in 1637, a country that went totally mad buying and selling tulip bulbs – so-called ‘Tulip mania’ – and then decided the whole thing was stupid.  The first ever stock market “bubble” to burst.

So it was that Marr decided to call his programme ‘The Age of Plunder’…  However, I think that the real age of plunder began with the Industrial Revolution.  Clearly one cannot deny all the benefits that have accrued to a (global) minority as a result, but, I believe that only a fool would way this benefit (which is yet to accrue to the vast majority) has been gained at no cost.  On the contrary, the exponential growth in human population, resource consumption, and waste production that has been facilitated by a super-abundance of cheap energy (i.e. fossil fuels) has pushed the dynamic equilibrium of our global life support systems (scientists like to call them “essential ecosystem services”) to – and I suspect now beyond – breaking point.

As I said on this blog way back in February this year:

We need to stop treating nature as an enormous warehouse whose goods can be used up without paying for them; and start living in a way that reflects the fact that our survival as a species is dependent upon nature not being degraded to the point that it ceases to function properly. If we do not, the Sun is not going to go out but, in not so many decades from now, it might get hot enough that we cannot go outside (much) to enjoy it.

Here then is another video you may enjoy:

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2 Responses

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  1. Let there be no mistake: I watched all episodes of the History of the World up till now; and have thoroughly enjoyed them. Having said that, I must agree with what is written here. Although there should be nothing but praise for Mr. Marr’s attempt to summarise such a vast volume of occurrences, you are bound to forget something somewhere. What worries me more though is a tendency to popularise the story told, and injecting it with some good old British nationalism. Which then again turns into an incorrect display of events; e.g. good old James Cook credited with discovering Australia. Wasn’t that already done roughly 150 years earlier by the Dutch (1606 vs. 1770 to be exact)? Just like they traded with Japan and China before the Brits did (as did Portugal and Spain). For a while, the cheeky Dutch were the only ones permitted to trade with these Eastern empires, leaving the Brits with just envy. And on the point of the Dutch, were they not the inventors of the stock market, the government-led trading companies (which the Brits then copied faithfully), and didn’t they already have a republic in the 16th century which ran successfully until invaded by Napoleon? The same republic that was the blue print for the USA some say, a peaceful colony the Dutch sold to the British (silly them). Due to the Dutch influence and importance, the Brits and the Dutch were fighting all the time, with the Dutch even sailing up the Thames (Medway). The British fleet was defeated; and the Crown humiliated. So much so that Charles II decided to strike a deal with France’s Louie XIV, marking the alliance between France and Britain in this era. And yet, like it says here, the Dutch are represented in the series as “frenzied buyers of tulips”, which is remarkable. Now, like said before, summarising the History of the World is a formidable task, and deserves respect. And as it always says on the credits, any omissions may occur. But popularising it with British nationalism is not necessary and I dare say somewhat distasteful. Just think of the sentiments in the UK after the Americans decided to make a film U571 about the capture of the Enigma during WW2. Those silly, patriotic Americans kind of forgot the fact that that feat was not accomplished by an American, but a British one. Dear me…

    Thomas Anderson

    11 November 2012 at 13:14

    • Thanks for commenting, Thomas. I think you are a little unfair on Andrew Marr here; as he explained a great deal about the supremacy of the Dutch East India Company (and how we copied its success) in the 100 years prior to Cook’s arrival at Botany Bay. Also, although I have not blogged about it, I do not think you could describe Marr as having any bias in favour of the British Empire in last week’s episode: Just as Jeremy Paxman was brutally honest in his own series about the history of the British Empire (as I mentioned back in April this year)… Marr did not attempt to hide from the disgraceful way Brits traded opium for tea in China. On the contrary, he made it very clear that we then went to war to protect the trade; and turned a large percentage of Chinese into heroin addicts. Marr also chose to point out that we then, quite literally adding insult to injury, forced their Government to grant access to numerous ports and hand over territory such as Hong Kong… It is little wonder the Chinese have taken so long to forgive us (if indeed they have)…

      Martin Lack

      11 November 2012 at 15:12


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