1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann

Few could disagree that the speed and breadth of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 is enabled by global economies and international travel. With economies suffering—and our own wallets—it’s easy to imagine the problems we face are new: globalization has gone too far and runs amuck, the pandemic as an expression of mother nature “fighting back” and “restoring balance.” Many find the situation so unbelievable, they turn to conspiracy theories for comfort and clarity, and a sense of belonging.

Better, instead, to turn to Mann’s 1493. It is a rollercoaster recounting of the impact of what is now called the Columbian Exchange: globalization version 1.0, the worldwide network of economic, cultural, environmental, and epidemiological exchange, which ranges from Portugal and Spain through Peru and the east coast of the states through to the Philippines, China, and South Asia.

You’ll be enthralled at the impact of the Peruvian potato, which saves millions in Europe from starvation towards the end of the little ice age, and inspires ecological and geological collapse in China, as vast territories are leveled for sweet potato crops, even as monoculture planting (not a thing in Peru) causes blight to spread across Europe. You’ll be immersed in the first great cities of the world, from the 1200s to 1500s, across China, its gateway, Manila; Mexico City, and Peru, largely the source of silver China desperately needed and which eventually collapses the Spanish crown due to oversupply. And all along, the unintended consequences — earthworms brought from England to the states, yellow fever and malaria from Africa to the Americas, and smallpox to native populations everywhere.

And, the human stories — or, more typically, the inhuman stories, of African slavery driven by malarial resistant labor in the states to supply Europe with tobacco and sugar, a taste fairly newly acquired from the Silk Road; of ongoing wars inspired by power, greed, and religions, of the complex delineation of races and classes created by the Spanish in Mexico, as native populations, the Spanish, Africans, and Asians mixed together.

It’s the kind of book that lays bare this fact: globalization is not new. A retreat to our own backyard garden is in fact a celebration of this, with eggplants from South Asia, carrots from Europe, bell peppers, and corn from Mesoamerica. We are, already, thoroughly interdependent, enmeshed, and global, and we have been for nearly 800 years. Given that — and given our sorry histories — we can start to ask: how should we act, in ways beneficial to our ecologies, our economics, and ourselves as both regional and global citizens? Again, Mann points towards interesting case studies: in the Amazon, sorting out land ownership and economies built on healthy and diverse ecologies of plants from around the world. In Manila, with regional farmers growing a diversity of rice and crops from every corner of the earth.

On the whole, a fun and fascinating read. Highly recommended.