How did humanity get to where it is, and what challenges face the human race going forward? Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs tackles those sizable questions from historical, agricultural, economic, technological, institutional, sociological, and geopolitical perspectives in “The Ages of Globalization.” Sachs puts forward two premises. First, “humanity has always been globalized.” Though the expressions changed considerably over time, humans have traveled and exchanged goods and ideas. Second, humanity needs to work together to solve today’s challenges as they threaten the very existence of all. In the dense book, rich with research, Sachs addresses the premise with historical facts and the second with personal insight. In addition, the book communicates high-level information, including the broad suggestions the author makes about how to proceed in this day in his conclusion.
After an opening chapter about the parameters of globalization, Sachs walks through seven ages of its expression. To say the book covers a broad span of history would be an understatement. Beginning with the Paleolithic Age, when humanity foraged for food, Sachs journeys all the way to the present Digital Age, and virtual connectivity made instantaneous across the globe. Three critical tenets of Sachs’ argument are mentioned in the book’s subtitle and throughout the chapters. Geography, technology, and institutions interplay throughout time in ways that result in major advancements. Sachs also draws attention to the setback and challenges of history, showing globalization’s positive and negative aspects. I found connections in this book reminiscent of Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic and Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. History reveals a mixed bag of results for humanity, but one that Sachs believes to be more beneficial than detrimental.
Because my project incorporates a digital component, I was drawn to the chapter on “The Digital Age.” Written on a macro level, Sachs identifies three enormous challenges of the current day. Rising inequalities, environmental degradation, and geopolitical risks all loom large in this age. The history of globalization informs how technological changes alter power dynamics. “Technological advances contain within them the seeds of rising inequality, as new technologies create winners and losers in the marketplace.” That shift can create inequality, and inequality often leads to war. However, this moment in history cannot afford a global war with existing weaponry containing the potential to end human life.
In his final chapter, Sachs not only relates history to the present but also prescribes general directions to alleviate the challenges of the Digital Age. The author strikes an optimistic tone about the opportunities for future flourishing. Sustainable development entails holistic governance that addresses economic, environmental, and social goals. A social-democratic ethos proves to be the best provider of human flourishing today through a highly participatory approach to politics and economics. Subsidiarity and the public sphere seek to set healthy boundaries between public and private goods. Sachs believes a reformed United Nations can update an institution not current to the reality of the world’s populations or economies. As I read his suggestions for benefit, I was reminded of the quote Sachs included from E.O. Wilson: “We exist with a bizarre combination of ‘Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.’” What could possibly go wrong in that scenario? As humanity pursues opportunity, it would be wise to take threats seriously.
I also leaned into a section labeled “Ethics in Action for a Common Plan.” Sachs co-led a “multifaith effort to find the common basis for global action for sustainable development.” Faith leaders across the spectrum identified three common moral characteristics of global faiths. The Golden Rule or the principle of reciprocity, value for and care toward the poor, and care for the environment exist universally. Those three issues embraced by all can serve as a platform for unified boundaries for cooperative effort. However, Sachs does add a potential danger to the possibility of traction around the three principles, namely, “if politics does not get in the way.”
I believe those three principles could serve the church well as a focus and direction for cultural engagement. I fear that too many churches seek to win the battles of a culture war that demands a positioning on one of two extremes. I doubt any helpful fruit grows on the extreme branches of today’s debates. What if the manner of engagement with culture offered reciprocity, care for the poor (and others on the margins), and responsible care for the creation? By reciprocity, I mean acts of compassion that meet needs in practical ways. Rather than spending a great amount of time arguing positions on issues, followers of Jesus can demonstrate the value for all by providing dignity through serving. “. . .let your light shine before others, so that may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16, ESV) Actions can point to God in ways that “connect the dots” for folks about who God is.
Rather than leading out with confrontation, the opportunity for the church to engage culture with issues of common concern offers a positive strategy in a time often marked by negativity and vitriol. What if the church led in areas of common concern? What if the church initiated programs that met needs in ways that invited people across the spiritual spectrum to join because the issues mattered to all, regardless of their present faith? I will ask the same question as before but with a positive meaning: What could possibly go wrong in that scenario?
 Jeffrey Sachs, The Ages of Globalization: Geography, Technology, and Institutions (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020), 23.
 Ibid., 21.
 Ibid., 184.
 Ibid., 185.
 Ibid., 203.
 Ibid., 170.
 Ibid., 211.
 Ibid., 212.