1. Charting

  2. Maps showing the ebb and flow of globalisation give us hope for the future, Ian Goldin tells Pádraig Belton

    When the morning of 7 February 1497 dawned in Florence, a decade of globalisation was already underway.

    Columbus had made two transatlantic voyages. Henry VII had commissioned the first dry dock at Plymouth. England, Burgundy, the Dutch Republic, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Hanseatic League had signed the Intercursus Magnus, a long-lasting commercial treaty.

    But, for the fundamentalist friar Girolamo Savonarola and his supporters, the right reaction to the trade-derived prosperity of the age was to gather Florence's most irreplaceable Renaissance books, paintings, tapestries and other artefacts, and set fire to them in the city’s main square.

    Savonarola had rallied the dispossessed working classes against corrupt, plutocratic cosmopolitan elites using the new medium of Gutenberg's press. It all sounds a bit familiar.

    Ian Goldin, Professor of Globalisation and Development at the University of Oxford, cites the episode as an example of how cycles of globalisation and populist backlash tend to alternate. The years following that ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ saw Vasco da Gama sail to India, opening Asia to European trade, and the restored Medici, targets of Savonarola’s philistine violence, commission Michelangelo’s David. So should those despairing at populist spasms just sit back and wait for the next pendulum swing?

    "No, I fear not. There’s got to be a conscious decision to address the inequalities feeding populism and authoritarianism,” Goldin says.

    Along with Canadian political scientist Robert Muggah, he has written Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years, making the case for combatting authoritarianism with more globalisation. Following his book with Christopher Kutarna Age of Discovery: Navigating the Storms of our Second Renaissance, which compared our age with that of a previous technological gear change, the new book uses maps and data visualisations to help us "gain perspective, and empower people."

    Goldin’s own natural optimism dates from his time between 1996 and 1999 when, as chief executive of the Development Bank of Southern Africa, he advised Nelson Mandela, a man he calls "even greater than the myths around him".

    In this substantial new book, he charts the shifting tides of globalisation over 500 years, culminating in its current high-water mark: World trade's monetary value in 2010 was 508 times its level a hundred years before. 

    Some of the infographics suggest that the linkages that spread coronavirus so rapidly also offer the only hope of addressing the big challenges. International cooperation sequenced the virus's genome within a month and produced tens of thousands of studies soon after.


    Ian Goldin



    Our challenges are interconnected, but small and focussed global networks can have outsized effects. Goldin believes in the Pareto principle which specifies that 80 per cent of consequences come from 20 per cent of the causes, asserting an unequal relationship between inputs and outputs. 

    Of the world's carbon emissions, as it happens, 80 per cent come from twelve countries and 500 companies. Antibiotic resistance could be solved by a small group of pharmaceutical companies and nations, while financial stability requires about seven countries plus the EU "to do the right thing". This is the globalisation he thinks we need more of.

    It feels like a brave argument to make in 2020 which, unlike the previous big crisis year of 2008, has not seen a concerted global response. The US has announced its withdrawal from the World Health Organisation. Rich governments race to sign bilateral agreements with pharmaceutical manufacturers, so-called 'vaccine nationalism'.

    But we can't build walls against pandemics, which can begin "absolutely anywhere". Lack of cooperation will only ensure "another that could be even more deadly." Goldin says.

    But the idea that "everyone has to be part of everything", that all the world's governments must agree solutions to every problem, is he says, "a recipe for gridlock".

    Coronavirus is the only threat he can think of where the response "absolutely does have to be global", in that all countries must accept their territory will be part of the solution.

    We face either a world of rapidly spreading cooperation to share risk management and prosperity, or a populist one of growing inequality. The "best way to determine the future is to shape it", he says, putting the responsibility on us as citizens, businesses and investors, to find the global partners with whom we can make a Pareto-level impact.

    Ethical investing plays a role in putting us on the better path. But the data to inform investment choices relating to working conditions in supply chains, use of plastics, or carbon emissions: "are not publicly available for most listed companies, and for unlisted companies which are a growing share of global value, it's even less available," he says.Those who worry that populism now seems irreversibly on the march should consider the fate of Savonarola. He was hanged and burnt in the same Piazza della Signoria where he had torched the great universalising masterpieces of art and literature. We still enjoy them today, while far fewer remember the man who tried to turn them to ashes.


    Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years by Ian Goldin and Robert Muggah is published by Century, £30.00. Further information on Ian Goldin can be found on his website iangoldin.org and on Twitter @ian_goldin


    Pádraig Belton writes on a range of topics for the BBC, while completing a doctorate in politics at the University of Oxford. He’s a volunteer driver for St John Ambulance.