Do you recall July 1, 1997, the day the world ended, or should I say the day a world ended? Neither do I, no clue at all what I did that day. It was an important day, at least symbolically, and for China, Britain, and Hong Kong, of vital importance. July 1 was the day Britain returned Hong Kong to China. Metaphorically, it was also the end of the Age of Vasco da Gama, whose voyage to open up the sea route to Asia had begun on July 8, 1497. Carlo Cipolla used the term to refer to the age of European world dominance, which really began with the voyages of Columbus to the west and da Gama to the east. They were made possible in part by recent advances in technology - better ships, better guns, better navigation aids, better information technology - and by evolving world views in Europe.
European dominance did not come all at once, nor did it end all at once; it grew, it flourished, and it decayed. You could argue that the mortal blows were struck by the Japanese between December 1941 and the end of February 1942, beginning with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the assault on the Gin Drinkers Line (outer defenses of Hong Kong on December 7/8), The Destruction of Force Z (HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Renown) two days later, and the fall of Singapore towards the end of February. Still, the terminal decline was protracted. Decades passed as the colonial powers withdrew from Asia and Africa, while fighting rearguard actions with their American hegemons. Even the Soviets tried their hand at empire in Afghanistan, having disregarded hard-won British lessons about that country, just as three successive American presidents have done.
We are still behaving as if we are living in that world, but we are not; we are transitioning to a new world system, and it is not just a matter of international politics and trade. What we are seeing, I believe, is the breakdown or rapid evolution of a number of systems that we identify with modernity and Western Civilization. These include:
- Gutenberg's information revolution,
- the nation state,
- business and banking,
- the military revolution, and
- post-Reformation Christianity.
All of these have their roots in events that occurred between about 1450 and 1550, have long dominated aspects of the world to the point where no alternative to them long seems possible, have been going through a prolonged period of difficulty or decay, and which appear to either be on the brink or replacement or of evolving into something else. We are undergoing an epochal change - literally, a change of epochs, and have no reason to expect that the transitions will be any easier, any more peaceful, any less disturbing from those that came a half-millennium ago.