What We Are Reading Today: The Great Leveler

Updated 17 September 2018

What We Are Reading Today: The Great Leveler

AUTHOR: Walter Scheidel

Are mass violence and catastrophes the only forces that can seriously decrease economic inequality?

To judge by thousands of years of history, the answer is yes.

Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, Walter Scheidel shows that inequality never dies peacefully, says a review on the Princeton University Press website.

Inequality declines when carnage and disaster strike and increases when peace and stability return.

The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world.

Ever since humans began to farm, herd livestock, and pass on their assets to future generations, economic inequality has been a defining feature of civilization.

Over thousands of years, only violent events have significantly lessened inequality.

Today, the violence that reduced inequality in the past seems to have diminished, and that is a good thing. But it casts serious doubt on the prospects for a more equal future.

What We Are Reading Today: Volcanoes in Human History

Updated 18 February 2019

What We Are Reading Today: Volcanoes in Human History

Authors: Jelle Zeilinga de Boer & Donald Theodore Sanders

When the volcano Tambora erupted in Indonesia in 1815, as many as 100,000 people perished as a result of the blast and an ensuing famine caused by the destruction of rice fields on Sumbawa and neighboring islands. Gases and dust particles ejected into the atmosphere changed weather patterns around the world, resulting in the infamous “year without a summer” in North America, food riots in Europe, and a widespread cholera epidemic. And the gloomy weather inspired Mary Shelley to write the gothic novel Frankenstein.
This book tells the story of nine such epic volcanic events, explaining the related geology for the general reader and exploring the myriad ways in which the earth’s volcanism has affected human history.
Zeilinga de Boer and Sanders describe in depth how volcanic activity has had long-lasting effects on societies, cultures, and the environment. The authors draw on ancient as well as modern accounts — from folklore to poetry and from philosophy to literature. Beginning with the Bronze Age eruption, the book tells the human and geological stories of eruptions of such volcanoes as Vesuvius, Krakatau, Mount Pelée, and Tristan da Cunha.
Along the way, it shows how volcanism shaped religion in Hawaii, permeated Icelandic mythology and literature, caused widespread population migrations, and spurred scientific discovery.
From the prodigious eruption of Thera more than 3,600 years ago to the relative burp of Mount St. Helens in 1980, the results of volcanism attest to the enduring connections between geology and human destiny.