This is a unique "world history", comparable to Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, and Norman Davies' The Isles (a non anglo-saxon-centric history of Britain). It abandons Eurocentrism and Orientalism while risking but ultimately avoiding Sinocentrism.
Ponting's earth is most assuredly round and it is centered on Eurasia and China, and his focus on China is merely mathematical. Beijing was until the 18th century the largest city in the world and for centuries Western freebooters wanted what China produced, but when Western traders presented themselves and their wares to the Chinese in the 16th century the Chinese probably said what the fairy, Puck, says in the old play, "what hempen homespuns have we here?".
The Chinese rejected Western production as inferior until the 19th century and even in the 1840s the only "production" they "accepted" was opium.
Indeed, Shakespeare's Orient was, as Ponting ceaselessly reminds us, a place where Western freebooters and adventurers were trying to get to precisely because it was more developed and had more Cool Stuff.
Ponting also shows how the Islamic and Chinese worlds were essentially deindustrialized at gunpoint during the 18th and 19th centuries because in an historical aberration the "east" was at a temporary disadvantage.
China's very success during the Manchu dynasty produced pressure on arable land in the 1790s and India's religious disunity (a consequence of the Mughal empire which imposed Moslem ways on the Hindu basis) gave the Europeans a temporary advantage as younger sons of younger brothers led town scrapings into various ports in a variety of desparate actions.
Ponting's Europe is indeed an anomaly, a pimple, a burp from the World Spirit as it dreams in its mother's arms of the unquiet struggles of men, for he dates Europe's ascendancy in Eurasian terms from 1750 to 1940. And while the book was completed before September 11, September 11 clearly demonstrates the limits of American power, not least in revelations concerning how the attack by al-Qaeda was used to justify an attack on Saddam Hussein, in part because an incompetent American administration had literally no idea how to retaliate against a non-state actor.
For Ponting, China has been able over time to support a larger population with and fairer treatment of the peasants. He contrasts the Western systems of serfdom, primogeniture and slavery with the system in China in which the peasant was neither serf nor slave, and for the most part it did not occur to the father to so prize real estate over humanity, that the holdings were transferred to the eldest son, leaving younger sons (and, of course, daughters) to emigrate, force Eastern ports in desparate actions, marry "well", or starve.
Ponting's history is comparable to Zinn's in that he has a healthy focus on the meaning of history for the ordinary person (pretty much Stephen Daedalus' "nightmare from which I am trying to awake") and how long-term, inequality doesn't produce "growth".
There is nothing of what we would understand to be high culture in this book: Ponting doesn't think it important.
The danger is that of vulgar Marxism which so reduces "high" culture to "material basis" that it lets us imagine that we could get along without "high" culture, and, vulgar and stupid Marxists, notably Joe Stalin and Tse-Tung Mao, have used this reductionism to bullyrag and torment that which makes us most human while quiet men like Chou En-Lai do their best to protect it. Reductionist wars against "high" culture do the same dirty work as was done by the British Army in Beijing in the 1860s when it looted the Summer Palace: smash and grab.
Indeed, and world-wide, the era of the Cultural Revolution in China and the "Sixties" in the West were an era in which reductionist thinking appeared among the "masses" and they revolted in the way predicted by Ortega y Gasset against epiphenomena only to find that so questioning the "material basis", say, of a midlevel college professor's existence leads to an infinite logical regress in which (in Hannah Arendt's analysis of Fascism) "everything is possible but nothing is true". Indeed, modern American politics bears at the epistemological level a striking resemblance to the politics of China during the late Cultural Revolution in which a family's private interest becomes "knowledge", leading of course to cynicism and despair.
Ponting however fails to apply a Fascist analysis to the events of the Cultural Revolution despite the fact that its devolution into battles between the PLA and student cadres over propositions undecidable because of reductionism (the failure, in other words, of that "piety" which in China derives from Kong Fuzu but which has other expressions) is strikingly like the epistemological anarchy which underlies the authoritarian gloss of European fascism.
But this is a minor objection. This World History should be read by all, especially Americans uneasy, to say the least, about the way they are being emotionally manipulated by vulgar and stupid ethnocentrism in a society in which the poverty rate is 12% and higher than contemporary China.
It may be said, in the whining tones of the reactionary commentator on hate radio, those tones that appeal to the worst in us, that Clive Ponting has some sort of pre-existing beef against the West.
But what the West looks like to the East ain't usually pretty. The facts seem to be that the West is mostly Aguirre, Wrath of God, proclaiming his dominance to the Amazon after slaughtering his own crew, the complete destruction of the Summer Palace in 1860 by ignorant slobs of the British Army, and the uncaring addiction of millions to opium in the 19th century and tobacco in the 20th century by Western firms.
Even Rudyard Kipling (of all people) knew that one day we in the West be "one with Nineveh and Tyre".
Availability note: resident in Shenzen, a suburb of Hong Kong over the border, I found this book at Page One in Kowloon Tong district of Hong Kong in print and published by Pimlico.