The sea has been the main artery of cultural transformations throughout history

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: The massive typhoon that hit the Philippines today gathered its power over water, a reminder of the power of the sea. The ocean can bring such tragedy, but it can also bring things we need. Just think about what you're wearing. Chances are something you put on today was made overseas. Even in this jet age, most of the world's trade is moved around the globe by boat. For most of our history the sea has been a key way to transport people, ideas, even religion to new places. From our history desk, The World that Was, I spoke with Lincoln Paine. He's the author of a new book called "The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World." It's a huge canvas, the sea and civilization. Why did you write this, and what did you set out to do?

Lincoln Paine: Well, I hoped to integrate a whole variety of different areas of maritime history that people had specialized in over the last 50 or 60 years, but which nobody had ever really approached from a holistic perspective. And I think that one of the interesting things about maritime history is that it seems to be a lot more parochial than other histories. You find this particularly at maritime museums, which are all about connections, really focus just on the town or the city they are in.

Werman: Let's focus on one aspect that really caught my eye, and that's the way you highlight how the sea has kind of enabled massive cultural transformations. How does that work? What does the sea do to connect people?

Paine: Well, I think that if you think about, say, the era of European expansion in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, if the Europeans had set out to get to India or China or Southeast Asia by land, it wouldn't have happened. But because they could go by sea, they could penetrate along the coasts of various places. And in fact, that's all they did for the first 500 years of the European expansion project, really they were pinpricks. As one historian said, they were like "lice crawling on the hide of Asia." But it wasn't just the Europeans. Before that in the Indian Ocean, you had Muslim sailors going to India and to Southeast Asia and to China. And they basically sort of opened these rooms of culture which then gradually expanded so that you had the conversion of Southeast Asia to first Hinduism and then Buddhism, and then the transmission of a sea-borne Buddhism to China.

Werman: So your book brings the reader up to the present day. One thing that I'd have though no longer exists is piracy, and yet we do know that it's still there, it's bad as it ever was, and maybe even more sophisticated. What's going on with piracy these days? How do you see the connection between the past and the present? Is it just about poverty and people trying to find opportunity?

Paine: For the most part, I think that that is one of the roots. They're sort of depraved on account of they're deprived. But it's also overladen today with networks of international drug traffic and terrorist organizations and things like that. So it is somewhat more complicated, but the roots are very similar, and even more important, the geography is exactly the same, because geography really dictates where piracy takes place, because it's at choke points. There everybody's sort of funneling all their trade through, say, the mouth of the Red Sea or the Strait of Malaca. It's also where a lot of people are sort of hiding in the bushes and waiting to grab what they can.

Werman: What do you think is the biggest issue facing the world today, where the oceans will turn out to be, in your opinion, kind of a crucial player?

Paine: Well, the two things that I think are crucial are changing sea level rise, which is going to affect trade throughout the polar regions of course, but I think it's also going to have a devastating impact on ports, and you look at proposals for how to save the Port of New York, you really have a mix for a very, very complicated, expensive, and possibly destabilizing set of circumstances. The other issue, of course, is also, and somewhat related to global warming, is also the state of the world fisheries, which are overmanaged and yet mismanaged at the same time, and we're, the free hand of the marketplace is really just the last thing you want there.

Werman: Oceans cover, what, seven-tenths of the world's surface?

Paine: Just about, yeah.

Werman: You live in Portland, Maine. Do you ever look out at the ocean. which I'm sure you have many opportunities to do, and just not think about all of this history? You've done some intense research and ended up with a pretty massive book about the sea and civilization. Can you just appreciate the sea these days or do you think about the whole history behind it?

Paine: I think it's always sort of running in the background deeply, but no, I can certainly go to the beach and pick up a book and just lie there and not think about anything else.

Werman: Lincoln Paine, the author of "The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World." Thanks so much for coming in.

Paine: Thank you, Marco. It's been a pleasure.