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Big history teaches us that we’re living in unique, strange times

The novel field of big history shows us what unique, strange times we’re living in. Ever-increasing complexity is making the world an increasingly fragile and unstable place, and there’s more at stake today than there ever was. Fortunately, big history can provide the new generations with the guidelines they will desperately need to make the right decisions.

David Christian, professor of modern history, director of the Big History Institute and founding father of the new field of big history is convinced. The Big History Project, which develops free online teaching programmes for schools all over the world, is funded by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. In 2018, Christian published the book Origin Story: A Big History of Everything, consolidating insights from a wide range of different scientific disciplines into a single picture of who we are, where we come from and what awaits us.

Underlying connections

Based on his conclusions, you could argue we’re not headed for much good, but Christian is certainly no prophet of doom. On the contrary, he has a great deal of faith in today’s young people and future generations. To tap into their potential, though, education will have to change and take the big history approach. “The underlying idea is actually quite simple. You take the knowledge gained from a wide range of fields, such as cosmology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology anthropology and history and patch it together as a quilt. In the Big History Project, we’re trying to establish whether there is an underlying connection to be found in all the knowledge we have at our disposal today. What we’re looking for is a contemporary cosmogony,” Christian explains.

We’re spectacularly blind

Christian believes there is a lot we can learn from big history. “That closed-off fields & disciplines lead to tunnel vision, for instance. Today, our knowledge consists of many different fields, which has been a successful strategy for centuries. We have managed to build up vast amounts of knowledge within individual fields, but it can be very difficult to look beyond your own field. Crucially, that’s exactly what we’ll have to do in a world that is gradually becoming more and more complex. At times, we can be spectacularly blind to what really matters, as is shown by what we are doing to the environment. We are the first species to have emerged in four billion years with the ability to completely change a biosphere. If you focus on studying the last few centuries of history, it’s difficult to see that clearly. You have to study the entire history of the biosphere to see how fundamentally strange our current era is. If you look at graphs charting energy consumption, you can see them rise steeply over the course of just one lifetime. In fact, energy consumption is developing just as quickly as when a meteorite impact wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. By showing just how strange the situation is today, big history can serve as a guideline for future generations. We will desperately need good guidance over the next century, because if we don’t find a way to manage this planet properly, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will pay the price. There’s certainly a lot at stake.”

Learning to deal with limits

This is not the first time in history that people assumed the limits of what ecological systems could tolerate had been reached. “A lot of economic thought is based on infinite growth, but even 18th-century economists, such as Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, had completely different ideas on the mater. Smith assumed that there were limits to growth and that mankind was close to reaching them. Physiocrats saw agriculture as the main source of new energy and new food, while horsepower would drive the economy onwards. Smith assumed that we would utilise all available arable land in the world and would thus approach the end of growth. Fossil fuel, though, caused a new revolution. This new source of energy was so much more potent than agriculture that 19th-century economists started to believe in infinite growth. Suddenly, we have come to realise that there are limits, namely the biosphere. Our enormous energy flows are destroying various key systems, such as the climate, oceans or carbon dioxide and nitrogen levels. Once again, we’ve reached the limits that Adam Smith once warned of. Somehow we’ll have to learn to deal with those limits.”

Economics is about a good life

According to Christian, that means we’ll have to redefine growth as a concept. “We’ll have to distinguish to types of growth, with growth requiring new input of money and resources on the one hand, and circular growth based on re-use without new input on the other. The latter can be very profitable and it combines well with capitalism, but, above all, it’s compatible with a sustainable world. The only thing I’m afraid of is that the orthodox economy is not yet fully aware of the seriousness of the problem. Ultimately, economics is about a good life for everyone, about a society in which people enjoy prosperous, pleasant lives. If continued growth in the production of consumer goods is not possible, we have to redefine what constitutes a good life. Keynes wrote a wonderful essay about this in the 1930s, and J.S. Mill wrote about sustainable societies as early as the nineteenth century, so there is a tradition of sustainable thought in economic history. Both argue that good things that don’t require raw materials exist. It may sound naïve, but this includes growth in things like happiness, creativity, friendship and relationships.”

The future of mankind is at stake

According to Christian, big history can help give mankind and all of its idiosyncrasies a place in the history of the biosphere. “In truth, we are very strange, especially because we have so much knowledge and power. Our language is so developed that it lets us exchange ideas, which made us the first species in four billion years of history to build up information from one generation to the next. Together, we gathered more and more information about our world, which has put us in the position to dominate our biosphere. It has certainly made us powerful, but the jury is still out on whether it’s made us sensible. After all, the situation has suddenly turned around and there are no guarantees that we will deal with it properly. What’s at stake is no longer a disaster that will affect an individual country or group of people, but the future of humanity and the entire biosphere, and what we do affects millions of other creatures.”