`Our Sensors Indicate...´

Humans vs. Earth on a collision course? How can Big History correct us?

On board of your typical Star Trek-vessel, an officer, when reporting status, always mentions that “our sensors indicate that...” If Leopold von Ranke has ever been right that any historian’s mission is to look at the sources, than that time has now come. Our environment has changed absurdely in the last hundred years, so do John McNeill’s sources indicate.

Environmental history is an excellent example of the possibilities of history. John McNeill’s “Something New under the Sun. An environmental history of the twentieth century” is one such highly original masterpiece. Unlike many ‘normal’ history studies, this one exposes and explains a change in the world that seems undeniable. The contrast with other studies is the truly global context. Life as we perceive it is changing and has changed in a profoundly different way, than for instance, the VOC, the American Civil War or the fall of the Roman Empire, because it affects and has affected the status of the entire globe. The careful balance that we live in, which we can increasingly extract from science, is changed by modern human history through pollution and distortion of all the spheres of the planet:

-The earth beneath us is depleted of minerals and intoxicated.
-The constant streaming water is managed by humans and polluted by toxic waste.
-The air above us is increasingly composed of carbondioxide and ozon-molecules are broken down by can emissions.
-The life around us is becoming less diverse,
-The energy we take from the total the sun gives us is approx. A quarter.

Historically, this is caused by the economic growth of the last 500 years, but the human need and creative use of energy had existed for longer period, since archaic time. David Christian calls this Human “Collective Learning”. So, what do we make from our collective deeds? We need an objective measure. In this way “An Introduction to Big History. Maps of Time” enhances the big claim John McNeill is making. David Christian makes up the balance, exposing how everything in and around us is made up of the occurance of the Big Bang.
A long and completely natural history is divided in several “Maps of Time”. The Universe has a very fast beginnging and spreads out, not alive. Life on earth starts in a coincidental combination of calibration of settings. Human history begins with ´many worls´, ´few´ worlds are left in the Holoscene and by the time the history has reached the modern world, there is only one world left. In this perspective it seems Humanity is choking itself, no doubt about that.

So what is change? And what change actually matters? Herein lies a moral question. And in essence, all moral considerations are completely personal, but shouldn’t every person consider his / her planet? I think McNeiill would like this idea, but not every person is embodied to stop this change. Everybody has contributed to the pollution, but all need cars, airplanes, plastic, electricity, satellites etc. In order for their life to work. And nobody would like to take the chance, anticipating it would bring little change. Some have disciplined principles, but most follow society. Still, through science in general, and environmental history in particular, awareness can be injected into politics. Even the super-polluter China has agreed to build a giant solar-powerstation in the Gobi desert in close cooperation with the World Wildlife Foundation.

Offcourse, every politician knows, this is not a hot issue. CFC has been combatted in a global campaign, and geologists have improved their monitoring and lobbying skills greatly since the 1970’s. So it is not all bad, but the general tone is that Nature is ours to exploit. Governments are actually pretty good in managing and maintaining the quality of their own piece of land, but the global issue will only be solved on a global governmental decision. Humanity quarrels over territory, but a deeper understanding that this problem is different, new and globally huge seems problematic. Perhaps a new educational perspective is needed?

“Maps of time” is validated as a modern creation myth in the beginning. The case made by J. McNeill proves the need for having a modern creation myth. Older traditional myth’s cannot longer provide us with a realistically progressive thought, like the environmental one urging humans to see the truth of pollution. The integration of various held-to-be-true sciences are brought together to form one large meta-history. In John McNeill’s Master-course a discussion has been introduced about whether or not is it usable to use “Maps of Time” in school. This is the other divide of the moral issue.

In the United States, and less public also in Europe and elsewhere, debates have risen over the content of schools’s creation myths. Science has previously been challenged by Creationism, upholding the God-created-in-seven-dasy story as an educational necessity. Is it possible that teaching Big History-creation myth would enhance appreciation for environmental history? Perhaps it has already done so implicitally.

The bigger picture is still present in Christian, as his story of modern humans takes on caricatural form. We are mammalous weed that is compelled into taking mind-altering substances. We, with our longetivity need to fortify our bodies with supplementals, injections, anti-biotics. Humanity has gone slightly mad, an observer would note.

I find the big history approach an excellent introduction for historians, so they can see the big picture and can relate the place of humanity in all existance without losing rationality. I find moral approach to modernity’s biggest problem –the environment - very useful for the historian, because it makes much more sense if history is to assist governmental policies (governments do pay historians after all). This makes more sense than historians digging up national histories, reviving national heroes and telling stories from a time unknown. Or are all our governements nationalistic institutes?

These two books enhance each other greatly. Environmental history is an excellent Big History-Case-Study. I support the modern creation myth as an education-tool, as problems with global matters such as the enovironment (energy, greenhouse-effects, etc.) are real problems, while other historical problems are more entertaining for one’s identity.


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