Big History

04/14/2011 12:59 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2011

I just finished watching 48 half-hour lectures of the Teaching Company Great Courses series "Big History," a new historical discipline, with San Diego State professor David Christian. Excellent. Highly recommended. It starts with the big bang 13.7 billion years ago and ends with heat death a gazillion years in the future. In between he discusses the origin of galaxies, stars, planets, life, humanity, and human societies. In the grand scheme of things, the last looks unimportant indeed, but because we are humans it requires some attention.

Interestingly, Christian talks little about science or religion, although they lurk in the background. Life (not mentioned until lecture 12) is characterized as complex systems able to extract energy from the environment. Because of photosynthesis, plants do not have to move but animals do, so they had to get smarter. Humans are characterized as animals that developed collective learning.

For 100,000 year humans were foragers, but were better at it than other animals because of collective learning and so populations grew slowly but steadily. 10,000 years ago they discovered agriculture, which made for faster growth. Agrarian civilizations were characterized by over 90 percent peasants working the land supporting rulers of tribute-taking states, who just took what they wanted and gave little in return. This discouraged innovation so progress was still slow. Malthusian cycles of plenty and scarcity caused populations to oscillate, but they still increased on average.

Then 300 years ago capitalism encouraged innovation and things took off with the industrial revolution. Most governments were still in the tribute-taking mode of thinking, which regarded resources as finite and something they had to fight for to get their share. This led to the era of imperialism that did not end until WWII.

Earlier in the 20th century, however, people like Henry Ford realized that, at that time at least, scarcity was not the problem and, in fact, we had surpluses. More people were needed to buy all the stuff that the economy could produce. So wages were increased and for the first time the majority of people in the developed states could live above subsistence level. Communism crumbled because of lack of incentives for innovation in a state-controlled economy and capitalism won the day. But capitalism depends on unlimited resources, and unless we move to other planets, which I regard as unlikely, it may crumble too in the face of Earth's finite resources.

Although Christian talks about globalization, he does not get into today's politics. That's "little history." However, if I might add my own observation, the current attempts by big-money capitalists in America and elsewhere to reduce wages and stifle unions would seem to result in fewer markets for their goods. However, by shipping jobs overseas they see the global market expanding and more than taking up the slack of lower American consumption with far lower wages to pay.

What about the future? Christian posits two scenarios: (1) Bad. We keep growing and kill ourselves off by nuclear wars or destroying the environment, or both. (2) Good. Population levels off and we control weapons and pollution. Some signs are promising. Birth rates are lowering even in poor nations, as people move from peasantry to wage earning where fewer children are needed. Alternate energies and energy efficiencies are growing. The downside is the huge, foolish effort to undermine the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. It should be clear to everyone that Earth does not have the resources to continue the exponential growth of the past century. How can anyone think that pumping carbon into the atmosphere that took hundred of millions of years to accumulate is harmless? Malthus will appear again. Unless Jesus returns first, as many Americans seem to think will happen.