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State of the World 2013 (Chapter 20)

This is a review of chapter 20 (only) of the book State of the World 2013, published by the Worldwatch Institute.

 I suspect the topic of this chapter is something that we will be hearing more and more about in the future. See info in the review section called Can Big History Courses Change Attitudes?


Chapter 20. Crafting a New Narrative to Support Sustainability.

 Right out of the blue, a chapter about something I’d never heard of, extremely interesting, I might even dare to say exciting? ……..  Big History.

 What follows is a very detailed summary of what is found in the seven pages of this chapter.


Human Beings and Narrative.

 Before getting into Big History, the word “narrative” in the chapter title must be looked at closely.

 Humans are story tellers, and even more importantly, listeners to stories. The oral traditions of myth, legend, song and story of the ancient Greeks and of many, maybe most, maybe all other cultures, that tradition which eventually for the Greeks produced a Homer, is the source of all the narratives the world over which are considered to be the foundational stories of nations, ethnic groups, and peoples everywhere.

 Not only that, but mythical narratives are, as well, the basis of the world’s religions.


Such narratives as the above are of course a large topic for the historian of cultures.

 Early in this chapter the authors write

 Finding a new set of myths and stories that remind us frequently of our dependence on planet Earth and our role as stewards is essential in this Anthropocene epoch, when humanity is having a severe impact on the biosphere – enough even to disrupt life itself. Many religions are trying to do just that …

 After mentioning the Judaic concept of covenant, Christianity’s focus on sacrament, and the Islamic vice-regency concept, they state that “modern science, too, has much to contribute to people’s understanding of our beginning and our future.”

 The story of humanity’s evolution is now know by billions of people across the world. This story, in its largest version, has been called by E.O. Wilson “probably the best myth we will ever have”. Starting 13 billion years ago with the Big Bang, and continuing into the future beyond Homo sapiens, it also encompasses the “billions and billions” of stars and countless planets where processes similar to those which have occurred in our own solar system and on our own planet may have played out.

 “What is exciting is that there are now efforts around the world to draw on this evolutionary story – which has been incorporated into an academic discipline often called Big History – to help humanity set a course to a sustainable future.”

 Following this introduction, the chapter continues with the following sections.


Teaching Big History.

 Big History, in either semester or year-long interdisciplinary courses, is now being taught in at least 50 colleges and universities around the world, including Harvard, the U of Amsterdam, the American University in Cairo and the Int’l State University in Moscow. The courses typically include coverage of the Big Bang, the formation of stars, the dispersal of chemical elements from stars to planets, and thence to the study of the history of our own solar system and of life on earth.

 Our species is often identified in these courses as distinct because of our capacity for “collective learning”, leading to societies with a high level of technological creativity. On earth, this has resulted in humans increasingly exploiting the environment, evolving “larger, complex, populous, and energy-hungry” societies. Big History courses conclude with studies of “where the story is headed – the story of humans and the biosphere, and also the story of the planet, the solar system, and even the Universe as a whole.”

 Big History also raises the question of whether our species (intelligent life) is unique (in the Universe), generally concluding that this is unlikely. The possibility of other intelligent life forms passing through similar societal evolutionary phases is presented, and some discussions (see reference 18) propose three stages which such species might pass through.

 In Stage 1, childhood, they accumulate a growing body of knowledge about their environment, and obtain the power to extract resources and support ever larger and more complex communities.

 In Stage 2, adolescence, “they have accumulated so much power over their environment that they can now transform their planet”, although they may or may not have the wisdom to use this power well. “The potential mismatch of power and wisdom may create a bottleneck, difficult to pass through”, and may cause many (or most) such adolescent species to blink once, like a galactic firefly, and then crash back to a Stage 1 form.

 Thanks to our capacity for collective learning, there is a potential pathway through the bottleneck. We can become the first species on Earth to develop the effective planet-wide evolutionary foresight we will need if we are to avoid the dangers of ecological overreach and death as a civilization. Effective planet-wide action based on foresight is the key to a flourishing future. Science provides the foresight, while long-view narratives such as Big History can energize the public will, enabling politicians to make wise, long term choices.

 If the bottleneck can be successfully negotiated, our species can reach Stage 3, a planet-wide collective maturity. The Big History narrative, by placing the question of sustainability into a nonconfrontational context, can provide a foundation of meaning upon which “we can unite and align our ethics of exploration and environmental stewardship” in order to reach Stage 3 of our history.


Can Big History Courses Change Attitudes?

Bill Gates (yes, that Bill Gates) and David Christian have founded something called the Big History Project (reference 9). This project is currently in a two-year pilot offering, and is bringing a Big History curriculum into high schools in the U.S., Australia, the Netherlands, Scotland, and South Korea. In late 2013, after revisions from feedback, it will be made freely available to high schools and individuals. The eventual goal of the project “is to see Big History taught in a majority of high schools throughout the world.”

There is a large amount of anecdotal evidence from Big History courses taken over the last twenty years at the college level that suggests “the powerful ability of these programs to transform a student’s perspectives with respect to the major global challenges of the Anthropocene epoch.”


The Future of Big History.

The evidence suggests that Big History has great potential as a teaching vehicle to change the attitudes of Spaceship Earth’s passengers about sustainability issues and our future as a species. But clearly it would be of great value to educate the pilots of the Spaceship (its leaders in business and government) about Big History and its narrative.

For example, graduate schools in Management, Business Administration, and Public Policy could offer required courses in Big History, thereby teaching their students “how to weave Earth citizenship values into the leadership cultures of public and private institutions.”

A few graduate programs have made headway towards this objective, one being the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. The primary discipline used by this school, which offers a dual MBA/MPA degree in “sustainable management”, is that of “systems thinking”. (See references 28 and 29) (Systems thinking was used in connection with system dynamics in the early 70’s at MIT by the team which wrote Limits to Growth for the Club of Rome.)

The authors conclude

Big History and systems thinking are two very different approaches to achieving similar learning outcomes. A course in Big History … could augment a student’s knowledge of systems thinking, providing the student with an even stronger sense of the interconnectedness of all things in space and time … Offering (Big History) courses in our high schools and institutions of higher learning can provide the education that both the passengers and the pilots of Spaceship Earth need to steer a safe course though our bottleneck.

References. Books and web sites.

These references are mostly taken from the Notes to the chapter. I've organized them by topic, hence they are not in the same order as in the book.


A. The Importance of Narrative

1. Robert Pool, Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth How the iconic pictures of earth from the moon inspired the narrative that kicked off the environmental movement

2. Gary Gardner, Inspiring Progress: Religions' Contributions to Sustainable Development The contributions of religion to shaping a path for human advancement in the 21st century

3. Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature Human behavior and biology

4. Bryan Swimme & Thomas Berry, The Universe Story Big History narrative

5. Interfaith partners for the environment

6. The forum for religion and ecology at Yale

7. Nice music and interesting site; Sagan’s narrative


B. Big History – the big story

8. Cosmic education & Big History; PDF handout

9. The Big History project

10. (article by Dwight Collins) A Big History narrative

11. Publishing house

C. Big History today

12. Directory of Big History courses given in 2009



D. Big History on humanity and evolution

15. Peter J. Richerson & Robert Boyd, Not By Genes Alone Human evolution & complex cultures

16. Boyd & Richerson, The Origin and Evolution of Cultures Articles on evolution and culture

17. F. John Odling-Smee, Marcus W. Feldman, Kevin N. Laland, Niche Construction The importance of niche construction in evolution and ecology


19. Paleoanthropology and human evolution, complex culture, and social organization. (very dense science)


E. Big History and humanity’s bottleneck

20. Laurie Garrett, The Coming Plague Diseases in a world out of balance

21. Peter Turchin, War and Peace and War Evolutionary biology and the rise and fall of empires

22. Donella H. Meadows, Limits to growth The Club of Rome study

23. Donella H. Meadows, Limits to growth the 30 Year Update

24.  The Anthropocene epoch

25. Big History and climate change


F. Science related to Big History

26. Jeffrey Bennett & Seth Shostak, Life In the Universe  Introduction to science and its relevance to questions about life


G. Systems Thinking and Sustainability

27. Donella H. Meadows. Thinking in Systems The bottleneck & Systems thinking – another approach


Presidio Graduate school - Systems thinking and sustainability


Presidio Graduate school - MBA/MPA


State of the World 2013 is a Group Read in the Transition Movement Group at

 Ted Schmeckpeper