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Big Earth, Big History: Many refuse the idea that the Earth has influence on our past and our future

Few disciplines ask quite so much as the study of history. Consider for a moment the millennia intervening since the invention of written language. Couple to that the resilience of human cultures spread across the globe. The sheer task of recording it all — much less explaining what happened and why — levels the imagination. 

Small wonder that high school students hate history worst of all — so much to know, and much of it so foreign to ourselves. Even the professionals have for the most part thrown up their hands, choosing to parse the subject into recognizable lumps: national histories, cultural histories, gender histories, immigration histories, religious histories. Some of these lumps have beckoned discord. Why study poor black women instead of rich white men? Why study statistics rather than those uplifting (if patently misleading) biographies?

We need worry no more. Troubled by the divisions within their own craft, a few historians have focused on a new approach. No longer will we parse anything. From this point onward, we will look backward to tell but a single story — one history. And, appropriately, we will call the endeavor "Big History." 

I am not making this up, and I am wondering only if this new history will prove big enough to confront the more pressing conceptual problems we face. For the past several thousand years, human beings flung across the surface of the planet have steadfastly refused to entertain the idea that the Earth itself has some influence on our past and (more important) our future. If history is to be truly big, in a world characterized by weather, disease and plate tectonics, it is going to have to address something more than simple human actions. Let us enlarge on Big History.

The current hot number in the Big History racket is a book by David Christian entitled Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. It is a large introduction, covering more than 500 pages and beginning with the evolution of the universe over the past 13 billion years. Human beings make no appearance in the book until the one-quarter mark, and yet, strange to say, the author is reluctant to deal with anything resembling an environmental question. 

Christian maintains the hopeful notion that we are in charge of our own destiny, that the Earth is nothing more than a stage and a basketful of natural resources ripe for the plucking. What supposedly drives human history is our propensity to multiply and our clever responses to the pressures of a constantly growing population. That kind of interpretation makes for a long, predictable and surprisingly pointless glance at our own past. We move, faster and faster it seems, and yet we don't really learn anything.

Christian operates within the boundaries of a fear common to all historians: He does not wish to be labeled a determinist. For as long as analysts have occupied armchairs, there have been those prepared to explain the human condition as a product of geography, of climate, of biological instinct, of fate — of some agency outside ourselves. Recognizing that human beings are in fact intelligent and manipulative, historians have roundly rejected such deterministic arguments, maintaining that we have created the world we occupy. This contention is, of course, equally silly. We are not automatons; we do have agency, but we ignore the environment at our peril. Anybody can build a big house at the foot of an active volcano, but they would be insanely foolish to do so. We can shape the Earth to some small extent, but the Earth has a role in shaping us as well.

If we are going to have Big History (and it looks as if we are), we are going to have to come to some understanding of how this Earth works, and how we as a species have responded to its workings. There are some basic earthly conditions every historian (dare I say every citizen) should know and understand. The most important of these is that the Earth, quiet though it seems, is not stable. Land masses are in constant slow motion, punctuated by occasional ominous shaking. And, the entire planet is moving, wobbling on its axis, changing its distance from the sun. Then, too, life on the planet is moving. Plants, animals, microbes especially, are shifting their ground, partly in response to human behaviors, but more often because of shifting conditions in the Earth's own systems. Any Big History worthy of the name is going to have to be big enough to encompass these essentials.

It really is striking how recently we have come to remotely understand even a little of the Earth's mechanisms. Begin with that most staid of Earth sciences, geology. Volcanism, erosion, sedimentation — building up the Earth, tearing it down — we've known the basics for centuries. But only in the past 50 years have we come to grips with the fact that whole continents are on the move — have been moving since the beginning. What is now North America lay mostly south of the equator when the first multicelled life-forms appeared. At one point, all the continents were stuck together. Think of the influence on life's development the shifting continents have wrought.

But this is just natural history you say, all of it very old. As an antidote to that kind of self-delusion, try reading Simon Winchester's A Crack in the Edge of the World, his take on the California earthquake of 1906. As Winchester points out, when volcanic eruptions add bulk to the islands east of Iceland, the activity marks a buildup of the pressures along California's San Andreas Fault, thousands of miles westward. 

Iceland and California stand at the eastern and western perimeters of the North American tectonic plate, on which most of our continent rests — and rests uneasily. When the Denali Fault earthquake struck Alaska in 2002, the geysers in Yellowstone Park altered the regularity of their timing by the same amount — there is an intimate geologic connection between Alaska and Wyoming. The continental plates shift and grind one against another, the Earth quakes, and people do their best to survive. An earthquake centered at Lisbon, Portugal, killed tens of thousands in 1755; a quake caused by a buckling of the North American tectonic plate in 1812 shook New Madrid, Mo., enough to make the Mississippi River appear to run backward. California hedges its bets against the next big one, as should Illinois. These are not acts of God, but acts of the Earth, unpredictable yet inevitable so long as the laws of physics persist.

Shifting attention from something as large and depressing as a geologic fault, let us turn to the tiny world of the microbe. Bird flu is the disease of the moment, unseeable, threatening, perhaps deadly. There are lots of birds in this world, flying hither and yon, and we know precious little about the strange quasi-life-forms, the viruses that inhabit their avian systems. 

Most people do not understand, for example, that essentially all forms of flu originate in bird species — to call this next dreaded disease bird flu is to intone the obvious. More essentially, we seldom stop to consider that this bird flu business is little more than the latest exemplar of a pattern as old as humanity. Historians have done depressingly little with this critical subject. William McNeill's Plagues and Peoples, first published 30 years ago, remains the best examination of disease as an influence on the course of human history.

Essentially, McNeill sees the pattern of human disease taking shape in a series of four stages over the past 10,000 years. Initially, diseases were confined to small and scattered forager-hunter groups that initiated little contact with one another. The invention of agriculture and the attendant rise of urbanization drew the small groups into larger pools where germs flourished. Then came the communication between the different civilizations: Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, eventually China and Rome. Each imperial grouping had developed its own disease pool, which it unwittingly came to share with the others. (Rome's fatal weakening came amidst episodes of epidemics that probably originated in China.) The fourth stage came when the Old World sailed onto the shores of the New. Eurasian diseases attacked a Native American population possessing no antibodies; epidemics of smallpox and other plagues killed at least 20 million people.

With that last fatal association, the world's human population became one vast disease pool, as far as the microbes were concerned. This news was both good and bad, to William McNeill's way of thinking. There are no more isolated populations of large number, poised to change the balance of immunities. But any disease that does gather strength (AIDS comes to mind) moves quickly across a world without meaningful microbial barriers. The flu in Southeast Asia is the flu in the American Midwest in a matter of months.

I am uncertain whether the kind of epidemiological history McNeill and others convey is much comfort in a world chock full of mutating microbes. But I do know that a carefully conceived and well-researched historical analysis beats the living daylights out of the ill-informed and perspective-poor reports we get when somebody — anybody — screams "bird flu." There is some security in knowing the world has seen such things before, that human populations somehow managed to survive. And went on multiplying.

Far more arcane still to the average underdetermined historian is the problem of air and water temperature. I hesitate to use the word weather or climate here, as the phenomena that I want to discuss lie somewhere in the interstice between the ways we typically define those words. Weather is what's going on outside — cold and rainy today, maybe a little warmer tomorrow. Climate is the averages of years and years of weather — frosty in Alaska, hot in an Illinois summertime, really hot in Sumatra. Neither concept much interests historians, but the peculiar and sometimes stark ramifications of weather do generate considerable discussion. These can be sudden changes, such as an El Niño event, or subtle, long-term events — global warming or perhaps an ice age. Unlike climate, which seems stable and a little dull, discussions of climate change have become heated. Historians should have some perspective to offer.

Part of the problem in coming to grips with climate change is that the science is (again) so new. Only in the past century and a half have we come to perceive the evidence of past glaciations and their effects on the landscape. The still unpredictable behavior of water temperatures and their role in dictating the flow of ocean currents is a still newer and more tenuous study. We now know that the uneven heating of waters in the broad Pacific can trigger shifts in currents that bring spates of warmer winter weather to the American Midwest and complete ecological disaster to the South American coast. 

Looking backward with such principles in mind, we can see their influences on world history. Brian Fagan, in his book Floods, Famines and Emperors: El Niño and the Fate of Civilizations, offers a series of case studies demonstrating the impact of El Niño events. The victims may include ancient Egyptian pharaohs, South American chiefs, Mayan lords and American pueblo dwellers. In no case is Fagan foolish enough to argue that El Niños destroyed a civilization. What he does say is that such events delivered grievous wounds to peoples already in conflict, further unbalancing already festering weaknesses. Prolonged bad weather can make a difference.

As can a slower, more long-lasting climate change. Several are traceable in human history. Reaching back to the very beginnings of agriculture 11,000 years ago, a sharp cooling of the world's temperatures probably lent impetus to the necessary horticultural experiments. Over the next 6,000 years, climates warmed and cooled in wild swings of fortune; it was not until 3000 B.C. that the "modern climate regime" took shape, marked by far steadier annual temperatures and rainfall. The first civilizations took shape at just this time — no accident, that. Even this modern regime has witnessed some minor but influential shifts; the "Little Ice Age" of 1400 to 1850 saw temperatures cool enough to defeat the Viking empire, bring starvation episodes to Northern Europe and leave Southeast Asia without monsoonal rains. Climate has a history, and its episodes have produced considerable change in human behaviors.

Again, the science making possible our understanding of climate change is quite new. The mechanics of Earth's complicated orbit were not seen as contributing to global temperatures before the 1920s. Using pollen cores from bog ponds, tree rings and glacial ice coring to track and date climate history has matured only since World War II. 

This is still a developing science, but it has produced two salient facts of immense value to historians: Over the long history of the Earth, climate change has been immense; and human civilization has developed during a relatively short 5,000-year period of comparative stability. When the Earth passes out of this stable period, we may expect far more in the way of violent weather. Tornadoes, hurricanes, typhoons, floods, droughts, you name it. As a species, we have been living the good times.

As everyone not living with their head in the sand must know, America's political leaders have been engaging in a very silly debate over this global warming issue. The conversation (if that's what it is) does not deserve much space; suffice to say that some folks have gotten so indignant about identifying the causes of climate change that they have tried to suppress the evidence that the change is happening. 

The simple fact is, the causes do not really matter. It may be logical to blame ourselves and our industrial pollutants; on the other hand, it may be an odd form of that old hubris: We control the Earth. What does matter is that the climate is changing, growing warmer. From Ireland to Iceland, the evidence is overwhelming. Climate is changing.

History beckons, telling us that in the past, when populations were much smaller, societies considerably less elaborate, climate change brought disaster and devastation. Humanity suffered; entire civilizations lost their way. These things happened. Armed with such historical knowledge, we might consider putting aside the arguments about the warming and instead consider making some preparations — alternate crops, alternate fuels, alternate economic strategies, that sort of thing. Not that I have much hope on this score. I am a historian, you understand.

Big History. From where I sit, the idea seems to be worth pursuing. Humankind has a whale of a story to tell about itself, and the tale can only get better in the telling. But if it is going to succeed, Big History is going to have to get much, much bigger. The Big Historians are going to have to take into account that we are all floating around on tectonic plates, pieces of the Earth that rub against each other and shake us for dear life. They will have to consider the microbes that float along with us, jumping from plate to plate, sometimes killing 20 million people at a jump. And they will have to remember that we live on a planet orbiting a sun, that our relationship to the sun's heat is cyclical and not constant. It does not take much temperature change to send the ocean currents on different and disastrous paths. 

If the Big Historians can encompass all that historical information, they really will produce a story. Perhaps even a useful one. 


Maps of Time
An Introduction to Big History

David Christian
Foreword by 
William H. McNeill

University of California Press, 2004

A Crack in the Edge 
of the World

America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906
Simon Winchester
HarperCollins, 2005

Plagues and Peoples
William H. McNeill
Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1977

Floods, Famines and Emperors 
El Niño and the Fate 
of Civilizations

Brian Fagan
Basic Books, 1999

Robert Kuhn McGregor, an environmental historian at the University of Illinois at Springfield, is a frequent contributor. 


Illinois Issues, July/August 2006

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