Big History for the Era of Climate Change

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA
Newborn stars in the Rho Ophiuchi dark cloud, one of the closest star-forming regions to our solar system. “Big history” courses, which look to integrate human history with the history of the planet and the universe, typically begin with the origins of our universe and explore the creation of new stars and galaxies.

The outcome of the 2011 Durban summit on climate change seems to have been little more than an agreement to keep talking: “to launch a process to develop a protocol.”1 Even that was a surprise to some! But the chances of limiting global warming over the next century to an increased 2 degrees Celsius are vanishing fast.

A major barrier to effective international action is skepticism about climate change in the United States, the richest and most powerful country in the world, the country with the largest scientific establishment and the largest number of Nobel Prize winners. How is this skepticism possible? It’s true that powerful interests have conducted a well-funded and skillfully managed campaign of disinformation, efficiently exploiting every loophole or ambiguity in the discussions about climate change. But their success also depends on ignorance, on the fact that not enough people have enough understanding of the science to see through bad arguments. Lack of understanding of environmental issues is an education problem and requires an education solution.

So do we need more science education? Not necessarily, because understanding environmental issues requires some familiarity with the social sciences and humanities as well as the natural sciences; it requires a global perspective and also a sense of how the environment changes at many different time scales. Today, few school syllabi can teach these perspectives, but such perspectives lie at the heart of a new approach to education known as “big history.”

What Is Big History?

Big history integrates our and the planet’s history into the narrative of the universe’s creation.2,3 The website of the International Big History Association explains how it seeks to “understand the integrated history of the Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity, using the best available empirical evidence and scholarly methods.”2 College-level courses in big history have been taught for more than 20 years, mainly in the United States, but also in Australia, the Netherlands, Russia, Egypt, South Korea, and elsewhere.

A typical big history course surveys the past on multiple scales. It describes the origins of our universe, 13.7 billion years ago. Then it describes the emergence of more complex entities as the simple early universe (made up of little more than hydrogen and helium atoms and lots of energy) began to generate increasingly complex entities. In the course I teach, we discuss the creation of stars and galaxies (the first large, complex objects) and then the creation of new elements in dying stars. Those new elements generated new forms of matter, including those from which the first planets and solar systems were built. We discuss the creation of our own solar system, around 4.5 billion years ago, and the evolution of planet earth; then we discuss the origins and evolution of life on earth and the coevolution of life and the planet within the biosphere. Finally, we survey the evolution of our own strange species, tracking how the exceptional efficiency of human languages enabled us to share and accumulate new information in a way that is unique. This helps explain our accelerating technological ingenuity over more than 100,000 years and our rapid path from being just one more primate species to being the dominant species on the planet. Big history provides the best possible perspective from which to understand the distinctive features of the “Anthropocene” era, the first era in 4 billion years in which a single species has dominated change in the biosphere.4,5

When I first taught big history, more than 20 years ago, I ended in the present day. My students soon put me right. Most loved the course because it validated the large questions about life, the earth, and the universe that they desperately wanted to explore and that most university courses seemed to ignore. But for precisely this reason, they wanted to discuss where the story was going; they wanted to talk about the future. As a professional historian the idea worried me, but I soon got the point. If you discuss trends extending over millions or even billions of years, you cannot just stop on a dime. So, with a colleague in biology, I began lecturing on the future. (In front of the students, we tossed a coin to decide who would be the optimist and who would be the pessimist!) This turned out to be one of the most exciting parts of the course because the questions were so urgent. Are current extinction rates comparable to those of the five major extinction events of the past? Will a 2 degree Celsius increase in average global temperatures make a difference? Are capitalism and sustainability compatible? Will we run out of cheap energy or will new technologies allow sustained growth? In our lectures we made it clear that we could not offer firm answers to such questions, but we could explore the problems and look at options.

What Is the Big History Project?

BBC World Service
Protests in Durban during the 2011 UN climate change summit. The meeting failed to produce meaningful agreements for tackling the problem.

Today, big history courses are being taught in at least 50 college-level institutions. With the support of Bill Gates, a group of us are also building an online syllabus in big history for high schools (for more information, go to In September 2011, five schools in the United States started testing the syllabus, and in February 2012, two Australian schools will start a second pilot program. Up to 50 schools will take part in a second round of test runs beginning in September 2012. Then, in the middle of 2013, after our syllabus in big history has been thoroughly crash-tested, it will be made freely available to everyone. All the materials will be available online. We hope that within ten years schools in many different countries will be teaching at least one big history course. In November 2011, I described the big history project for an audience of teachers from around the world and was approached by teachers from at least 15 different countries who said they would love to teach big history.

Big History as Origin Story

Big history courses use the best of modern scientific scholarship in the sciences and humanities, linking them in a single, coherent, and universal story about how everything around us was created. This means that big history courses can play the educational role once played by traditional origin stories. Like all origin stories, big history uses the best available knowledge to construct an evolutionary map of the entire universe, onto which individuals and societies can map themselves. Such stories empower students intellectually by giving them an overview within which they can situate themselves, their home communities, and everything they know. Origin stories offer a view from the mountaintop: that view may lack detail, but it shows how different landscapes fit together, and that perspective can transform how you see your home landscapes. In the past, origin stories lay at the heart of education systems. Their absence from modern education is anomalous and disastrous, because it leaves students without compass or sketch map in the vast tsunami of information available on the Internet. Big history aims to correct this pedagogical blunder.

Why Big History Can Support Clear Thinking about the Environment

Big history courses will be particularly valuable in informing students about the global challenges that the planet faces. Three aspects of big history are particularly relevant: (1) big history studies the past at multiple scales; (2) it teaches interdisciplinarity by leading students seamlessly from cosmology to geology to biology and human history; and (3) big history is global and holistic, so it can help students see humanity as a global species facing global problems requiring global solutions. Each of these perspectives can contribute powerfully to environmental understanding.

Scale: Many environmental issues, from mass extinctions to climate change, can only be understood when studied at multiple scales, from a few months or years to hundreds of millions of years. Understanding that our oxygen-dominated climate was created over billions of years as photosynthesizers pumped oxygen into the atmosphere is critical to understanding the drivers of climate change. Students of big history, like students of geology or cosmology, have to stretch their imaginations to the point where they really do understand the difference between a hundred years and a billion years.

Interdisciplinarity: Many environmental issues cross multiple disciplines, so that looking for solutions will require multidisciplinary research efforts. An example is IHOPE (Integrated History and Future of People on Earth), a research project that is building a detailed account of interactions between humans and the environment over several hundred thousand years.6 As the Australian climate scientist Will Steffen says, “Climate change is like no other environmental problem that humanity has ever faced. … Perhaps no other problem—environmental or otherwise—facing society requires such a strong interdisciplinary knowledge base to tackle; research to support effective policy-making and other actions must cut across the full range of natural sciences, social sciences (including economics), and humanities.”7

Global thinking: Finally, environmental issues cannot be understood in isolation. Climate change, acidification of oceans, high rates of extinction, and deforestation are all linked and have to be seen as expressions of a single phenomenon: the astonishing technological creativity of our species that has culminated in the Anthropocene epoch. To solve these problems, we must understand what links them, and we will need a global approach because they cross national borders. Again, Will Steffen puts it well: “Climate change is truly global in that it is centered around the two great fluids—the atmosphere and the ocean—that transport material and energy around the planet.”8

Solutions to global problems will also require some sense of global citizenship, a sense of shared humanity across the world. I like to imagine a world in which negotiators at summits on major global challenges will bring with them the large-scale, interdisciplinary, and global perspectives of big history. The chances of success will surely be greater than they are today.

I end with comments from one student of big history that hint at the transformative power of the big history perspective: “When I was first asked to consider my role in the universe four months ago … I do not think I fully realized there was even a living community around me, never mind an Earth full of other humans and an entire universe beyond. … But after this long, incredible voyage of exploration … I have a newfound sense of what the universe is. I have learned … that we are all part of the Global Future, and I can make a difference in my life as well as the lives of others. … My role is now to change my ways and respect this beautiful planet that granted us life, and to get others to join me.”9