Tuesday, February 26, 2013

1008. Book Review: Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present

Cynthia Stokes Brown

By Kamran Nayeri, November 2009

Some scientists persuasively have argued that by the advent of industrialization around 1800 we have left the geological epoch, the Holocene, behind and entered the Anthropocene epoch marked by human caused global changes to the planet Earth. We can even make a more specific claim that with the Anthropocene was inaugurated by the rise of fossil fuel-based industrialized capitalism.  Powered by cheap fossil fuels, rapid technological change, and ever-expanding markets, the capitalist mode of production has supported an exponential rise in human population that on average lives longer and consumes more goods and services. Urbanization and Proletarianizition in turn have supported expansion of capitalist system. Thus, within a mere two hundred years or 8 generations we are approaching or already have reached limits to growth.  The present day combined crisis of nature and society threatens the very fabric of life on Earth. The worse economic crisis since the Great Depression is combined with global warming and catastrophic climate change, forests and oceans are literary, and the rate of species extinction is comparable to the last five extinction periods making some biologists believe that the sixth extinction already is underway.

While the immediate enforcer of the current crisis is the world capitalist economy, the very basis of this crisis was laid by the Agrarian Revolution about 10,000 years ago, when some gatherer-hunter organized the first agrarian settlements by systematically domesticating plants and animals and themselves, giving rise to class societies.  As part of this process, the idea of human superiority, the anthropocentric worldview, and human speciesism have become commonplace and the main prop of the world culture. We have grown accustomed to the idea that our history began with the “rise of civilization,” that is, class societies that emerged with the Agricultural Revolution. In the process, we forgot that for some 95% of our species’ life we lived successfully as gatherer-hunter societies and that transition to agrarian settlement was not in any immediate sense an improvement.  We also forgot that other mammals have lived for over 65 million years and life on Earth had begun four billion years ago. And, of course, we forget that our universe emerged 13.7 billion year ago.  Our ignorance and forgetting is the root-cause of our present predicament.

Big History, a relatively new multidisciplinary field, has emerged to reminds us of this history, rendering a much needed paradigm-shift in our myopic worldview, effectively taking on a subject matter traditionally left to philosophy: our place in the world.

To learn about Big History, I highly recommend Cynthia Stokes Brown’s very readable introduction to a field that takes a terrain that is usually left to philosophers. The book is divided into two parts. Part I deals with the emergence of the universe as we know it, and of our own neighborhood in the space. It then reviews the emergence of the living Earth, Homo sapiens, and gatherer-hunter societies. We learn how species depend on their non-living surroundings, how Homo sapiens is literally stardust, and how we are animals very much related to other living beings around us, and that, in a profound sense, the Earth itself is a living organism.

The much longer Part II deals with the last 10,000 years reviewing world history proper. Stokes Brown points to emerging patterns in human history as "civilization" emerges and develops up to the present. Here she is much influenced by Fernand Braudel and the Annales School of historiography. The focus is on circulation of people, animals, goods, technologies, and diseases.

I tend to believe that this approach, while closer of Systems Theory, hence more congruent with the general methodology of Big History, also creates a number of problems when the author deals with the emergence of capitalism and industrialization. The profit motive, very much in focus these days with the current massive "financial" crisis, takes the backseat to technologies and consumer behavior. Thus, solution to the current social and environmental/ecological problems become obscure. By offering a final chapter called "What Now? What Next?" Stokes Brown correctly turns our attention to finding solutions to these problems. But somehow, the powerful case she builds about our place in the universe is lost and attention is focused on the narrow debate in the mainstream. This debate not only ignores the capitalist foundation of society, it also forgets the very context of who we are. Thus the logic of the story Stokes Brown has told, that the current crisis originated in our alienation from nature and from ourselves and is enforced daily by the capitalist social order as well as it central message that to return to a society where we can live in harmony with nature (as gatherer-hunter did to a great extent without having the benefit the state of our current knowledge), is lost.

Still, this is a beautiful book with an important story and an important message for those who are looking beyond the headlines for a solution to the problems of the humanity and Mother Earth. 

Cynthia Stokes Brown is a retired professor of education ar Dominican University of California. She has written history and biography books, including the American Book Award-winning Ready from Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement.  

A briefer version of this review was published on amazon.com in November 2009. 

No comments: