The idea of mobilizing a world political party in support of sustainability makes a lot of sense, and I was pleased to see Heikki Patomäki link such a project to the Big History framework, which has been the center of my recent work.1 But the ecological, technological, and political challenges we face today are so new that nineteenth- or twentieth-century models of political mobilization will often mislead us. So interconnected is today’s world that mobilization for change will have to be global, as well as national and local. That is a given. But what should be the major goals of such a movement? And what possibilities are there for mobilizing globally behind these goals?
The main goals of such a movement will be defined by the contradictory legacy of the Anthropocene Epoch, the era in which we humans dominate change on the surface of Planet Earth. The vast flows of energy and resources released by the exploitation of fossil fuels have allowed billions of humans to live well above subsistence for the first time in human history. That is a huge and progressive achievement (the “Good Anthropocene”) that can be measured in many ways, including the rapid extension of average life expectancies, increasing per capita energy use, and the rapid decline in extreme poverty.
These profound changes, most of which occurred in just the last 100 years, mean that today there exists a huge global middle-class constituency to be mobilized, a political force that did not exist in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the vast flows of energy and resources that have allowed rising living standards are now undermining the ecological foundations for prosperity. (That’s the “Bad Anthropocene.”)
These seismic shifts in recent human and planetary history define the primary challenge we will face in the next few decades: Can the gains of the fossil fuels era be maintained without the fossil fuels whose use is undermining the ecological foundations for a prosperous world? We already have many of the technologies and much of the know-how to build a world of high living standards that are not based on fossil fuels, and in which most material resources are recycled. Documents such as the Paris Accord or the UN Sustainable Development Goals also point us in roughly the right direction. What is missing is the vision, the understanding, and the will to mobilize enough of the global population in support of the necessary changes. We have the physical technologies needed for sustainability, but not the necessary political and intellectual technologies.
So the mobilizational task really is fundamental. What are the barriers to effective global mobilization behind the goal of global sustainability?
Certainly, there are powerful interests opposed to change. If, as some claim, those interests are powerful enough to block a transition to sustainability, then our prospects are indeed dire, because another major difference from the nineteenth century is that we now have weapons destructive enough to degrade the entire biosphere within twenty-four hours. That means that in the twenty-first century, a global class war will be many times more destructive than the revolutionary wars anticipated by nineteenth century revolutionaries, in which the most powerful weapons were cannons and rifles. Fortunately, there are good reasons to think that elite resistance to sustainability may prove weaker and less determined than is often assumed.
First, there now exists a massive global middle class that has benefited from rising living standards. The members of this class have a profound interest in maintaining those standards, and many are beginning to understand that this means building more sustainable societies.
Second, modern capitalist elites, too, have an interest in a sustainable future. And the most far-seeing among those elites understand that capitalism can adapt to a sustainable world order, just as it adapted successfully to rising wages and the consumer capitalism of the twentieth century. Profit-making does not have to depend on the consumption of virgin resources. Indeed, vast profits are already being made from recycling, from sustainable energy technologies, and from services that exert very little pressure on the global environment.
If this analysis is correct, it suggests that mobilizing a large and powerful global coalition in support of building a more sustainable world should not be an impossible challenge.
What are the remaining barriers to building such a party? One major barrier is the survival of outdated modes of thought. The dominant forms of education and thought today are short-term, local, and siloized. They teach history on scales too small to understand the planet-changing challenges we face, they teach politics as the study of short-term tribal and national interests, and they teach science through the disconnected lenses of separate disciplines. In the real world of the Anthropocene, everything is connected within a single, planetary system; in the siloized world of modern education, nothing is connected. That makes it impossible even to see clearly the primary challenge we face today, which is nothing less than the task of wisely managing the richly interconnected planetary system that James Lovelock called “Gaia.”
There are no choices here; our impacts on the biosphere are already so profound that the only collective choice we have is to manage the biosphere well or manage it badly. That is a challenge that no species has faced in the four-billion-year history of Planet Earth. But seeing the task clearly and responding to it appropriately requires a breadth of vision, a capacity to think across many different disciplines, and a sense of change on geological time-scales, that we do not find in the educational and political institutions we have inherited from the early twentieth century. As they face these huge challenges, a younger generation will need to think in new ways.
As we face up to the challenges of the Anthropocene, we will need schools and universities that can help students see the many links between different forms of knowledge. To understand the many systems that keep our earth livable, you need some grasp of basic environmental science. And to understand the human impact on these systems, you need some understanding of how and why our species has acquired such colossal power over the plants and the animals with which we share the biosphere, and over the flows of energy and resources that sustain life on earth. Thinking discipline by discipline makes it impossible to understand problems that are chemical/meteorological/geological/biological/economic/political—problems like climate change or declining biodiversity.
Finally, we need some understanding of the history that we all share as humans, in order to understand both what unites us, and what it is that makes us so different, so powerful, and so dangerous. Awareness of the rich history that we share as humans, a history extending back for several hundred thousand years, can help generate the sense of planetary solidarity and shared global citizenship that we will need as we tackle problems that can no longer be dealt with nation by nation. Yet most history teaching today is still about the histories of particular communities or nations. Mobilizing on a planetary scale will remain difficult as long as most people, most educators, and most governments are locked into the blinkered, siloized thought-world of the past.
My own work has been dedicated for many years to teaching courses that can help people acquire the broader vision—the “view from the mountaintop”—that will be needed to inspire a global movement for sustainability. Courses in “big history” teach about the history of humanity as a whole, a history as rich and engaging as any national history. This is the sort of historical thinking needed to generate a sense of shared membership in a “global community.” Big history courses also show how human history is embedded in the history of an entire biosphere, an extraordinarily complex global system that has evolved over 4 billion years. Finally, they show how our home planet is part of an evolving universe that emerged in the “big bang”, almost 14 billion years ago. Big history courses offer a modern, science-based origin story for the whole of humanity. By doing so, they can convey a sense of the momentous changes through which we are living right now, and the complex but inspiring challenges that will be faced by the next few generations of humans. They offer the broad vision of a better human future that will be needed to motivate and inspire a world political party dedicated to building a sustainable world.
It goes without saying that building such a broad vision of the past and future is just one part of the complex puzzles we all face today. But it may be quite an important part. After all, no effective political movements have gotten far without a sense of vision that is both believable and inspiring. And there are now many resources available to help teach the unifying vision of big history, in schools, in universities and more widely. There are many published materials on big history in a growing number of languages, and there exist at least two online courses in big history for schools, the “Big History Project” and the more recent “Big History School.”
In conclusion, one of the major challenges faced by any global movement for sustainability will be the construction of a new and inspiring vision of where we humans are today, a vision that can inspire optimism and ambition about the planetary task of building a sustainable future. That is a task that will require new forms of thought and more interdisciplinary approaches to education.
1. See, for example, David Christian, Origin Story: A Big History of Everything (New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 2018). Notably, the Big History Project (www.bighistoryproject.com/home) offers a unified and interdisciplinary curriculum for middle and high school levels.