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Discuss: State of the World 2013 > Chapter 20. Crafting a New Narrative to Support Sustainability.

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message 1: by Ted (new)

Ted | 348 comments Mod
For Crafting a New Narrative to Support Sustainability.

message 2: by Ted (last edited Feb 19, 2014 08:21AM) (new)

Ted | 348 comments Mod
And then, out of the blue, comes 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 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.

The Big History narrative gives new meaning to our journey to a state of true sustainability and flourishing. It anchors the journey's starting point ... This cosmic narrative was eloquently expressed by Carl Sagan when he ended the final episode of Cosmos ("Who Speaks for Earth?") with these words: "Our loyalties are to the species and to the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves but to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring!"

References. Books and web sites.

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. Brian Swimme & Thomas Berry The Universe Story From the Primordial 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 (book not on GR)
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 The rise and fall evolutionary biology and the rise and fall of empires
22. Donella H. Meadows Limits to growth
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 Bennett 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

28. Presidio Graduate school - Systems thinking and sustainability
29. Presidio Graduate school - MBA/MPA

message 3: by Traveller (new)

Traveller (moontravlr) | 34 comments Mod
Wow, what an amazing resource for information this is Ted! I'm going to make a mark on my calender to catch up on this and comment, but it's going to have to be for the 15th of October, I'm afraid, when I'll suddenly have a lot of free time (hopefully); since there is a LOT of work to go through here.

Thank you for all of your hard work! It's not unappreciated. :)

message 4: by Ted (new)

Ted | 348 comments Mod
That would be great Trav, certainly no hurry. I'm posting this as a review of the book momentarily.

message 5: by Lit Bug (new)

Lit Bug | 1 comments I didn't know something like this existed - I second Traveler into saying that this is magnificent, hard work, and a rich source of info. I am intrigued by the idea, and looking at the links will surely prove useful.

Thanks so much.

message 6: by Ted (new)

Ted | 348 comments Mod
Lit, I didn't know about it either. It has made my week, frankly.

message 7: by David (last edited Oct 16, 2013 10:31AM) (new)

David Katzman (daviddavid) | 19 comments Hey Ted/Trav,

Haven't had a chance to post much here (sorry!), but I read this thread. Interesting stuff, Ted. I really like this premise of Big History. I think the biggest issue for me is that there is one huge gorilla that prevents sustainability from being taken seriously by the business community, primarily the corporate world, which is why teaching Big History as part of an MBA program seems kind of pointless, is the stock market. I've always felt the stock market needs to be abolished before sustainability can be meaningfully implemented. A corporation can be run by sustainable minded people, but if it doesn't show increased profits to the stock market on a quarterly basis, then they will eventually be deposed for a business leader who will drive profits. And that drive for short-term profits will always ruin sustainability practices.

message 8: by Ted (new)

Ted | 348 comments Mod
David wrote: "Hey Ted/Trav,

Haven't had a chance to post much here (sorry!), but I read this thread. Interesting stuff, Ted. I really like this premise of Big History. I think the biggest issue for me is that t..."

Hi David, nice to see you back.

It's hard to disagree with what you say about the stock market. I believe there are people out there that could offer you some reasons to be less pessimistic, but I'm not very well acquainted with those views.

The next chapter in the book, which I'll try to post on in a day or two, does mention B-corporations, which is one approach to the "higher profit forever" mentality. Another possible one is the simple argument that constantly rising profits are really no more possible than constantly increasing population or consumption.

It's also well to recall that the current paradigm which large corporations follow, enforced by the stock market, of those quarterly earnings reports being of utmost importance, is a fairly recent development. My recollection is that this didn't really become such a big deal until the 1980s, that prior to that it was pretty much accepted that companies would be managed with an eye to the mid- to long-term future, not the next 90 days.

Also, your comment about leaders being "deposed" can work both ways.

But there's no denying that what you mention is a real problem.

message 9: by David (new)

David Katzman (daviddavid) | 19 comments Ted wrote: "Another possible one is the simple argument that constantly rising profits are really no more possible than constantly increasing population or consumption. "

A valid argument that unfortunately the mechanics of the stock market obviates. Morality doesn't come into mathematics and the stock market turns individuals and systems into numbers.

What you say about recent developments in corporate demands may very well be true, but they won't change behavior (whether that is reverting or evolving) unless it is forced upon them. I don't see that happening without a radical change like abolishing the stock market. Reforms are weakened and un-enforced over time due to lobbying, change of administration, etc. Our social safety net is in the process of being gutted under a Democrat!

message 10: by Traveller (last edited Oct 16, 2013 12:13PM) (new)

Traveller (moontravlr) | 34 comments Mod
Ted wrote: "The next chapter in the book, which I'll try to post on in a day or two, does mention B-corporations, which is one approach to the "higher profit forever" mentality. Another possible one is the simple argument that constantly rising profits are really no more possible than constantly increasing population or consumption..."

I suppose legislation might be an answer, but I'm always hesitant since legislation and similar regulation can be a two-edged sword. But perhaps sometimes a necessary sword?

But how to get it through?

..and then we come back full circle to the issue of Big Business's vice grip on politics in more ways than one. It's almost a self-perpetuating system, and it frightens me that it seems so hard to break out of that cycle.

Anyway, I admit that I've not been keeping up with the book at all. :P Sorry.

message 11: by David (new)

David Katzman (daviddavid) | 19 comments Exactly, Trav. Business has the grip on government and the media making even basic reforms difficult let alone radical change. I'm not sure what can break the cycle...and quickly. A movement like Occupy was an opportunity but how to make something like that "sustainable" is the hardest part.

message 12: by Ted (new)

Ted | 348 comments Mod
Corporate interests are undoubtedly a serious obstacle to sustainability. This is addressed in both chapters 12 and 13, which again hold out examples of change and some hope, if one wants to be hopeful.

I generally try to be hopeful, and pursue (intellectually) suggestions that strike me as really possible (even if seemingly unlikely) ways of getting through this particular bottleneck.

We know that some things which seem intractable can change swiftly, once things start tipping in the public eye. (See gay marriage; and who's to say what might be the societal changes in the future brought about by this new Pope?)

At any rate I view problems related to corporate behavior, to the current capitalist paradigm, and to corporate money in politics as quite distinct from "stock market" issues. The stock market cannot, and will not, go away while public ownership of corporations remains.

message 13: by David (last edited Oct 17, 2013 08:54AM) (new)

David Katzman (daviddavid) | 19 comments Agreed on the last point, but i think it does need to go away.

Small business behavior can be addressed in a personal way, getting business owners to recognize what is morally right (and in their own and their family's self interest), and programs such as Big History could potentially effect individuals who run businesses. However, the system of the stock market that drives profit requirements cannot be educated. And well-meaning CEOs will simply be deposed if they don't keep increasing profits. It literally is "the machine."

Just like we have such a big trend in "local foods" becoming mainstream, I think businesses need to become local only. That is privately held based on personal investment. Small businesses not big corporate ones. Not driven by the demands of the stock market. Small businesses aren't necessarily perfect but they are run by individuals who can be effected by concern for the future. Corporations are sometimes effected by bad PR but clearly not nearly enough. If they can off-load pollution costs to the public sector, they will because it is in their interest. If they can take the cheapest route, they will. Because they must.

Of course, to do away with corporations, we'd likely also need to end our dependence on oil so it's tied in to other big issues. To have hope is great, but I think hope in the right direction is more likely to have a chance. That is, I do not see how we can have hope that corporations will reform themselves for the good of the world before it is too late. But to have hope that enough people might wake up and someone how overthrow the corporate control of our government and then smash the corporations into submission...that would work even if it is far-fetched. This is all just my opinion, of course! I'm not very optimistic about reform.

message 14: by Ellie (new)

Ellie (elliearcher) I don't have much to say here but I follow the thread and I feel like the book is a life-changing experience. It's amazing how the writers often give me some hope when I feel hopeless from the reading. It's essential to have some hope or how do you keep trying and not just go consumer crazed or utterly depressed and defeated.

But when I'm not actually reading, I feel overwhelmed by corporate (and individual) greed and short-sightedness.

message 15: by Ted (new)

Ted | 348 comments Mod
Ellie, the best cure for that feeling is probably to find others living near you that are concerned about these issues.

Do you know if there is a Transition movement group near you? Or a group that is concerned about climate change, or sustainability? If you could say generally where you do live we might be able to help you find such organizations.

Or you could just try googling something like "transition" and adding the name of the closest city, or your county, to that.

message 16: by Ellie (new)

Ellie (elliearcher) NYC doesn't seem to have much interest but I will keep looking. Hopefully, I missed something.

Meanwhile, thanks to your hard work and generosity in sharing, I have plenty of reading to do!

message 17: by Ted (new)

Ted | 348 comments Mod
Ellie wrote: "NYC doesn't seem to have much interest but I will keep looking. Hopefully, I missed something.

Meanwhile, thanks to your hard work and generosity in sharing, I have plenty of reading to do!"

Ellie, you may have already seen this site and found it defunct or whatever.

And you may have already done the following, but I thought I would mention it. In the GR Transition "Local Actions" thread, the first post mentions a couple ways of trying to find groups near you.

I found the above site using method 2 described in that post.

If you have any success, why not post something on that thread? Also, if you have questions about something that stem from what I just suggested, post those on that "local Actions" thread.

message 18: by Traveller (new)

Traveller (moontravlr) | 34 comments Mod
David wrote: "...we'd likely also need to end our dependence on oil .."

We're going to have to some time or another, and the sooner we start working on it, the better... but tell that to those who have vested interests in the oil industry...

message 19: by David (new)

David Katzman (daviddavid) | 19 comments Traveller wrote: "David wrote: "...we'd likely also need to end our dependence on oil .."

We're going to have to some time or another, and the sooner we start working on it, the better... but tell that to those who..."


message 20: by Ted (new)

Ted | 348 comments Mod
Interjection: (Please see the discussion thread for chapter 21, newly posted. I'm afraid I know of no other way to alert anyone that this new thread has been opened, sorry.)

message 21: by Ellie (new)

Ellie (elliearcher) Ted wrote: "Ellie wrote: "NYC doesn't seem to have much interest but I will keep looking. Hopefully, I missed something.

Meanwhile, thanks to your hard work and generosity in sharing, I have plenty of reading..."

Thank you, Ted. I will follow your suggestions, they're very helpful. I feel a great need to take some action.

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