By: Alton C. Thompson

In my recent “Lovelocks Limitations” I criticized British scientist James Lovelock for predicting that global warming would result in a severe culling of the world’s population, but failing to provide a scenario that would identify the changes likely to occur between now and, e.g., 2100 CE. But Lovelock is not the only scholar interested in global warming whose thinking is flawed. Among those in this category is David Christian.

Christian is associated with the “Big History” movement. In fact, Christian—a professor of History at Australia’s Macquarie University—can be regarded as the “father” of that movement, having published the first textbook on the subject in 2004.

Recently, Christian wrote a brief article—“Big History for the Era of Climate Change,”—for Solutions Journal, and I will confine my comments here to some his statements in that article.

Unlike Lovelock, who is somewhat of a maverick among climate scientists, Christian is content to limit himself to a more “mainstream” viewpoint, evident in his reference—in his first paragraph—to the 2011 Durban climate change conference. He states that “the chances of limiting global warming over the next century to an increased 2 degrees Celsius are vanishing fast.” In stating this, however, he doesn’t seem to realize that some scientists—such as Lovelock—would argue that we have already passed the critical point regarding climate change. Nor does he seem to recognize that “global warming” involves not only a warming trend per se, but (1) increased storminess, (2) an increase in the number of severe storms, and (3) increased variability (spatial and temporal) in atmospheric conditions.

He refers to “effective international action,” suggesting that (1) governments must take the lead in addressing this problem, (2) governments will do so, (3) international agreements can be reached (and will be), and (4) that the actions to be engaged in will—and should—focus on efforts to halt global warming’s “progress.” However,

  1. Governments, controlled as most are, by elites having a fixation on short-run profits, are unlikely to provide the necessary leadership.
  2. It’s unlikely that meaningful international agreements will be reached—and then acted upon.
  3. Given that it’s unlikely that “global warming” can be halted, the only option that we humans have is that of adaptation. And given point 1, that will occur only by individuals taking the initiative.

Christian sees “ignorance” as a primary obstacle to success in addressing the global warming problem. Not “enough people have enough understanding of the [relevant] science to see through [the] bad arguments” [out there against global warming that are all too common]. What’s needed, however, is not more “science education,” but the development of “a global perspective[,] and also a sense of how the environment changes at different time scales.”

But who should be engaging in this intellectual enterprise? Our leaders? (They won’t do it.) The educated populace? (More are, as Christian notes, but will enough do so—and soon—to make any difference? And will it anyway?)

Unsurprisingly, Christian promotes “a new approach to education known as ‘big history.’” Education in Big History, he says, will help those studying it to develop a Big Picture, and doing so will “empower students intellectually by giving them an overview within which they can situate themselves, their home communities, and everything they know.”

As, specifically, to a problem such as global warming, “Big history courses will be particularly valuable in informing students about the global challenges that the planet faces.” Perhaps. But how, specifically, will being “well-informed” be helpful? And why the emphasis on learning over creativity? If our only option now is adaptation, how will Big History learning help with that process? It should be obvious that determining how to adapt is a matter that has no obvious answer—no answer that can simply be extracted from one’s “learning.” What that adaptation requires is the use of creativity. Granted that knowledge forms the basis upon which creativity acts, but creativity—by its very nature—goes beyond knowledge; and it is unclear how Big History knowledge will provide a knowledge basis useful for creativity.

Christian seems to be an academic who tacitly assumes that universities will always exist, and there will always be a university within which he can “hold forth.” He seems to assume—again tacitly—that Australian society will continue on its merry way while global warming is occurring, and apparently is unable to conceive the possibility—the likelihood, in fact—that Australian society will collapse within a few decades. In part because he has had nothing to offer so far as adaptation is concerned!

My hope is that the people whom he fools into thinking that he has something important to offer are few in number—for their own sakes!

About the author: Al Thompson works (data management) for an Engineering (Avionics) firm in Milwaukee. Click here to mail him.