Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Big Picture

Here's why I needed a break. I'm sure that for as long as there has been history, people have thought that they lived in a particularly important historical moment. So maybe my perception, which is widely shared, that we are now in the midst of a third Great Transformation is a solipsistic illusion. But there is plenty of support for this perception.

The first Great Transformation, of course, was the transition from the hunter-gatherer way of life of the first humans to existence in settled communities based on agriculture, which brought with it complex societies with hierarchy and occupational specialties, accumulation of surpluses -- to be owned, invested, and fought over -- rapid technological development, and a fundamental change in the relationship between humans and their environment. The second was the industrial revolution based on energy from fossil fuels, an era which has also seen the rise of an international system based on the universality of the nation-state. While people have talked about the present era as "post industrial," that doesn't really refer to any radically different basis for human society, but merely an incremental shift in economic activity toward services, and toward tighter global integration of markets.

What will truly post-industrial civilization be like? That depends on the solution -- or ultimate failure to resolve -- several interrelated crises. Some arise from basic resource limitations -- petroleum, water, arable land, and to a lesser extent some minerals and elements. Others arise from the basic challenges and risks of trying to live together in such enormous aggregations of humanity, including infectious disease, socio-cultural conflicts, and the infrastructure demands. Others arise from the exponential acceleration of human technological capabilities, presenting severe dangers from expanded possibilities of violence, as well as largely unintended and hard to predict social and ecological transformations. And finally, we face crises from cultural change and ideological conflict, particularly, in my view, an (irony intended) eschatological conflict between the claims of reason and reactionary religious faith. I say eschatological because it will bring about the end of an era of history and usher in a new world, one way or another.

With all this on my mind, it is hard to write day-to-day about topical issues. While the issues I discuss here are important in their immediate impact on people, and embedded in our larger problems, I often feel as though I'm working and writing in a cave, contemplating a narrow patch of landscape and sky. So what I'd like to do for a while is step out and climb to the hilltop and look at the big picture. Where are we, and how did we get here? And how should we decide what to believe, and what to do? I hope you won't mind if I wax a bit grandiose for a while, and really try to wrestle with the big questions.

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