History of the universe
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - August 9, 2020 - 12:00am

The book “Origin Story: A Big History of Everything” by David Christian is for those people who love history and for those who are eternally curious about understanding where we have been, where we are and where we are going. It is on the recommended books list of Bill Gates. It sounds like heavy reading but the author has a very readable style.

Almost all historians present history in terms of dates, events and individuals.  The book goes beyond studying the whole of history from the Big Bang as the beginning of the universe to the present and then looks into the distant future. It says our sun will live for another nine billion years and then will turn into a red giant and that will also be the end of planet Earth; but, hopefully, not of mankind.

After reading the book during the pandemic, I knew that I had to write about this someday.  However, I wondered if this was an appropriate time – in the midst of the pandemic.

Again, Christian wrote: “How would looking at the full span of time change the way we perceive the universe, the earth and our very existence?” There are issues and challenges that will last for generations and not just a few years, even though the cost of ignoring these challenges will be suffering for generations.

I also decided to write about the book because in his last chapter, Christian tackled the sensitive and critic identified as the “humanist economists.”

Peter Drucker studied economics under John Meynard Keynes during his stay in Cambridge. He later wrote that “…he suddenly realized that Keynes and all the brilliant economics students in the room were interested in behavior of commodities while I was interested in the behavior of people.”

In his book, Christian quoted Robert Kennedy who said in March 1968 just before he was assassinated, the limitations of an economy devoted to never ending growth in gross national product: “The Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising and ambulances to clear highways of carnage… it counts the destruction of the redwood, the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl…. Yet the GNP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or … the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials…. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

The book sets out to answer the idea of “Big History,” which was a new approach to understanding where we have been, where we are and where we are going.  Christian takes us on a tour of the entire 13.8 billion years that have been labelled as “history.” He focuses on defining events which he calls “thresholds,” major questions and answers to profound questions about our origins. Throughout the book, he writes about the threads that tie everything together – from the creation of the planet to the advent of agriculture, nuclear war and beyond.

There are eight defining moments or “Thresholds” of humankind. Threshold 1 is “in the Beginning,” followed by “Stars and the Galaxies,” “Molecules and Moons,” “Life and the Biosphere.”

Threshold 6 is “Humans” and it is, of course, one of the most interesting chapters. Christian writes: “We [i.e. humans] arrived just a few hundred thousand years ago but today we are beginning to change the biosphere… never before has a single species wielded such power… we have become a planet-changing species… How we humans will use our power remains unclear. But we already know that humans and indeed the entire biosphere stand at a moment of profound and perhaps turbulent change.”

Threshold 7 is entitled “Farming” and the final Threshold 8 is “The Anthropocene.” In the 20th century humans began to transform their surroundings, societies and themselves. The human society has become a geological force. Christian says: “… planet Earth has entered a new geological age, the Anthropocene epoch or the ‘era of humans.’ The main catalyst was the fossil fuels revolution, i.e., coal, oil, natural gas.”

The chapter has fascinating data. For example, in the year 1900, wild land mammals accounted for about 10 megatons of carbon biomass; humans accounted for 13 megatons; while domesticated animals – cows, horses, sheep, goats – accounted for 35 megatons.

By 2000, the total biomass for wild land mammals had fallen to 5 megatons; humans had increased to 55 megatons and domesticated animals to 129 megatons. This is an indicator that plants and animals that are not of direct value to humans are declining rapidly and may even become extinct.

The last chapter says that in the next one hundred years there is a potential crash involving all humans and other species. Our task is to avoid the crash and save the biosphere because there is no good place for humans in a ruined biosphere.

If we can avoid the crash, then human societies may be around for several thousand years, perhaps even for hundreds of thousands of years.

I want to thank Tim Bautista for sending this book as a gift. Much appreciated.

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An Invitation For Young Writers, ages 8-15:

Young Writers’ Hangout is back! Zoom with us on Aug. 15 & 29, 2-3 p.m. Contact writethingsph@gmail.com. 0945.2273216

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Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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