First, there is the impact of science-based technological change addressing the need for work – the way that much of history has been about ‘getting things done’ and therefore related to the discovery of ever more effective ways of harnessing the energy of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) and, more recently, nuclear energy.
The other major noticeable difference has occurred with the gradual increase in democracy as power in much of the world has passed from ruling elites to become more widely distributed through society which, overall, has become less violent. From the time of Bronze Age development of large towns and cities urban societies have been strongly hierarchical. The status of citizens would be clear from the way they talked, what they wore, what they did, their legal rights and much more. Deference to social seniors was a pronounced characteristic of societies until recent times.
Though change has been mostly recent we must remember that small changes made in early formative times can result in large and widespread consequences later. While acknowledging the massive impact of the modern era on our lives, we cannot dismiss our early social history as being of little consequence.
Western social, scientific and educational traditions were laid down most emphatically by the ancient Greeks and Romans who took the education of their leaders extremely seriously. But the world has changed. Today we find the social hierarchies of the classical world presumptuous and undemocratic, and their heroic and triumphal nationalism and imperialism too aggressive and patronising and, perhaps more importantly, totally inappropriate for our present world. But the legacy of their educational enthusiasm is as important today as it ever was except today education is not just for an elite class it is, in principle at least, intended to be available for everyone. And as we are quickly coming to realise – in a globalised interconnected and interdependent world with global problems we need to educate people for a global future. This means that at least part of the education of our young citizens should be a ‘global education’.
World history, the world’s ideologies, religions and world views, and ways in which we can possibly confront and manage elements of our human nature that can so easily derail this process.
This web site focuses on the native and exotic plants of Australia, but it is not possible to consider plants on one continent without considering the global context. So much happened with plants around the world before Australia was settled – everything from the origins of agriculture to the social, political and economic upheavals resulting from the spice trade that extended from Classical times through to the 18th century, and the social consequences of producing the ‘cluster drugs’ sugar, tobacco, tea, and coffee for Europe’s elites. It was plants that played a major role in the forging of the world’s great international trade routes.
History & the acceleration of change
We are all sensitive to the pace of change. In about 10,000 BCE the world populaton was about 10 million, in 1500 it was about 135 million, in 2017 it is 7.5 billion. Through the Modern Era of western society there has been a Renaissance of ancient learning, period of global exploration as an Age of Discovery lasting from the 15th to 18th centuries, a Scientific Revolution (c. 1450-1800), an 18th century European Enlightenment marked by emphasis on science, logic and rationality, followed in turn by an Industrial and Technological Revolution and, in the early 20th century, an Electronic and Communications Revolution and late 20th century a Financial Revolution.
History as progress
For a more in-depth discussion of this theme see the article on progress
World history draws our attention to the broad social, economic and environmental themes that connect and integrate peoples while acknowledging those communities that lie outside the major networks. While integration has undoubtedly increased over time with different geographic regions ascendant at different times, history is not a path of progress leading inexorably into the stable embrace of West and/or Eastern culture. Though some peoples have benefitted, others have been dispossessed and subjugated and disadvantaged. We cannot assume with the benefit of hindsight that the path of history was inevitable or that the future is secure.
History as the ascent of the West
Though peoples may be integrated they also exist in their own right, not as part of the grand plan of another group.
World history as superficial
Of its nature world history must be concerned mostly with broad themes: – interconnection and divergence; causes and consequences of major shifts in world power; movements and institutions thatcross religious, political and cultural boundaries. Of all the many kinds of history (including environmental, feminist, cultural, local) all are valid and serve their own purpose. The strength and purpose of world history is to give us a global perspective.
World history must be huge
It is easy to assume that if the history of China occupies two volumes then a history of the world must fill perhaps ten to a hundred volumes. But we could fill many volumes with the events that occurred in a single day of our lives.
Good world history need not dazzle us with millions of facts – better if it synthesises well the major historical forces that have shaped the world as we experience it today – the number of words needed to do this is up to us.
The first known globe of the world was constructed by German explorer and cosmographer Martin Benhaim 1491-3 who worked for the Portuguese king. It had many errors and the Americas were completely absent. Chinese and Japanese maps at this time carried more description but did not attempt to give a precise physical representation of the world, with the mother countries emphasised and central, other lands peripheral and insignificant.
Global vs local
With increasing globalisation can come global homogeneity. Put simply, we all get along better if we are all the same.
One of the more noticeable factors here is the use of English as a global language, a sort of ‘globish’ (although perhaps that is a word better applied to language used in global social media). At present (2013) there are about 7000 languages spoken on Earth and these are predicted to diminish to about 1000 by 2100. Languages are just one of the many cultural losses likely to increase, others being culinary practices, local costume and dress, folk traditions, and much more. In general these traditions enrich our lives.
However, it does seem that entrenched traditions of remote, isolated communities can sometimes lead to fundamentalist and inflexible, sometimes violent, traditions. Cities, for all their disadvantages, do force us to cope with diversity – and especially racial and religious difference.
Acknowledging that globalisation carries both advantages and disadvantages we can try and tread the difficult line between maintaining our enriching local culture and identity while acknowledging our place within a greater whole – like some Irish schoolchildren who feel no threat or paradox in speaking Gaelic at home but communicating in English on the internet.
The hope is that by finding a balance between the local and global (and presumably any other ‘steps’ there are in between) we can peacefully enjoy the advantages of both.
Considering history on the scale of Big History – as the evolution of anatomically modern humans from hominins – humans evolved from ape-like ancestors by adaptation to their environment with physical and mental biological change incorporated into DNA (equivalent to information about the world) and thus passed from generation to generation as genetic modification to existing structures – in other words natural selection. This process was vastly accelerated when information about the environment could be accumulated and improved through communication by the written and spoken word. A fact about the world transmitted in this way is called a meme. Thus humans have responded to their environment in two ways: either extremely slowly thtrough genetic change, or extremely rapidly by memetic change. These two forms of change are sometimes contrasted as biological and cultural evolution. Cultural evolution allowed humans to migrate across the world and facilitated the construction of technology such that natural environments became artificial environments of enclosed buildings and and cities with artificial lighting, heating, and cooling. Thus we have created artificial environments of biological adaptation.
Cultural evolution has transformed our lifestyles and the landscapes of the world (see Cultivated plant globalization): it has also given us insights into our evolutionary psychology. Many of the biological drives, desires, fears, and other emotions that served us well in the course of evolution are no longer appropriate in the 21st century. The evolutionary desire for sugar which has resulte in contemporary obesity is just one of many such examples. The rational control of our evolutionary psychology is a major factor bearing on the sustainability of our collective future.