The 2023 IBHA Conference Theme on
Humanity on a Finite Planet: A Big History Perspective
The discipline of big history throws light on the achievements and challenges in the present and possibilities for the future by analyzing the biological, social, political and economic history of the homo sapiens in the context of the geological, climatological, environmental, and evolutionary history of the planet earth and the cosmological history of the solar system and the universe.
At this point in time, the human civilization is at a crossroads. The choices we collectively and individually make in the next decade or so will lock humanity into either a destructive or a sustainable pathway for our species. In big history terminology, we may have just entered or are about to enter a new threshold. While in the past, humans have progressed largely by following their survival and adaptation instincts, now as a global civilization, collectively we have a better understanding of the complex web of reality around us and therefore are in a position to make informed choices towards a desirable destiny.
We now know that we are living on a complex planet with highly interconnected planetary systems but finite material resources. Through the combined processes of biological evolution (a natural planetary process) and technological revolution (a human-induced process) we have become the ‘top predator’ in the food as well as materials chain on the planet. The concept of planetary boundaries – which are key planet-level processes that govern the stability and resilience of the earth in a form required to sustain humanity – was introduced by Johan Rockstrom, Will Steffen and collaborators in 2009 and further refined over the years.1 As per the current data available at least four of the nine processes are no longer in the ‘safe operating region’. In other words, at least some of the critical ‘Holocene’ conditions under which humanity thrived and progressed, no longer exist on the planet. The most widely discussed examples are global warming and loss of biodiversity.
However, from another perspective, over the past few centuries, we have also seen great strides in improving the quality of human life in terms of health and life expectancy, as well as the ways and means available to manifest, express and share human creativity and innovation in various forms. There are also innumerable localized examples of human communities achieving respectable quality of life in harmony with the localized planetary processes.
Where do we go from here? How do we put to use the positive outcomes of human endeavours to combat the potential negative outcomes? What should be the new direction given to human knowledge systems to ensure an equitable and sustainable human civilization that is more mindful of the limits as well as potentials of the planet earth and the solar system? What does the new planetary normal mean for the philosophical and spiritual frameworks developed by humans so far? How do we deal with the psychological impacts of the transformative change (either destructive or constructive)? Will the upcoming technological developments like human-AI interface, genetic modification, space travel, nanomaterials, etc., harm or help humanity? The conference will focus on exploring these and similar questions through multidisciplinary lenses.
Conference Information and Call for Papers
This will be a global, on-line conference that will be equally accessible to all time zones. The conference will be hosted, as it was in 2021, over Airmeet, an attractive, user friendly, sophisticated platform designed and administered in India. Presentation times will run straight through over 72 hours from July 7 – 9, 2023. Presenters from everywhere will be able to be scheduled at convenient times of day, with recordings available later for all registered conference participants who are unable to attend in real time.
Presenters will be asked to send a 15 minute version of their work at least three days before the conference (earlier if at all possible). These will be shown during the scheduled time, followed by live roundtables with the presenters and all attendees. Discuss your work with others from around the world in real time.
Everyone will also be invited to send us longer recordings that permit as fully developed presentations as are needed, These too will be available for conference participants at any time.
Local In-Person Meetings
The benefits of in-person meetings will also be available in selected locations. Live presentations and discussions will be part of the conference schedule and broadcast live, as well as recorded for later viewing. See below for the in-person option at Coldigioco, Italy.
Environmentally and Cost Conscious
The flexibility of this global platform will reduce the carbon footprint that extensive air travel would require. In addition to that benefit, conference participants will not face the costs of hotels.
We look forward to your proposal
We look forward to discussion of your presentation or your paper. Presentations may include music, painting, dance or other expressions. Creativity and imagination in the service of big history are encouraged. Discussion of your paper at the conference may lead you to revise and submit it to the Journal of Big History or Origins: The Bulletin of the IBHA.
One of the benefits of our association is to develop pleasant and productive relationships. We encourage work with other IBHA members in a panel in which there are a number of papers or other presentations.
On the proposal page, we will ask you for your name, email address, title of your proposal, a brief description of it, and the range of convenient times of day for you.
For more information on the 2023 IBHA conference and to make your proposal, please go to: https://bighistory.org/
Deadline for proposals is November 26, 2022.
Please send us any questions about the conference to firstname.lastname@example.org
What is Big History?
Beginning about 13.8 billion years ago, the story of the past is a coherent record that includes a series of great thresholds. Beginning with the Big Bang, Big History is an evidence-based account of emergent complexity, with simpler components combining into new units with new properties and greater energy flows.
The Beginning of Space and Time in Our Universe
In the first moments after the Big Bang, the universe is thought to have been so hot and dense that matter could only exist in the form of a soup of quarks and gluons. (What explains the Big Bang itself? We still need to figure this out to our satisfaction.) As the universe expanded and cooled, matter could take on new forms, including the first protons and neutrons, followed much later by neutral atoms. Though the early universe was almost perfectly uniform, slight non-uniformities existed from the beginning, and over cosmic time gravity has enhanced those non-uniformities, pulling matter from less dense regions into more dense regions. This has produced the large-scale structure of the universe that we see today, including galaxies, galaxy clusters, and superclusters.
Within galaxies, gravity causes the collapse of gas clouds to form stars, which combine atomic nuclei to produce heavier elements through nuclear fusion. Before the first stars formed, the universe contained only hydrogen, helium, and small amounts of lithium (created in the first minutes after the Big Bang, when the universe as a whole was still hot enough to sustain fusion). But massive stars create carbon, oxygen, and all manner of heavier elements through fusion all the way up to iron. When these stars run out of fuel and explode as supernovae, the huge amounts of energy released often allow for the formation of even heavier elements like gold, uranium, and others. The heavy-element-enriched gas propelled outward by a supernova mixes with pre-existing gas and dust clouds, which may then collapse under gravity’s influence to form second-generation stars. Because first-generation stars had created heavy elements, these were available for gravity to form rocky or terrestrial planets.
The Beginning of Our Solar System and Earth
The formation of our own Sun and Earth took place about 4.6 billion years ago. The Solar System is located in one of the Milky Way’s outer spiral arms, known as the Orion Arm or Local Spur. We are between 25,000 and 28,000 light years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy, which consists of a few hundred billion stars. We are traveling around that center at a rate of about 220 kilometers per second, completing one revolution every 225- 250 million years. Over the past 4.6 billion years, the Earth has seen many chapters in its own history, with changes in atmosphere, the appearance and continual reformation of land masses through plate tectonics, and many other transformations.
The Beginning and Evolution of Life
Elements and molecules on the Earth formed various combinations in a process of chemical evolution, although exactly how still eludes us. About 4 billion years ago, some of them formed membranes, gained access to additional chemicals and energy that became metabolism, and became able to reproduce with variation. What is called life then began its own highly uneven process of evolution, sometimes becoming more complex and diversified. Major transitions led to such features as cell nucleii, photosynthesis, intentional motion, multicellular specialization and cooperation, heads, backbones, four limbs, and many other features.
The rise of mammals following the extinction of dinosaurs some 65 million years ago led to the emergence of hominids. Eventually Homo sapiens emerged 200,000 years ago. Bipedal, largely hairless, large- brained, and with opposable thumbs, humans developed symbolic and imaginative language, inherited a social nature, and made ethics explicit.
The Beginning and Development of Culture
Through our culture, humans shaped some of the natural forces from which we emerged. We added hunting to scavenging and gathering. Beginning about 70,000 years ago, we left our African home and migrated throughout the globe, crossing Beringia into the Americas some 20,000 years ago (though the precise date is still heavily debated). We formed bands, kinship groups, villages, chiefdoms, cities, nations, and empires. Our species crossed other major thresholds with the emergence of agricultural states, the burning of fossil fuels, and the recent entrance into an information-rich, digital era.
We have fought many wars among ourselves and brought about environmental degradation and resource depletion. These and other problems threaten the quality and even survival of our species. We face a current crisis and a possible loss of complexity. Over 99% of the species that have ever existed are now extinct. No complex species is likely to survive intact for more than a few million years; we will be lucky if we survive that long.
Can Big History Help Us Now?
2015 was the warmest year since modern record-keeping began in 1880, according to a new analysis by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The record-breaking year continues a long-term warming trend — 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have now occurred since 2001.
Does Big History provide a narrative that can help nurture the development of the empathy and cooperation that are part of our social nature? Can humans form a more perfect human community as we continue to create a more complex society than has existed before? Or will our current levels of social complexity face inexorable demise?
The Long Term Future
Whatever the answers to these questions, any species still surviving on Earth a few billion years from now would be well-advised to hop a spaceship to another solar system. Those still on Earth will face a much hotter sun. About 5 billion years from now, the Sun will run out of hydrogen fuel in its core and will grow into a red giant, evaporating the oceans and possibly engulfing the Earth. The Sun will eventually eject its outer layers, leaving behind its core, a white dwarf that will cool and fade over trillions of years. Meanwhile, other galaxies may keep racing away from our own Local Group of galaxies, perhaps leaving us with a sky devoid of the images of distant galaxies that have contributed so much to our understanding of the universe and the cosmic context of the Earth.
Have other universes already existed? Will there be more universes after ours has ended? Are there an infinite number of universes, perhaps with some even sharing our space?
We need your help to help find the evidence to answer these and many other questions – and to draw on the lessons learned to help solve our problems now.
Resources about Big History
- Benjamin, Craig, Esther Quaedackers, and David Baker, co-editors. (2021) The Routledge Companion to Big History. Routledge Taylor and Francis
- Brown, Cynthia Stokes (2007). Big History: From the Big Bang to the present. New York: The New Press.
- Chaisson, Eric (2006). Epic of Evolution: Seven ages of the cosmos. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Christian, David (2004). Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Christian, David; Craig Benjamin, and Cynthia Brown. (2014) Big History: Between Nothing and Everything. McGraw-Hill Education.
- Gustafson, Lowell, Barry Rodrigue, David Blanks, co-editors. (2022) Science, Religion and Deep Time. Routledge Taylor and Francis.
- Rodrigue, Barry, Leonid Grinin, Andrey Korotayev, co-editors, From Big Bang to Galactic Civilizations: A Big History Anthology. Delhi: Primus Books, 2015–2016. Three-volumes, series ISBN: 978-93- 84082-45- 1.
- Volume I, Our Place in the Universe: An Introduction to Big History. Delhi: Primus Books, 2015. ISBN 978-93- 84082-45- 1
- Volume II, Education and Understanding: Big History around the World. Delhi: Primus Books, 2016. ISBN 978-93- 84082-73- 4.
- Volume III, The Ways that Big History Works: Cosmos, Life, Society, and our Future. Delhi: Primus Books, 2016. ISBN 978-93- 84082-74- 1
- Spier, Fred (2015). Big History and the Future of Humanity, Second Edition. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K., Malden, MA, Wiley-Blackwell.
- Volk, Tyler (2017). Quarks to Culture: How We Came to Be, New York, Columbia University Press.