Big History and Deep Time: Humans & the Environment

From the scope of big history and deep time, the environment has fundamentally shaped the development of humans, however it is people that have significantly altered the planet in to its current state. A study of environmental history has shown that humans have either on purpose or inadvertently transformed the environment, ecosystems and natural processes of planet earth. In the relatively short span of time that humans have been active on Earth compared to the age of the planet, they have dramatically reshaped its environment by their actions. This essay will argue that regarding the origins of the planet and of life, it was the changing environment on Earth that shaped the development of humans and not vice versa. However, since the dawn of humans, they have transformed the environment more than the environment has changed them. This is evident in the human endeavours of agriculture as well as industrialisation. Furthermore, humans have clearly transformed the planet as seen by the dire repercussions of anthropogenic behaviour upon the state of the climate and its impact on the future of life on Earth. From these studies, we see that while the planet has certainly impacted humans, it is these same actors that have even more significantly transformed the planet.

Origins of Earth and Life

The origins of earth and of life shaped the eventual development of humans. The earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old, and the vast majority of its history occurred before humans even existed.[1] For example, homo sapiens only appeared roughly 200,000 years ago,[2] which is a slight fraction of the age of the planet. The environment shaped people before they existed by creating the processes so fundamental and basic to humans that it is rarely recognised or even noticed. For example, the tilt of the earth is responsible for stable seasons and climatic conditions that encouraged life to emerge.[3] Additionally, the ocean’s tides, caused by the moon, has significant impacts such as day length and factors like wet or dry zones.[4] Such a structure would eventually spur life to emerge on both sea and land. Likewise, chemical differentiation allowed for the eventual geological layered structure of the earth, upon which all life on earth occurs.[5] This led to tectonic plates and continental drift which causes natural phenomena like earthquakes and volcanoes. All of which impact human life today.  Further to this was the development of weather patterns, with systems such as El Niño causing a profound impact on human agriculture and survival in the modern era.

Another major way the earth eventually shaped humans is by its creation of the atmosphere. The chemical makeup of the earth and its atmosphere allowed for the formation of the initial building blocks of life, as explored in the Miller and Urey experiment.[6] It was only within this oxygenated environment that humans would be able to operate in and modify. From processes such as photosynthesis, the earth’s chemical composition was altered to create conditions favourable for more complex life. This life developed through evolution to create the modern homo sapien.[7] As will be discussed later, these forces of nature would one day utilise the fossil fuels and carbon resources that were trapped in the earth many millennia beforehand to transform the planet. In this way, the early earth was the originator of elements that would help humans hundreds of millions of years later to alter the environment. Such ancient processes provided an environment that allowed humans to one-day advance and become a more impactful actor on earth.

Overall, all human activity on the planet could only occur upon the backdrop of how the planet and life was created. People could only transform what was already naturally created in the billions of years before they existed. Therefore, in this way the planet has shaped the development of humans, but it would in the future create conditions for humans to change the world.

Agriculture and Industrialisation

The human venture of agriculture transformed the planet. Human activity changed the environment and ecosystems of the world, and in turn this also affected how humans themselves lived too. The planet impacted humans in the Holocene epoch by its changes to the climate. This interglacial period (starting about 11,600 years ago) saw temperatures rise, increased rainfall, lower sea levels, and the emergence of stable and temperate conditions.[8] These radical changes let vegetation zones expand and agriculture eventually be adopted.[9] Under the backdrop of these favourable environmental conditions, humans took advantage to move beyond simple hunter gatherer techniques towards the establishment and management of an artificial ecosystem.[10]

Through agricultural processes such as domestication and cultivation, people transformed the world. For example, domestication led to artificial selection in favour of particular plant and animal species. This included choosing cereal grains with better properties (such as being tougher or larger) and selecting animal species to farm (such as sheep or chicken).[11] In the process this eliminated unwanted types of flora and fauna, and altered the characteristics of domesticated species overall.[12] Some of these species could no longer survive in the wild without human intervention.[13] What was once wild was made tame.

Likewise, large scale deforestation and the clearing of land for farming purposes greatly transformed the land from its natural state, to a human modified one. Irrigation required the further manipulation of ecosystems. This impact on the environment is obvious because for example, deforestation and rice irrigation from the mid-Holocene reversed the decreasing trend of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere and may have delayed the onset of the next ice age.[14]

However, the change made by humans to the environment saw the environment changed them too. Their symbiotic relationship meant that a change in one equated to a change in the other. This is because humans are natural actors that cannot be separated from the environment in which they exist. Due to the predictability of food source, agriculture led to a more sedentary life for humans. Sedentism saw humans adapt (perhaps through natural selection) their teeth structure, improve fertility rates, and develop smaller bodies and lactose tolerance.[15] This saw a large increase in population. It also led to increased diseases and mortality rates. Additionally, sedentism increased social complexity and culture, thereby advancing the human race.

Industrialisation also transformed the planet. Huge man-made production centres and factories littered regions of the world. New manufacturing processes developed in the late 18th Century was driven by the large scale exploitation of fossil fuels. These were extracted from millions of years old stores of coal, oil and gas already in the planet. Humans transformed the planet by mining them, and this industrial society used about four times as much energy as agrarian ones did.[16] As a result of industrialisation and increased worldwide travel and trade, there were several dramatic environmental effects. Pollution skyrocketed, carbon dioxide levels shot up, and over-exploitation of the natural environment sent many plant and animal species to the brink of extinction. For example, revolutionary agricultural methods and action such as overfishing damaged the environment. This demonstrated a clear historical relationship between human and earth, and how they are undoubtedly entangled in their development. Furthermore, the initiation of largescale industrial processes has culminated in anthropogenic global warming and climate change.

Climate Change

Climate change is a man-made phenomenon that is altering the planet’s environment on a grand scale. Anthropogenic action such as intense agriculture and the further exploitation of natural resources (for example fossil fuels), has led to the dramatic increase in greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This leads to global warming which leads to climate change. Since the industrial revolution, CO2 levels in the atmosphere have risen by about 38 percent and is at the highest level in over three million years, at over 400 parts per million.[17] This is foreign to human history.[18] The rate of warming is accelerating, and has increased 1.1 degrees Celsius since the late 19th Century.[19] Here there is a clear sequence of cause and effect whereby human action directly correlates to a transformation of the natural planet. Anthropogenic global warming has led to acidification of the ocean (which impacts food resources), has melted the ice in the poles (which increases sea levels), changes ocean current flows, and creates fiercer natural disasters (such as cyclones and bushfires). Here the dynamic man has with nature is palpable.

From the planet’s side, global warming and climate change also affects the way humans live. An increased average temperature creates challenges for food production, resource shortages (such as water) and habitable zones. The changing environment has become such an issue that human societies are now starting to value sustainability and a transition to clean energy as vital to the future survival of the world. It has dawned to humans that they are not merely passive observers of the environment, but rather wield enough power to profoundly modify nature.[20] To repair their relationship with the planet, long term objectives will need to trump short term priorities. Human induced climate change has demonstrated the impact of the interrelation between man and the development of the planet. It shows the clear links between them across deep time.

Conclusion

The interconnecting relationship between planet and human is clear. On a foundational level, the planet developed humans by creating the basic processes of the earth and of life. However, as elements such as agriculture and industrialisation were introduced, the impact people had on transforming the planet was tremendous. And because their environment changed, human society also changed with it. Modern anthropogenic climate change is undeniable evidence of the species’ effect on the world. Such a large-scale transformation is unparalleled by any other creature on earth. The discussed topics indicate that overall, the more humans impact the environment the more the environment impacts them. The fate of humans is bound to the outcome of how they alter the planet.

Bibliography

Christian, David., Cynthia Brown, and Craig Benjamin. “The Emergence of the Sun, the Solar System and the Earth”, in Big History: Between Nothing and Everything, New York, NY: McGraw Hill Education (2014): pp. 33-53.

Christian, David. “Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution” in Maps of time: an introduction to Big History. University of California Press (2004): pp. 79-105.

“Climate Change: How do we know?” climate.nasa.gov. Accessed 20th October, 2017. https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/ 

“Global Warming.” Earth Observatory. Accessed 20th October, 2017. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/GlobalWarming/page2.php

Griffiths, Tom. “Weather and Mind Games: Why Can’t We Talk about Climate Change?” Griffith Review, no. 41 (2013): p247.

Lewis, Simon L, and Mark A Maslin. “Defining the Anthropocene.” Nature 519, 7542 (2015): p178.

McNeill, John Robert and William Hardy McNeill. The Human Web: A Bird’s-eye View of World History. New York, W.W. Norton & Company (2003): pp. 9-24.

Scarre, Chris. “The World Transformed”, in Chris Scarre ed, The Human Past, London: Thames and Hudson (2013): pp. 177-198.

Steffen, Will., Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill. “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” Ambio 36, 8 (2007): pp. 614-21.

Wood, Bernard, and Brian G. Richmond. “Human Evolution: Taxonomy and Paleobiology.” Journal of Anatomy 197, 1 (2000): p51.


[1] David Christian, Cynthia Brown, and Craig Benjamin. “The Emergence of the Sun, the Solar System and the Earth”, in Big History: Between Nothing and Everything, New York, NY: McGraw Hill Education (2014): 36.

[2] John Robert McNeill and William Hardy McNeill. The Human Web: A Bird’s-eye View of World History. New York, W.W. Norton & Company (2003): 9.

[3] Christian, Brown and Benjamin, “The Emergence of the Sun, the Solar System and the Earth,” 40.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Christian, Brown and Benjamin, “The Emergence of the Sun, the Solar System and the Earth,” 42.

[6] David Christian. “Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution” in Maps of time: an introduction to Big History. University of California Press (2004): 96.

[7] Christian. “Origins of Life and the Theory of Evolution,” 83.

[8] Chris Scarre. “The World Transformed”, in Chris Scarre ed, The Human Past, London: Thames and Hudson (2013): 177.

[9] Scarre, “The World Transformed,” 183.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Scarre, “The World Transformed,” 185.

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill. “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” Ambio 36, 8 (2007): 615.

[15] Bernard Wood and Brian G. Richmond. “Human Evolution: Taxonomy and Paleobiology.” Journal of Anatomy 197, 1 (2000): p51.

[16] Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill. “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” 616.

[17] “Global Warming.” Earth Observatory. Accessed 20th October, 2017. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/GlobalWarming/page2.php

[18] Tom Griffiths. “Weather and Mind Games: Why Can’t We Talk about Climate Change?” Griffith Review, no. 41 (2013): p247.

[19] “Climate Change: How do we know?” climate.nasa.gov. Accessed 20th October, 2017. https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/ 

[20] Simon L Lewis and Mark A Maslin. “Defining the Anthropocene.” Nature 519, 7542 (2015): p178.