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Krakatoa and global thinking

A few passages from Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded that I was especially riveted by, I think because they are so relevant to the changes we are making in the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History. Simon Winchester has written an astonishing, original kind of world history here – in fact, it might be called a book of big history.

[Page 106]. . . when plate tectonics came along, it was realized that geology had been spending its previous two millennia as a major science looking in great detail at sandstones, gneisses, rift valleys, and ammonites—but had never been able to stand back and look at the planet as a whole and then to work out the details, as happens with most sciences where man is generally bigger than whatever it is he is studying.

Plate tectonics offered for the first time an intellectual mechanism for taking the earth and looking at it as an entity—and the fact that its emergence as a brand-new science coincided so nicely with the development of satellites that could look at the planet as a whole as fortuitous, to say the least. One might say that all this meant that, for the first time, geologists were able to begin looking at things right side up.

[Page 269]. . . here was one of the first provable instances in which a natural event occurring in one corner of the planet had effects that spread over the entire world (or what would be the entire world, if further records could be sought from the Americas and Asia and elsewhere, for they would show the same evidence). Here was the event that presaged all the debates that continue to this day: about global warming, greenhouse gases, acid rain, ecological interdependence. Few in Victorian times had begun to think truly globally—even though exploration was proceeding apace, the previously unknown interiors of continents were being opened for inspection, and the developing telegraph system, allowing people to communicate globally, was having its effects. Krakatoa, however, began to change all that.

The world was now suddenly seen to be much more than an immense collection of unrelated peoples and isolated happenings. It was, rather, an almost infinitely large association of interconnected individuals and perpetually intersecting events. Krakatoa, an evened that intersected so much and affected so many, seemed all of a sudden to be an example of this newly recognized phenomenon. And so it was up to a British scientific society—most decidedly a British one, given the imperial mood of the day, like it or not—to investigate it.

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