A major barrier to effective international action is skepticism about climate change in the United States, the richest and most powerful country in the world, and the country with the largest scientific establishment and the largest number of Nobel Prize winners. This skepticism baffles many. It is true that powerful interests have conducted a well-funded and skillfully managed campaign of disinformation, efficiently exploiting every loophole or ambiguity in the discussions about climate change. But their success also depends on ignorance—on the fact that not enough people have enough understanding of the science to see through bad arguments.
Do we need more science education? Not necessarily, because understanding environmental issues requires some familiarity with the social sciences and humanities as well as the natural sciences: it requires a global perspective and also a sense of how the environment changes at many different timescales. Such perspectives lie at the heart of a new approach to education known as big history.
Like all origin stories, big history uses the best available knowledge to construct an evolutionary map of the entire universe, onto which individuals and societies can map themselves. Such stories empower students intellectually by giving them an overview within which they can situate themselves, their home communities, and everything they know. Origin stories offer a view from the mountaintop: that view may lack detail, but it shows how different landscapes fit together, and that perspective can transform how you see your home landscapes. Their absence from modern education is anomalous and disastrous, because it leaves students without compass or sketch map in the vast tsunami of information available on the Internet.
Big history courses will be particularly valuable in informing students about the global challenges that the planet faces. Three aspects of big history are particularly relevant: (1) big history studies the past at multiple scales; (2) it teaches interdisciplinarity by leading students seamlessly from cosmology to geology to biology and human history; and (3) big history is global and holistic, so it can help students see humanity as a global species facing global problems requiring global solutions. Each of these perspectives can contribute powerfully to environmental understanding.
David Christian, Macquarie University; WCU Professor, Ewha Womans University, Seoul
This article is adapted from an article that originally appeared in March of 2012 in Volume 3, Issue 3 of the online journal Solutions.