This short, partly biographical text was written for the February 2021 Newsletter of the IBHA (International Big History Association). IBHA publishes monthly something on how Big History is practiced around the globe, and this is my contribution.
Big History comes in many forms. It is a processual view of reality that stems, in important part, from the realisation of the limits of the Earth and of the human capacity to shape the planet.
Global problems were widely discussed already in the 1970s when I was a teenager. At the time of the rise of the Green movement and a sense of imminent threat of a nuclear annihilation during the Second Cold War in the 1980s, I shifted from studying physics to economics, philosophy and social sciences, seeing the latter more acutely important for humanity’s immediate concerns.
I gravitated toward a non-reductionist realist philosophy theorising things in terms of the historical processes of their formation out of ‘simpler’ things. Emergence in this sense means that higher-order principles such as those constituting our mental processes cannot be completely explained in terms of lower-order ones. Critical realism involves a theory of emancipation, including the idea that the tendential rational directionality of history is towards an increasing collective self-determination on this planet and perhaps way beyond it.
What this kind of emancipation means is that the future may come to be increasingly co-determined by our normative discourse about its desirability. However, any concrete manifestation of global democracy can only be one end-point within the open totality of the world as becoming.
In the process of developing these kinds of ideas and applying them in various contexts, especially in global political economy, I learnt about Big History and its predecessors – such as H.G.Wells, who wrote in 1920 that “in the last few hundred years there has been an extraordinary enlargement of men’s ideas about the visible universe in which they live… they have learnt that they are items in a whole far vaster, more enduring and more wonderful than their ancestors ever dreamed or suspected”. I returned to exploring cosmology in order to understand the wider context and meaning of human history, with the Wellsian motto in mind: world history is just about to start.
Meanwhile, it was becoming increasingly obvious that since the 1980s human freedom has been decreasing rather than increasing. Closely associated with the process of economic globalization and further expansive though uneven and crisis-ridden growth, we have been living through an era of new subjugation to the demands of commodity production and profit-making. Now we are seeing various, often-regressive responses to the consequences of this process.
In democratic (or at least pluralist) societies, there are hegemonic struggles over constitutive myths, shaping both our explanatory stories about the past and scenarios about possible futures. My cosmological explorations indicated that a particular version of Big History constitutes the basic mythologem of contemporary liberal-capitalist societies. Therefore, what is equally important is the particular version of Big History story that we are telling.
Although much of my teaching and research focusses on global political economy (for context, see https://www.helsinki.fi/en/networks/global-political-economy), these deeper questions motivate many of my endeavours from teaching advanced level theory and methodology to civic activism and attempts to develop further the idea of world political party (see e.g. https://greattransition.org/publication/world-political-party).
The idea of world political parties is especially striking. In our troubled world, the need for global transformative agency is greater than ever. The future is not settled, and our path depends on the choices we make. Our expectations become a feedback loop in the making of the future. Pessimists argue that a series of limited-scale crises or wars – or a full global catastrophe – must erupt before a significant force can coalesce for rational, peaceful, and democratic transformations of global governance. However likely that view, we cannot stand passively by until crises explode. If and when a window of opportunity opens, the capacity for such action must already have been established. Forming a world party will be an important step in the process of developing our collective capacity for self-determination.