It is no longer news that historians also dare to look at the really long periods of time. In addition to life guides and recommendations for bringing up children, the bestseller shelves have for years usually also included a “brief history of mankind” or something to answer the question “what holds history together at its core” – on less than 160 pages, of course. Expressions of praise or contempt – depending on what you think of books of this sort – are best sent to historian David Christian, who pioneered the genre more than 30 years ago Big history brought into being. Now he wants to do pioneering work again: “The next 100, 1000 and 1 billion years” is the subtitle of his new book. Can he solve the mystery of human future?
At the beginning, Christian says that it was a gifted student who brought him to the topic: “After you have looked at fourteen billion years, you cannot possibly ignore the next hundred years or so.” What a cliffhanger! As if an exciting series would simply break off at the climax. The general demand for “orientation aids” was the deciding factor for Christian – he wants to satisfy it with “thinking about the future”.
Planning for the future is not an exclusive human achievement
The strength of Big History lies in building bridges between the natural and social sciences. The Big Future outlined here also succeeds in this: Because planning for the future is not an exclusive human achievement – it is rather a basic ability of all living beings. “Even the simplest organism can distinguish between a good and a bad future”, yes, if one allows Christian this metaphor, one could even say that each cell has its own utopia, an idea of its successful self-preservation in the future, although neither this idea nor this future are “real” in a sense that can be experienced.
But our fellow creatures are not dreamy utopians. In addition to a quasi-confident goal, they are equipped with devices that allow them to register current trends in their environment in order to be able to act appropriately. “Protein sensors keep the cell informed of the success of the ongoing hunt for aspartate and other nutrients; protein networks assess how things are going, while the changing composition and shape of these proteins determine how the cell should behave.” As you read, you wish that human organizations could also function so efficiently.
The comparison with the future thinking of the cells, plants and animals sets the framework to get to the bottom of the human prognostic abilities. According to Christian, a dynamic begins with Homo sapiens that is unknown to biological time contours: Because even if man owes his first images of the future to the rhythmic cycles of nature, he also developed an increasing awareness of his inner, psychological future and – still more important – an idea more social Courses of time, that is: an idea of historicity.
The book holds four futures for the next hundred years
This step was taken particularly in the agricultural age. The empires and empires of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and Europe were formidable future managers. With the establishment of a centralized rule over many millions of people who were subject to a unified legal system, which in some cases was able to defend itself against collapse for millennia, the future had moved into the common sphere of human activity for the first time. Christian describes this change on the basis of divinatory practice: over time, oracles and prophets have become more and more “this-worldly”, in some cases they were placed directly under the supervision of the rulers. They were mostly no longer concerned with divinely revealed “information about the future”, but “with an attempt to manage the future or to show that one had power over it”.
After passages like these one actually expects the big, elegant leap into modernity. How did the enlightened philosophy of progress change our thinking about the future? Which utopian spaces has technology uncovered (or leveled)? How could the originally Western European-American dream of an open future horizon spread across the globe? Unfortunately, Christian has no intuition for such questions. This is also unfortunate because his previous research focus, the history of the Russian peasantry during the great modernization movements of the 20th century, could have provided sufficient material. It seems as if the author were also looking at the immediate prehistory of our present with the coarse eyes of Big History – when we are much better and more intelligently informed about it.
With reservations, but still hope, one turns to the last chapter, which promises a real sensation: “Imagining futures”. Christian wants to work in the field of forecasting, which is unpopular among historians; describe the near, middle and distant future of man in the form of plausible scenarios. So what awaits us?
For the next 100 years, the book provides four futures that unoriginally cover everything imaginable from “bad”, through “okay” and “quite good” to “great”. Maybe climate change will ruin us, maybe we can control it, but only through an authoritarian “downsizing” of our consumption, maybe we’ll live on quite properly, just sustainably, and quite maybe super geniuses like Elon Musk will lead us to the golden age without any major problems Future. There’s something for everyone.
“Easier to imagine are technological trends”
Christian then considers the next thousand years to be unpredictable when it comes to political issues. “Technological trends are easier to imagine”: New energy conversion methods, especially those that can use much larger amounts of sunlight, promise unimagined possibilities, nanotechnology will still surprise us, artificial intelligence anyway – one lucky day we might be able to optimize our bodies so far that we become real cyborgs.
It has absolutely nothing to do with Christian’s writing style or the successful translation by Hainer Kober that scenarios like this are viewed with indifference. A Mars colony? – If it has to be. A robot army? – All right. USB ports in our brain? – Because of me. No matter how distant and implausible the future may be, the book reads it away. Because the imagined scenarios are similar, despite all the craziness, in a certain respect: In 1000 years, so the author promises, we will have even better technology that will take us even higher and even further, but the political is always and everywhere reduced to the activity of “planetary manager”. Not to mention advances and discoveries of the spirit, of thought, of the arts, of morality. Nothing is happening here anymore – or at least nothing that the author considers worth reporting.
Has the end of the story really come to this? Is technology really man’s ultimate destiny? Is there nothing more to see and hope for? – So one would like to ask back to the book. On the last pages, Christian describes the destruction of our solar system in around five billion years with some drama. But if one believes the author that the horizon of the human species has actually already been measured, one accepts this announcement with composure. Or was that really the point?