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34 Historically Speaking · May/June 2005 multiplicity ofseminal elements, so that what we once called the Urban Revolution and the Industrial Revolution should be seen as components of much larger transitions in the human context, and certainly cannot be understood in terms of events unfolding in narrow geographical areas such as the Near East or northwestern Europe. Despite obvious differences in the nature and intensity of the three radical transmutations in the human condition—the advent of Homo sapiens sapiens, the origins of complex societies, and the global integration of the contemporary world—they were remarkably similar in certain fundamental respects. All three coincided with periods of unusual technological innovation that substantially altered how people related to their physical and social environments, and that supported bursts ofrapid population growth by increasing , at least comparatively speaking, the carrying capacity ofthe planet. They all brought discernible breaks with existing cultural patterns and introduced modifications in the organization ofsocieties that affected virtually every facet of human existence. By dramatically expanding the base of exploitable resources, most especially the energy extracted from the environment, these tremendous watersheds spawned true economic revolutions , the first resting on refined tool making, the second on agriculture and animal husbandry , and the third on the spread of industrialism . In all three, certain overriding patterns reached some kind of culmination while others were starting to germinate. And all three were genuinely global, not necessarily in the sense that societies around the world were in persistent interaction with one another , although that has clearly been happening in recent centuries, but in the sense that parallel responses to similar challenges were taking place in many parts of the world at approximately the same time. Viewed in terms of these basic similarities, the three great milestones in the human adaptation to life on our planet can serve as pivotal turningpoints in an analytical framework capable of integrating the broad outlines of humanity's total past into a single, overarching interpretation . "That may be so," you are probably saying to yourself, "but I still do not understand why he pursues this matter." Big history obviously runs counter to nearly everything the academy has become since World War II. At best, big history must be extremely difficult to implement well. When studied by a single scholar, it looks nearly impossible. My response to this understandable reaction operates at two distinct but interdependent levels: the personal and the professional. With regard to the personal, I admit that I have had a propensity for big history all along. When I made a commitment to the discipline while still a junior in high school, I immediately read H. G Wells's Outline ofHistory cover to cover and was enthralled by the sweep of Wells's vision. Without realizing it at the time, my inherent interest in big history was subsequently reinforced by exposure to William H. McNeill in graduate school. Since the completion of my formal training more than thirty years ago, I have continued to read and think very broadly despite pressures to specialize. Hence, I have been preparing literally for decades to engage in the teaching and writing of big history. To those who argue that big history is simply too far out of line with present practice to be viable, I reply that precedents do exist (as the work of the selfadmitted non-professional H. G Wells reminds us), and different groups of serious scholars have been pursuing similar agendas by organizing professional organizations such as the World History Association or delineating unique fields of study such as Bruce Mazlish's "new global history." In recent years, the Organization of American Historians has reflected the impact of these efforts by attempting to internationalize the history ofthe United States. For me, the personal and the professional merge in the conviction that our times cry out for the perspectives of big history and in the sense that this enterprise may help us forge what William H. McNeill has termed myth-history, a mythhistory fully appropriate for whatever the 21st century may hold in store. John A. Mears, associateprofessor of history at Southern Methodist University, is aformerpresident ofthe World History Association. He is currently working on a book...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 34-38
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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