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  • The Ends of History
  • Matthew A. Taylor (bio)

Whatever human history was, it’s past. This, Dipesh Chakrabarty has suggested, is the legacy of the Anthropocene, the current era in which human-produced mass extinctions, deforestations, pollutions, and escalating temperatures combine to make us “a geological force” on earth, capable for the first time of impacting the planet not only locally but globally (“Postcolonial Studies” 2). In the Anthropocene, that is, “the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history” no longer holds, eclipsed by the ascent of a new, hybrid world order (“Climate” 201). Gone is the notion that humanity is defined in opposition to, or even apart from, its terrestrial environment, gone the assumption that we neither affect nor are affected by the world. In their place, the unified history—the common fire, the shared penumbra—of climate change.

To fathom the full implications of the crisis, however, Chakrabarty argues that we must plumb beneath the Anthropocene’s origins in the industrial revolution and into the evolutionary “deep history of humanity . . . as part of the history of life on this planet” (“Climate” 213). Such a detour into “Big History”—the interdisciplinary subfield of academic historiography that studies everything from “the Big Bang to the Present” (in Cynthia Stokes Brown’s terms)—allows us to see how “different life-forms connect to one another” (Chakrabarty, “Climate” 217) and, consequently, how we, too, are “a species dependent on other species for [our] own existence” (219).1 It thus illuminates, at a scale commensurate with the stakes, the existential threat to the “conditions” of human and nonhuman life that climate change represents (217). Crucially, though, it also conceptualizes an “us” potentially capable of meeting this threat. By articulating a “knowledge of humans as a species” (219), Big History gestures toward “a figure of the universal” (222) that, [End Page 944] while never independent of the politics of race, gender, class, religion, and nation, insists on the necessity of unified, collective action to save the future. Species messianism: only we can save us from ourselves. This is the end—which is to say the purpose as well as the convergence of the two ends, past and future—of Chakrabarty’s history.

The problem, as Chakrabarty acknowledges, is that “[w]e humans never experience ourselves as a species” and “can never understand this universal,” at least within the individualist and rationalist modes of traditional “[h]umanist histories” (220, 221–22). What, then, are “we”—and what are we to do? Although Chakrabarty’s explicit answer is that “we” are—and are responsible to—a dialectic of universalist species-thinking and a “postcolonial suspicion of the universal,” this begs the question of how “we” come to be in the first place (219). Elsewhere, however, he implies that the “inchoate figures of us all” that “haunt our sense of the current crisis” are “imaginings”—aesthetic and affective “sense[s]” of “a shared . . . catastrophe” rather than ontological essences (221, 222; my emphasis). Put another way, “we” are a (hi)story that we tell ourselves, and global warming is the present occasion—or temperature—of our telling. Big History, often described by its proponents as a “modern creation myth” (Christian 2), can contribute to this fabrication of an ethical planetarity, but so, too, can nonacademic and even fictional narratives.2 Hence Chakrabarty’s opening and closing references in “The Climate of History” to Alan Weisman’s The World without Us (2007), a work of what might be called speculative nonfiction that imagines the fate of human artifacts over time after we suddenly disappear from the earth. And from here it’s not far to the scientific-cum-science-fictional big histories of the early twentieth century, in which authors such as H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon uncannily anticipate Chakrabarty by offering million- or billion-year narratives of cosmic and biological evolution as a means of unifying humanity against its divisive, self-destructive trajectories (often embodied by the prospect of world war): “the essential task . . . is to bring to the minds of all men everywhere, as a necessary basis for world co-operation, a new telling and interpretation, a common interpretation, of history” (Wells, Outline...


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