Want to Change the World? Study Deep History

Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it.  We’ve all heard this adage and many among us take to heart the wisdom of looking backward as a vital practice for understanding the future.  As a student of global systems, I’ve followed the rabbit deep down its dark hole on more than one occasion.  And I’ve always come back to the surface better able to navigate the terrain with the perspectives gained by doing so.

But what of deep history?  Why must we understand the origins of the universe, evolution of stars and planets, and geologic forces in order to grapple with contemporary social issues?  The answer — to be succinct — is that only such a broad backdrop will reveal the landscape for potential action today.

We must understand how complexity arises from simplicity if we are to build resilience into the fabric of our world.  Resilience itself is a form of complexity and cannot emerge through intended design without knowledge of the fundamentals.  Similarly, we must be mindful of the systems at play in shaping how human communities arose and which historic problems our biological evolution solved in order to keep us robust as a viable species selected for survival.  This is how we will know which physical and cultural environments are best suited to sustaining our existence in this rapidly changing world.

This point runs especially deep now as we grapple with the first attempt to live within our means as we reach planetary limits on vital resources like water, land, food, and energy.  Only when we dig deep into hominid history will our true nature be revealed.  And it is vital that our knowledge be tested systematically with rigor (and an eye toward overcoming our own internal biases) if we are to manage the transition from an epoch of economic growth spanning more than 10,000 years (stemming from the birth of agriculture) to one of dynamic equilibrium that spirals around a sustainable mean in perpetuity for countless generations to come.

So what IS deep history?

Deep History is the study of root causes and primary origins.  It is the unravelling of layers throughout time that reveal vital transitions in structure and flow.  And it is the perspective of striving for holistic integration of knowledge.

A sampling of topics explored by researchers of deep history includes:

  • How life sprang forth onto the cosmological stage and what the likelihood is that it emerged more than once;
  • Why our planetary climate remains buffered within a relatively narrow set of boundaries across the history of the Earth, along with the implications of human-caused climate disruption for threatening all life on our fragile planet;
  • Where humanity sits in the grand scheme of living things in the universe;
  • How stellar explosions made possible the organic chemistry of living systems;
  • How cultural, religious, and political systems arose from innate potential in the human species that stands unique in the animal kingdom;
  • Whether humans have the capability to deploy cultural evolution in order to overcome biological tendencies to deplete resources and threaten long-term residency in damaged ecosystems.

All of these questions have now been partially answered.  Yet more synthesis and integration is required before we know enough to say whether sustainability is truly a viable option for our species.  And this is why we need MANY MORE people grappling with deep history.  There is much work to be done and time is of the essence.

I’ve already set firmly on this path of inquiry and am now more than 15 years in.  It became evident to me that studying the sciences of the Earth would be vital, so I soaked up all I could learn in my graduate program in atmospheric sciences.  And all of my emphasis on cognitive science and social systems is part of the weaving process of integration necessary before it is even possible to suggest that an answer to the sustainability question exists.

So what are you doing to contribute?  Have you got a piece of the puzzle that needs to be shared?  Let’s work together to create the foundation we’ll need to build a bridge to sustainability.  This is what my call for a new field — Human Interface Design for Global Systems — is all about.  The work of putting the puzzle together must now be done.

I am looking for strategic partners, fiscal sponsors, and organizational hosts to share in the work that must be done.  Together, we can answer ultimate questions and map out the path to a thriving world.  On our own, we will remain divided and impotent against the giant forces shaping our future world.

So what do you say?  Are you with me?

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.