Wolf Schäfer, 1993. "Global History: Historiographical Feasibility and Environmental Reality."

II. Environmental Reality

The list of global realities is as profuse as it is confusing. It jumps from global economy and global ecology to global politics and global pollution, from global tourism and global terrorism to global communication and global diseases, from global warming and global social movements to global science and global technologies. No doubt, the preferred adjective of the current Zeitgeist is "global." It crops up in everything, even in history. Leaving nothing out, the global perspective lives up to its name and generates more noise than information. We are inundated by global issues and swim around in global waters — but what is it exactly that we are swimming in and talking about?

I assume that our planet is the point of reference when we speak about global realities. The entire physical globe serves as the standard or benchmark by which the production of global realities is measured. Everything below this mark is nonglobal. We can say that global realities are produced by multiple local activities with worldwide range, consequence, and/or significance. Accordingly, the term globalization can be understood to indicate the spreading and interpenetration of multiple local activities with worldwide range, consequence, and/or significance.

For example, Mitsubishi Corporation, which has "13,629 employees working in 232 offices around the world, who send in more than 30,000 pieces of information every day,"[1] is engaged in numerous local activities of the defined kind; it coproduces the global economy and contributes to the globalization of trade. Electronic scholars who have instant access to libraries and databases all over the world fit our definition as well. They can add their terminals to terminals everywhere via their local electronic networks and join electronic discussion groups (e-mail lists) in their fields of interest.[2] They take part in an activity that coproduces the emerging global culture of ubiquitous information, babble, and discourse.

To order our heterogeneous list of global realities, we start again with the planet itself. Global warming and pollution are realities that pertain to the whole earth. They globalize myriads of local activities that impinge on our natural habitat. It seems appropriate to collect them in a folder named global environment. Global communication, modern science, and high technologies, however, belong to another group. They globalize advanced Baconian activities and create an artificial environment populated with the realities of a virtual or second nature. I propose to place them in a category termed global technoscience. Global economy, politics, terrorism, tourism, and so on, form a third cluster of realities. They globalize an expanding variety of socioeconomic, sociopolitical, and sociocultural activities[3] that constitute critical elements of what might be called the first global civilization. So, for the time being, we venture to say that cascades of local activities with worldwide range, consequence, and/or significance produce a cluster of socially linked realities: a global environment, a global technoscience, and a global civilization.

As a hypothesis, we might suggest that global history will have to reconstruct the emergence and present character of these activities and study their evolution, interplay, and cross-fertilization. This, however, is not a task for one worker but for scores of social scientists cum historians, research teams, and institutes. I continue, therefore, with a discussion of the global environment, our most obvious global reality to date.

Tender loving care for the global environment has become the currency of political rhetoric in the late twentieth century. "If we don't address the issue of global ecology, we won't have to worry about the other issues," declared the president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, in a full-page advertisement in the New York Times recently. He announced that the Mexican government would host the United Nations World Environment Day on June 5, 1990, and that "a minimum of five million trees [would] be planted throughout Mexico" on that very day, "as many as possible planted by children."[4]

The rapid diffusion of environmental concerns in the last twenty years — real or apparent, inspired by political interests in one way or another, and articulated by schoolchildren and world leaders alike — is truly remarkable. The new environmentalism[5] has succeeded in making the health of the global environment a local political issue in many places, including the countries of the former Soviet Union (Hall, 1990). More and more people have come to understand that we have one physical environment only — that our environment is global and that it can be ruined. This knowledge was produced and is sustained by four multiple local activities with worldwide range, namely, (1) the unveiling, (2) the changing, (3) the monitoring, and (4) the interpretation of the face of the earth.

First, the unveiling of the face of the earth by human exploration revealed the physical particularities and gestalt of planet earth. Geographical discovery began long ago, but quite a bit of the unveiling occurred rather recently. The empirical rounding of the earth's imagined corners took all the 4,000 years from King Sargon of Akkad (ca. 2340 B.C.), who ruled over the four corners of a relatively small and flat world, to Louis XIV (1643-1715), who reigned over a much larger and rounder world — yet under a Catholic sun that was still circling around Aristotle.

Until lately, the world oscillated between spherical and flat, was walled in by forbidding oceans, and was severely limited by supposedly uninhabitable, fiery or icy hinterlands. Most ancient and medieval navigation was coastal. However, the horizons widened after Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), and "by the year 1600 the surface of the known earth was doubled" (Sarton, 1957: 5). George Sarton, the polyhistor of science, noted how recent the unveiling of the face of the earth, in fact, was:

One of the most remarkable achievements of the beginning of the twentieth century was the tectonic synthesis of the Austrian geologist, Edward Suess (1831-1914), in Das Antlitz der Erde. This was an elaborate survey of the "face of the earth," the whole earth, a description of all the irregularities of its crust, the mountains, the seas and lakes, the valleys, the river beds and deltas — an attempt to explain the deformations and foldings which led to the earth's present appearance… It is hard to realize that in the middle of the fifteenth century, at the time when the Renaissance is supposed to begin, man's knowledge of the "face of the earth" was still restricted to a very small portion of it, and even in that portion was very superficial. One of the great tasks to be accomplished was the discovery of the earth (1957: 4f.).

This discovery was completed, I would add, when Johannes Kepler's "dream" came true in the late 1960s and human eyes looked up from the moon to see the earth in the sky.[6] "Earthrise" — the sublime Copernican spectacle of the earth rising above the rim of the moon — was seen first from lunar orbit by the crew of Apollo 8 in December 1968 and then, in July 1969, by the astronauts of Apollo 11 from a dusty base in the lunar Sea of Tranquility.[7] Neil Armstrong's "giant leap for mankind" — the famous line and actual footstep — made good sense. To gain an overall view of the face of the earth, one had to leap away from it. The observer had to distance himself considerably from the global environment in order to appreciate it fully. We now possess an accurate, as well as highly symbolical, image of our home in space. This image does not represent one country or nation: It is an image of Spaceship Earth, of the "cloud-whorled blue planet," of the "emerald globe in a black sea."

The poetic language underscores the fact that people want to express that they have changed their minds.[8] The age-old struggle of society against nature has lost its relevance and legitimacy (Moscovici, 1976). People today tend to be more interested in maintaining and improving the well-being of their environment than in fighting nature. Society has become more of a challenge than nature. The unveiling of the face of the earth finally captured and dramatized our global interdependency with nature and with all fellow travelers on this planet.[9]

Second, the changing of the face of the earth by modern civilization revealed the ecological vulnerability of the planet. The negative environmental impact of Homo sapiens reached an unprecedented magnitude in the second half of the twentieth century and triggered an equally unprecedented burst of novel knowledge about the global mosaic of ecological systems.[10] The enormous appetite of the industrial way of life for natural resources, combined with a significant increase of environmental degradation turned George Perkins Marsh's warning that the earth might become "an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant"[11] into a close call a hundred years later. The widespread fears of deadly fallout and pollution were most effectively articulated in Rachel Carson's "fable," Silent Spring, in 1962.

The roadsides, once so attractive, were now lined with browned and withered vegetation as though swept by fire. These, too, were silent, deserted by all living things. Even the streams were now lifeless. In the gutters under the eaves and between the shingles of the roofs, a white granular powder still showed a few patches; some weeks before it had fallen like snow upon the roofs and the lawns, the fields and streams. No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.[12]

However, local environmental change with global consequences is not new. The determined use of fire or the agricultural and industrial revolutions were multiple local discoveries and inventions with vast consequences for the global environment. The difference between the mastering of fire or the domestication of plants and animals and, for instance, the development, introduction, and distribution of personal computers is not in range or importance but in diffusion-time. The spread of the Neolithic Revolution across the world took millennia. The Industrial Revolution is still reaching out. Yet the spread of innovations in our time is not only superfast but also inevitably self-conscious and reflexive.[13]

The epoch of global history was introduced by contaminated clouds, drifting with the winds and discharging radioactive ash, hailstones, and rain for days, weeks, and months. Fallout from atmospheric nuclear testing in the first rounds of the escalating nuclear arms race affected the entire earth and not just the United States, the USSR, Britain, or France. It changed the world instantly and — as far as the environment is concerned — for centuries and millennia to come. The graphite core of a nuclear power station has a half-life of 5,700 years (Simmons, 1990: 351, figure 6.2). Sure ways of ultimate disposal for high-level wastes are not known. But the existence of such waste is known, and that makes all the difference between global and preglobal history.

The development of radar in World War II, for example, was a military secret, to be sure, but for the people involved, it was clear from the very beginning that this was an extremely momentous innovation. No retrospective reconstruction by historians of science was needed to establish the importance of radio detecting and ranging (radar). In fact, the Radiation Laboratory at MIT had its own historian of science writing the history of radar as it was being made.[14] As noted before, global history is the history of self-conscious local activities with immediate worldwide range, consequence, and/or significance.

The epoch of global history privileges synchronicity, that is, lateral relations in the present, as much as modernity privileged diachronic progress from the past into the future. The debate about global warming, however, reminds us that there are still time lags between related events, but either they can be anticipated and discussed long before or they tend to become shorter with the advances of technoscientific progress. Immediacy within global history means conscious local activities and expected worldwide results of local activities are linked within the strategic horizon of the present.

Third, the monitoring of the changing face of the earth with scientific instruments, remote sensing by satellites, computer models, and other means of modern science and technology continuously reveals and projects current and approximate future states of the global environment. Worldwide and systematic monitoring of our global environment is a fairly new activity that leads to the production of potentially relevant information.

"Taking The Earth's Pulse," to use Daniel Botkin's phrase (1990: 171), records two sorts of change. There is evidence of both anthropogenic changes (deforestation due to economic activities, for instance) and natural variability (for instance, in the energy output of the sun). If natural and cultural types of change interact, both are linked in one data set. This complicates the tasks of identification and interpretation. The rising concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is such a mixed case. As Figure 1 shows, measurements of carbon dioxide, steadily taken since 1958 on the peak of Mauna Loa, Hawaii, revealed two patterns:

An annual oscillation, with a decline in summer followed by an increase in winter, a periodic pattern as regular as the vibrations of a plucked guitar string; and, imposed on this rising and falling, a steady annual increase like a rising tone. The summer decline is the result of photosynthesis on the land in the Northern Hemisphere [which removes carbon dioxide from the air] ... The increase during the winter is the result of respiration without photosynthesis... Life on the land in its totality touches the slopes of Mauna Loa invisibly, its effects brushed against the black rocks by the winds. Our civilization is part of this invisible touch, reaching the slopes as the continual increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is a result of the burning of fossil fuels and the clearing of land — the destruction of forests and soils and the conversion of their stored organic carbon to carbon dioxide (Botkin, 1990: 172 and 174).

Figure 1   The rising concentration of carbon dioxide. Source: Botkin (1990: 173).

Each word about global history — a breath of carbon dioxide — is faithfully recorded on Mauna Loa as a local contribution to "the totality of the inhalations and exhalations of all the organisms in the Northern Hemisphere" (172). The same global care is inevitably taken with regard to the burning of fossil fuels in the engines of our cars. However, the increase of the annual CO2 concentration from 315.98 parts per million (ppm) in 1959 to 352.91 in 1989 may be "excessive" or just "high"; the recent warming may be "momentous" or "within the limits of natural variability" — climatologists are divided, historians do not know yet, and global historians are not expected to find out.

[Oct. 2001: Now, very few scientists doubt that human action is warming the earth, but there is still much uncertainty about the effects of global warming. The tropospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has risen to 369.40 ppm in 2000.[15] C. D. Keeling and T. P. Whorf from the Carbon Dioxide Research Group at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have summarized the carbon dioxide record from Mauna Loa (1958-2001).]

Climatologists must distinguish between signal and noise; they must respond to the scientific challenge with "improved climate monitoring and reporting."[16] The challenge for global historians lies in the very nature of this response. They bracket the climatologists' problem and study the professional request for more and better global monitoring and reporting. They find themselves situated in a thoroughly reflexive context, registering the activities of global recorders and observing the problems of global observers. They respond to this challenge by adopting the role of global "reflexivity minders."

Global historians keep track of the efforts and struggles to monitor, model, and manage global realities. They report about human behavior in the social and cultural climate of a global civilization that requires permanent investigation of itself and its environments. They write history in a time when people feel compelled to control the forces of global change, if not evolution, and to choose their own future history with as much foresight and understanding as possible.

Fourth, the interpretation of scientific data about the changing face of the earth reveals the mischievous structure of ecological communication in the absence of hard or uncontroversial facts. The environmental discourse exhibits deep and persistent controversies not only about ecological problems and solutions but also about facts; not only among lay people but also — and most notably — among information-rich scientific experts. We would need an expert system to settle disagreements among experts, which, in turn, we could never agree upon, and so forth, leading to an infinite regress. We must conclude that the environmental issue is politicohistorical all the way down to the construction of the facts.

We know that we lack crucial pieces of information (like the geographical distribution of organisms or the number of global species) and that we do not have all the relevant data (1.4 million species have been identified worldwide, but current estimates of South American species alone range from 5 to 50 million, for instance). However, we have and prefer to have public debates about the rate of extinction and loss of species and the best measures to avoid mass extinctions in the next century (Stevens, 1991). But then, we must also face the problem that normative interpretations of even the most reliable environmental "facts" are unavoidable. The debates about our ecological options will not be decided by neutral data but by a synergy of facts, arguments, and power.

This may come as a disappointment to epistemological purists who want environmental politics to follow the facts and not the politics. They fear the social contamination of scientific objectivity and defend the old philosophical apartheid of is and ought, facts and norms. But the "ill-structured" and "messy" epistemological situation created by conflicting views about the state of the global environment is now, by default, the human context of our natural environment. Ecological communication is about alternative strategies for the human development of nature and, thus, it is political. Scientists, social movements, subsystems of society (the economy, polity, judiciary), and international organizations conduct an ecopolitical discourse that accomplishes the normative construction of environmental facts and policies. The making of environmental history is, therefore, not just a scientific or technical issue but also a germane research topic for political scientists, sociologists, historians, and anthropologists.

If we look around, we will see that "untuneable problems are by no means rare."[17] They are especially "wicked" with regard to decision-making under global constraints, observed Miriam Campanella, when problems can no longer be solved "within the boundary of a single unity of command, decisional, institutional or systemic."

Classical rationality states that global problems require global solutions, and that global solutions require a 'global mind.' Nothing is further from the truth, and nothing is more false then the hypostasis of a global mind. If there is evidence that acid rain is a typical global problem beyond the action of a single state, the implementation of the global solution, when it is achieved implies the capacity to act locally by a plurality of microactors. The global solutions, then, are chosen by a plurality of agents, and implemented (or not implemented) by a plurality of actors (Campanella, 1990: 7).

In addition to the plurality of actors who shape global history, there is a plurality of problems, "each one focused by the shared credibility it enjoys in the eyes of those who subscribe to it, and each held separate from the rest by the mutual incredibility that is the global corollary of locally focused (that is, tribal) credibilities" (Thompson, 1984: 336). The commendable "de-tribalization" of "decisionmaking under contradictory certainties," as Michael Thompson termed it, requires that we learn to deal with the legitimacy of conflicting certainties (multicertainties), the reality of the different worlds of micro- and macroactors on the global scene (multirealities), and the competition of alternative ways to answer pressing problems (multisolutions). These are conspicuous, nonconventional elements of the human condition in the late twentieth century and rich social resources of global history.


[1] The Economist, vol. 319, no. 7709 (June 1-7, 1991), 72.

[2] The local electronic mail system of the electronic scholar is most likely connected to the Internet, the global backbone network that dates back to a military network created in 1969. The Internet connects more than 10,000 networks, links over 130,000 computing sites (universities, research institutes, national archives, and so on) in over 40 countries, and is currently used by more than 10 million people. [N.B. This was written in 1991.]

[3] In a recent self-assessment of world-systems analysis, Immanuel Wallerstein strongly questioned the usefulness of the distinction between economic, political, and cultural arenas of social action. Opposing this customary distinction from a "unidisciplinary" point of view, he asked scholars to look anew at the received tradition and work out the theoretical, methodological, and organizational implications of "a single arena with a single logic." Though I am not sure that Wallerstein's "mono-logic" is the answer, I, too, see a thorny and challenging problem here and would welcome a thorough epistemological discussion of this issue. See Wallerstein (1990).

[4] New York Times, May 30, 1990, A7.

[5] The history of environmentalism is already well known and documented. For its prehistory, see Clarence Glacken (1967), for the history of environmentalism in England between 1500 and 1800, see Keith Thomas (1983), for nature in Asia, see Baird Callicott, and Roger Ames, eds. (1989), and for American environmentalism in the last 200 years, see Roderick Frazier Nash, ed. (1990). A wealth of further reading can be found in Ian Gordon Simmons (1990).

[6] Kepler was probably the first to liken our planet to a spaceship (in the notes to his Somnium). Discussing the Galilean sunspots, he wondered, "Who could ever arrive at the idea that the spots on the sun are stationary, while that ship of ours, which is called the earth, carries us in so short an interval of time around the sun, revealing to our very selves the various parts of its surface and its spots in succession" (1967: 105, note 146).

[7] Walter McDougall (1985: 412) wrote that President Lyndon Johnson sent copies of "Earthrise" to "every head of state in the world, even Ho Chi Minh, while the luxuriant ecology movement gained an icon by grace of the very technology it denounced."

[8] It is instructive to see how incredibly funny the new language of ecology must have sounded in its earlier days. The American Scientist, for example, printed a letter to the editor in 1960 that poked fun at H. T. Odum's "New Ecosystem Ecodynamics — with its attendant ecomixes, ecoforces, ecofarces, ecofluxes, ecoconductivities, ecopotentials, ...and all that sort of ecojazz" (Patten, 1960).

[9] The evolution of ever more distant and accurate views of the earth moved from Leonardo's first aerial sketches, Nadar's [the pseudonym of Félix Tournachon] aerial photography (1859), to Willis Lee's The Face of the Earth as Seen from the Air (1922), to the global "Landsat" pictures of the world.

[10] The current knowledge about the human impact on the environment from the time of early man to the nuclear age has been masterfully reviewed by Ian Gordon Simmons (1990). The advancement of our ecological understanding can be studied by comparing Simmons's opus with George Perkins Marsh's (1965) pioneering and influential work of 1864.

[11] Marsh (1965: 43). On pages xxiii and xxv, we learn that Marsh wanted to title his book "Man the Disturber of Nature's Harmonies," but Charles Scribner, his original publisher, objected and asked, "Is it true?" Scribner thought of man as part of nature; Marsh believed in man as the perennial opponent of nature who has "to make himself her master." Environmentalists today would side with Scribner.

[12] Rachel Carson (1962: 3). Thomas Dunlap (1981) placed the battle over DDT and Silent Spring in historical perspective and scientific context.

[13] For an example of cultural self-reflexivity, see J. David Bolter (1984).

[14] Henry Guerlac (who later became an eminent scholar on Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and eighteenth-century science) was recruited in 1943 "to prepare an official history of the Laboratory, intended to justify, should there be a congressional investigation, the large amount of money spent by the country's preeminent radar development operation"; see the foreword by Dale Corson in Henry Guerlac (1987: xv).

[15] For the carbon dioxide data from 1958 to the present, see here; for the preindustrial CO2 record, which has been computed from air enclosed in ice, here; and for an up-to-date table with all greenhouse gases and their current concentrations, here.

[16] In 1990, Fred Wood, a researcher from the Office of Technology Assessment at the United States Congress, outlined "a concept for improved climate monitoring and reporting that can be implemented rapidly at modest expense, and can be utilized by scientists and policy analysts until more complete monitoring systems become available" (42 f.).

[17] For an illuminating and witty analysis of three contradictory scenarios on energy policy put forward by the "energy tribes" (based on four years of participant observation at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria), see Michael Thompson (1984).