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
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," 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. 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 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."
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 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. "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. 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. 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.
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. 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" 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.
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.
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. 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. 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." 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." 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.
 The Economist, vol. 319, no. 7709 (June 1-7,
 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 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).
 New York Times, May 30, 1990, A7.
 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).
 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).
 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."
 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).
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Rachel Carson (1962: 3).
Thomas Dunlap (1981) placed the battle over DDT and Silent Spring in historical perspective and scientific context.
 For an
example of cultural self-reflexivity, see J. David Bolter (1984).
 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).
 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
 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.).
 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