In the upcoming winter 2024 term, I’ll be teaching one of the introductory core courses taken by our first-year students, “Sustainability and the Really Long View” (ERS 102), for the first time. It’s an exhilarating opportunity, for the course concerns “big history”, which you could say is an account of everything. It’s a meta-discipline that seeks to provide a coherent narrative from the Big Bang to the present, drawing on multiple disciplines (e.g., anthropology, cosmology, evolutionary biology, geology) and emphasizing the major “transitions” in how we’ve arrived where we are now. In SERS, of course, a key objective will be to seek its lessons for contemporary sustainability challenges and solutions. For example, we’ll consider the thesis that past transitions have tended to increase complexity yet have often come about in part through crises.

It's a lot to cover, so in my planning I keep in mind the wise words of Hilary Putnam, the esteemed and delightful Harvard philosopher who I was lucky enough to meet many years ago: “When a professor wants to learn about something, they teach a course on it.” I have some background in the field, though I have much to learn, and thus I’m reading and exploring to fill in some gaps. One reason I’m doing this is because I want to do the hard work, for my students, of sifting the materials so they’re not too overwhelming—and as thought-provoking as possible (in the context of standard crusty academic prose). As academics, we professors tend to assign too much reading and drown our students rather than whetting their curiosity. It’s a fine line; we’ll see how I do.

I feel this course should be awe-inspiring and transformational for my students. I’d like them to complete the course understanding and feeling their place in the universe—even if small—and their ability to contribute to its evolutionary unfolding. In this way it will fit well with the ERS 101 course they take concurrently, which will adopt a more nitty-gritty perspective on their path through SERS and into a career.

One big challenge, though, as I design the course, is the following. Because it’s based in science, Big History is often taught as the one true “creation story” that humans should adopt, in contrast with all those antiquated religious “myths.” If everyone adopted it, we’d all get along. That’s a nice view, though I don’t quite believe it. It misrepresents the stability of scientific knowledge as well as the diverse ways humans can find meaning in the universe. In particular, the standard version of Big History doesn’t have a lot to say about sustainability, perhaps because it leans towards endorsing a post-human future where we leave Earth behind and colonize the universe. My students and I will need to find a way to meaningfully explore Big History while also critically positioning it in its place and in the context of other stories.

Thankfully, I view at least the first time that I teach a course as an experiment, subject to revision the next time based on my experience and feedback from the students.

Image: Nature Timespiral by Pablo Carlos Budassi - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,