Charles Mann and the Human Story

In an article in Orion magazine, Charles Mann of 1491 writes a sweeping account of all of human history.  You should read it:

With two colleagues, Stoneking measured the difference between snippets of DNA in the two louse subspecies. Because DNA is thought to pick up small, random mutations at a roughly constant rate, scientists use the number of differences between two populations to tell how long ago they diverged from a common ancestor—the greater the number of differences, the longer the separation. In this case, the body louse had separated from the head louse about 70,000 years ago. Which meant, Stoneking hypothesized, that clothing also dated from about 70,000 years ago.

And not just clothing. As scientists have established, a host of remarkable things occurred to our species at about that time. It marked a dividing line in our history, one that made us who we are, and pointed us, for better and worse, toward the world we now have created for ourselves.

Mann goes on to talk about a huge range of things, including the (potential, much-debated) distinction between “biologically modern” and “behaviorally modern” people, the Toba volcano eruption on Sumatra, the “evolutionary bottleneck” it appears to have created, and the Very Big Question of whether human beings can survive modern exponential growth in consumption of resources.

I have a lot of different responses to this essay, and some minor (or maybe not-so-minor) disagreements with it, but I’m still collecting my thoughts about it and don’t want to jump too soon.  But one thing it did (along with some great Twitter dialogue with @MetaCookbook) was reinforce my growing sense that 350.org is on the money right now, strategy-wise.  Climate change is, by and large, not actionable by individuals.  But there are leverage points that a mass social/political movement could have a sizable affect on, and 350 appears to be trying their damnedest to be that movement and have that affect.

So consider this an endorsement of 350’s Do the Math tour/campaign/project.  I really believe in an “all of the above” approach to the climate crisis, and within that shotgun spray we need some very clear, specific, actionable priorities.  And Bill McKibben and the global movement he’s helped to create have figured out some very, very clear and important priorities to focus and act on.  Please look at what they’re doing, and consider how you can participate in the most effective way, in your home place within your web of relationships.  We really do get to attempt something unprecedented at this time in history, and the very understandable, common feelings of defeat and resignation should be the beginning of our work rather than putting an end to it.

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One Response to Charles Mann and the Human Story

  1. EarthKnight says:

    1491 is one of my favorite books on the state of affairs of the Americas prior to Columbus and of the larger world. 1493 is a fantastic follow-up and provides great insight into how the world changed after the New and Old Worlds were reconnected after millions of years of separation.

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