Big vs. Environmental History

Eric Weiner did an NPR story on Big History a couple of days ago, which I noticed due to Jessica DeWitt's twitter comment. Jessica said, "Doesn't seem that revolutionary coming from an #EnvHist background." I've read David Christian's book and thought it injected some energy into the retelling of the long story. But I agree with Jessica, and I'd even go a step farther and suggest that Environmental History is really what High School teachers should be getting excited about. Here's why:

Weiner's NPR piece featured a short clip of a student who said she had taken AP World History and none of it connected with anything. Big History, however, allowed her to conceptually connect the Opium Wars to the Big Bang. That's cool, I guess, but really? Isn't it more likely that what's actually happened is that she has connected the Opium Wars to the environment, but mostly much more recently than the actual beginning of the universe. That she's really had an environmental history moment, without realizing it?

One point Weiner made that I hadn't really thought about before is that Big History offers what he called "a modern origin story." It's a way of getting the secular, scientific account of the beginning of the universe and the evolution of life and humans in front of students. That's entirely positive, as far as I'm concerned. Can't have too much of that, with new creation museums opening all the time in the US.

structure1
The large-scale structure of the universe, NASA.
 
But what about the human focus? Weiner says that critics including historians have objected to the fact that people only join the story in the last one-yard line of the football field of the history of the universe. Many of the commenters on the NPR story shared the concern that the human actions and their consequences that fill most history books are important and are lost in the sweep of Big History. I think this is a valid concern. On the one hand, it's important for people to get a glimpse of the duration and significance of humanity on the scale of the universe. On the other, it's
very important for us to know our own history.

Again, the solution is Environmental History. My story in my American EnvHist class begins with human origins in Africa. I don't spend the whole semester talking about this, but I do spend a good chunk of the first lecture. Because even from a strictly human perspective, everything we usually teach in US History takes place in the final yards before the goal-line of the present. And I'm not just talking about the birth of stars here or the distribution of heavy elements. I'm talking about the development of the staple crops we all depend on today -- three of the five, maize, potatoes and manioc, developed in pre-historic America. Things that happened long before the start of traditional history books had a lot of influence on the world today, as Christian has said.

Regarding the objection to Bill Gates's advocacy of Big History and financial contribution to the cause; for the most part I think that's just jealousy. I'd take $10 million from the Gates Foundation in a heartbeat, and set up a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing Environmental History to High School students and regular people.
So Mr. Gates, if you're listening, you can reach me at dan@danallosso.net.

But seriously, what's the problem with Gates helping more kids get access to history? It's not like it's bad history, pushing an ideological agenda. Wait -- is the real problem the "modern origin story"? Is the motivation behind some of the resistance that Big History offers a secular, humanist view of the deep past? If so, I'm even happier David Christian got the grant.