I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

Percy Bysshe Shelley

David Christian’s Big History course made me think of Jared Diamond. It is almost a decade since Diamond published the hugely influential, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Both men firmly believe that we need to truly learn from history and be active in moulding a future based on rational thought and action. Neither are “so naïve as to think that study of the past will yield simple solutions, directly transferable to our societies today” (Diamond) but certainly are different to most historians in that they consciously are employing an understanding of the past to address our future societal needs. Christian, I find, much more upbeat about the future but Diamond has good reason to be more pessimistic.

‘Collapse’, used as a verb or noun, is a powerfully evocative word conjuring images of dust eddying and the sound of shrieking timbers in my imagination. Societal collapses do not happen quickly like that though. They are long, often unnoticed phenomena difficult to reverse and often not understandable to the people living in that society, even if there was a will to address the malaise, collective action just may not be enough.

Both Diamond and Christian identify climate change as historically important in understanding our human and environmental history. Both understand that unless this issue is addressed our future looks grim. Of huge concern is the politicisation of the issue to such an extent that pseudoscience is championed dangerously by some leaders and media organisations. 97% of climate scientists have concluded that the research is accurate and we need to act swiftly to avert a crisis of unimaginable horror. The following video is truly worth watching to the end:

1 billion cars today. 2 billion in 2020.

The polemical project, Bikes vs Carsmakes the claim that the number of cars on the planet will double in the next 6 years. Many of you know that I do not drive for, as I often jest, for ideological reasons – and fear! However, it seems obvious that we need to reduce our reliance on the car, not increase it exponentially. An ‘obesity epidemic’ could also be combatted with a move to more bike and pedestrian friendly city spaces. On a positive note there is some of evidence suggestion that younger people are choosing not to buy cars or drive. I share this vision of a car free future too but suspect, with a hat tip to Kurt Vonnegut, that I may as well be anti-iceberg too. However, here is a list of car-free places that hopefully expands.

It makes sense to work on reducing the number of cars on our planet but it has to start with you. Our society needs to act rationally and it starts with the individual. Governments can be influenced but not when we do not walk the walk (hearing the moans). Our education systems are fundamental to creating a generation who will be more environmentally conscious and proactive. The planet is groaning at this moment and has been for quite some time due to human activity.

Change is needed now or we risk collapse.

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Earthworm

Our society would benefit immensely, especially our children, if we all would be heavily influenced by Diamond and Christian. What are you doing, practically and intellectually, to address the environmental concerns they both raise?

Featured image: cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Dave Chiu:



    • Paul

    • 10 years ago

    I like that clip – use it quite often. It’s a simple statement of the type I and II errors in statistics and is really quite effective. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to have reached a broader public.

    It’s not just cars that need to change but a broader attitude by a society increasingly controlled by corporations and governments. There is a fantastic clip of Eisenhower in 1939 (I think) warning Americans against buying in to the industrial-military complex he saw emerging from the 1920s. Guess he lost that battle! Given the powerful forces of consumerism backed up with a timidity created by governments I think we have to do far more than worry about cars – it’s more a question of ideology.

    Almost 40 years ago I attended a meeting in London where environmental science teachers were discussing ways of spreading this new subject. I was asked what I was giving for the environment. I replied I was giving my career to it and I hoped it was the right decision! Looking back, I can’t say it was because I have not reached the positions I had hoped for or that others have reached but I remain a committed earth/environmental scientist/educator hopeful that my grand-daughter might find a world better than the one I felt was going downhill all those years ago.

    I find optimism in these days increasingly difficult – I wish it was otherwise.

  1. If I can start with some excuse-making (because really, that’s all it is)…working in or near our capital cities is popular in Australia, yet housing prices in those areas are obscene. This places many people in the position of needing to drive to work, often long distances, and in heavy traffic. Our state and federal governments don’t take seriously the project of transforming public transport systems, and little progress is being made in changing the broad social attitude that the ‘outer suburbs’ are unrefined centres of crime and desolation.

    As for riding a bike to work when a shorter distance is in play: I’ve always wanted to do this, but shamefully the thing that holds me back is my own discomfort. I don’t want to get sweaty; I don’t want to have to change into ‘work clothes’ at the other end! Aren’t I terrible? In my defence, I’d be more willing to do it if my workplace provided clean shower facilities, less pressure to ‘get straight to work’ once there, and abandoned the cultural norm of preferring ‘business wear’. I really feel I would be more environmentally friendly if I could wear comfortable tracksuits and similar to work. That would let a lot of women chuck out their makeup and hair products too.

    On a positive note, I am delighted that Sustainability has been nominated as one of the three cross-curriculum priorities in the Australian curriculum ( My hope is that this will lead to more frequent occurrences of these challenging conversations and that in time many of us will change our worst practices, as they become more and more ridiculous-sounding.

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