GSJ Article
26 July 2013
Issue 36

Pangaea II – The Project of the Global Age

Wolf Schäfer

Stony Brook University
Center for Global History
Abstract: This essay theorizes that the domestication of Earth and humankind is the project of the global age. It reviews the deep historical nexus between energy transitions, carrying capacity, and population growth since the original domestication of fire by hunters and gatherers. So far, all energy transitions (linked to the domestication of fire, plants, animals, fossil fuels, and nuclear fission) have lifted the carrying capacity of the planet by at least one order of magnitude. In turn, all energy transitions have then prompted societal transitions. The potential domestication of nuclear fusion in the twenty-first century and possibility of a future world population of 100 billion people must be seen in this light. Consequently, this makes long-term planning and the domestication of humanity’s historical momentum vital. New historical performance studies are a sign that the human species is trying to learn how to avoid global collapse and enable the success of Pangaea II.
Keywords: carrying capacity, domestication, energy transition, global management, historical momentum, historical performance studies, nuclear fusion

What is the difference between a model and a metanarrative? This is not the opening line of a humorist but a serious question. According to some, a metanarrative is “a story about a story, encompassing and explaining other ‘little stories’ within conceptual models that make the stories into a whole.”[1] If this explanation is correct then there is no difference between a model and a metanarrative. However, postmodern thinking about metanarratives can also hold that “a metanarrative is an untold story that unifies and totalizes the world, and justifies a culture’s power structure.”[2] If this were true then there would be a big difference. A model that is designed to test a hypothesis and a story that is meant to affirm the sociopolitical status quo are very different things.

The philosopher who indicted metanarratives was Jean-François Lyotard (1979). Urging “incredulity toward metanarratives” and asserting that the “narrative function” has lost “its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal,” Lyotard reflected a growing discontent with the unfettered promotion of Europe’s greatness (1984:xxiv). There is no question that the old textbook chapters about legendary voyagers of the “Age of Discovery” – Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Hernán Cortés, and so on – were far from innocent. Postmodernism could easily unveil these occidental icons as rapacious and destructive explorers. Yet as the Eurocentric celebrations of Columbus Day turned into fodder for deconstruction, a fuller picture of Columbus emerged: the history of pre-Columbian Native Americans came into focus, as well as the interplay between European colonizers and indigenous populations. That is not to say the world has moved beyond metanarratives, but rather it is creating new ones. As a more inclusive global history took shape a new grand narrative gathered with the metanarrative of globalization, which extolls the benefits of a globalized world.

However, historical modeling like, for instance, the naming of an epoch does not inevitably imply the tacit assumptions of a metanarrative. It evidences a conceptual effort that must be permissible or else global history and scholarship will be severely hampered. Incidentally, Martin Albrow and I are both guilty of skirting Lyotard’s grand narrative taboo by proposing the global age brand in the mid-1990s (Albrow [1996] 1997; Schäfer 1995). Indeed, we felt compelled to attempt a new Ortsbestimmung der Gegenwart[3] or a determination of the character of the present time. Arguing that “postmodernity” was pointing only to the end of modernity without declaring what was developing in its stead, we rejected postmodernity as an epochal designation and searched for a proper name, a distinctive expression of the profound historical change that we were observing. The Global Age did that for us. Proclaiming “The Global Age has arrived,” Albrow channeled the numerous globalizations that had come to the fore since 1945 into a “Historical Narrative for the New Age” (107, 97).

I concurred with the critique of metanarratives in my first paper on global history when I wrote, “What must be resisted is the temptation to create a new grand narrative for our time” (1993:50). Twenty years later, I still think the construction of self-serving grand narratives is harmful and their deconstruction a public service. Additionally, I think that it would be wrong to extend the Lyotardian verdict to conceptual models that seek to grasp historical structures. Historical models and frameworks are acceptable, should be tried, and must be allowed, including one-dimensional models like the globalistic “mythistory” that the world is flat (Friedman 2005). Like all scientific theories, models and frameworks invite critical assessment and testing; they operate openly, do not legitimize the powers that be, or totalize regional, national, or tribal aspects.

In this contribution, I present such a framework and an answer to the question: What is the project of the Global Age? Based on the global history of energy domestications and transitions, my answer is “Pangaea II,” which I understand as the clear and present challenge to domesticate ourselves and the human planet all together.[4] Of course, speaking about a second Pangaea presupposes a first one; let me therefore briefly introduce Pangaea I.

300 Million Years Ago: A Supercontinent Accomplished by Global History I

Pan-Gaea means all-earth, which comes from the name Gaea being the goddess of earth in Greek mythology and pan indicating “all of something.” Pangaea is also the name for a single supercontinent reaching from pole to pole encircled by Panthalassa, a corresponding superocean. Alfred Wegener (1880-1930), the first scientist to propose an all-earth world, realized one day that South America and Africa must have been connected long ago. He was not the first to think so but he was the one who followed through. Theorizing that earth’s continents might not be fixed, but horizontally mobile, he suggested that they could have formed a coherent landmass during the late Carboniferous Period, about 300 million years ago, and that Pangaea – the Urkontinent in his language[5] – must have broken up into Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Eurasia, India as well as North and South America. This was a harebrained scheme. Nevertheless, Wegener was intuitively sure that it was true. In January 1911, he wrote to Else Köppen, his future wife:

Presently an idea came to me. Look at the world map again please: doesn’t the east coast of South America fit precisely with the west coast of Africa, as if they had been connected formerly? … I must pursue the idea (Drake 1976:44).

And pursue it he did. Wegener developed his “continental drift” theory in four, steadily expanding editions of The Origin of Continents and Oceans ([1915 & 1929] 1980; 1922; 1920; 1915). Yet drift theory was widely derided. Wegener’s “mobilism” was trumped by “fixism,” geology’s reining dogma of a permanent configuration of continents and ocean basins. It was, therefore, very unlucky that Wegener did not live long enough to see the final acceptance of his Copernican vision of moving continents. In 1930, only fifty years old, Wegener perished in Greenland on a polar expedition. Some thirty years later, plate tectonics delivered moving continents and budding oceans. In 1971, John Tuzo Wilson confirmed that the erstwhile heresy of continental drift had become geology’s new orthodoxy.

Formerly, most scientists regarded the earth as rigid and the continents as fixed, but now the surface of the earth is seen as slowly deformable and the continents as “rafts” floating on a “sea” of denser rock. The continents have repeatedly collided and joined, repeatedly broken and separated in different patterns, and, very likely, they have grown larger in the process. This scientific revolution, as others before it, was long in the making, but it was not until the late 1960s that it began to succeed (Wilson 1972:v).

Exploration of the cyclic pattern of supercontinental formation and breakup suggests that Wegener’s Pangaea was neither the first nor the last of its kind (Dalziel 1995). North America, for example, is presently moving away from the mid-Atlantic ridge at a rate of roughly four centimeters per year, which amounts to 4,000 kilometers in 100 million years. Considering the movements of all tectonic plates, a new material Pangaea should be ready in about 250 million years – deep in the future from a human point of view, but moderately soon on the geologic time scale. Besides, the temporal distance of the next real supercontinent has become a moot issue. Humanity has entered the business of Pangaea-building. Pangaea I – Wegener’s physical Urkontinent – was built by the global history of terrestrial nature (global history I), whereas Pangaea II is built by human ingenuity (global history II).

Twenty-First Century: A Virtual Supercontinent Built by Global History II

With respect to continents, oceans, and islands, Pangaea II is emerging on the scattered geobody that our world maps depict; and as far as the experience of global communications is concerned, Pangaea II is a condensed supercontinent created by technoscience. Eclipsing the geophysical configurations of nature, a vibrant technoscientific civilization vanquished the measurable difference between halfway down the corridor and halfway around the globe. For digital images, sounds, and texts, the Earth’s fragmentation into regions, cultures, continents, and islands has vanished. Rapidly branching communication and transportation networks are interweaving widely distributed societies. Television, telephones, and email have escaped the gravity of the geobody. The civilization of Pangaea II is global, pulling all terrestrial and aquatic parts of the planet together and colonizing near-earth space. Thus, Pangaea II is a virtual supercontinent, a dense global conglomeration with physical and metaphysical features, including the routers of the Internet and the fallacious belief that global communication should be easy because it has become instant.

The Unfinished Project of Pangaea II: Domestication of the Human Planet

The domestication of Earth has been put on the human agenda. On the one hand, it is implied by the human takeover of Pangaea-building, but on the other hand it is the consequence and discernible trend of global history. The domestications that have occurred in the past are now converging. Let me clarify this language before going on. Article 2 of the 1992 UN “Convention on Biological Diversity” defines domesticated species minimally as “species in which the evolutionary process has been influenced by humans to meet their needs.”[6] Accordingly, I consider domesticated planets as planets whose ecosystems are managed by an intelligent species to meet its needs.

The far-reaching minds of Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev (1985; 1964), Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson (1979), and New York science writer Michio Kaku (1997) have classified three types of planetary and post-planetary “supercivilizations.” A Type I supercivilization “has mastered all forms of terrestrial energy” (Kaku 1997:18); more advanced Type II civilizations “have mastered stellar energy” (ibid.); and a Type III civilization “controls the resources of a galaxy” (Dyson 1979:212). Earth is presently a Type 0 civilization but can expect to achieve Type I status “within a few hundred years,” according to Dyson, or “a century or two,” according to Kaku (1997:18). Never mind this supercivilizational triad for now, the cosmic scenario is clearly science fiction, but the trend toward a terrestrial supercivilization is manifest and not improbable to commence in the twenty-first century.

The history of human energy domestications, which the project of Pangaea II attempts to cap with the domestication of nuclear fusion, began in the Paleolithic era with the incorporation of fire into hunter-gatherer societies. This momentous addition to humanity’s toolbox happened during the shift “from the Lower to the Middle Paleolithic in the period of 400,000 to 200,000 BP.”[7] Until then, fire was a natural occurrence caused by meteorites, lightning, and volcanoes. But when paleolithic humans learned how to make fire and keep it going, the thermal energy of biomass was domesticated and moved from the realm of nature into the realm of civilization.

Like Kardashev, Dyson, and Kaku, I use the term “civilization” primarily for the human interaction with nature. For me, contemporary civilization is based on “networked technoscientific practices with global reach,” while culture is human-human interaction via “the shared language game of collective symbolizing” (2001:312). I distinguish between socionatural and sociocultural aspects of human action, which transcends the arbitrary (and also rather arrogant) traditional restriction of civilization to the birth of complex, literate societies like the Sumerian that flourished at a relatively late date circa 3000 BCE. I think we should refute the negation of civilization for foraging man, avoid the term “uncivilized” altogether, and speak about the civilizational accomplishment of paleolithic hunters and gatherers several hundred thousand years before Akkad and Uruk – and why not? We owe them in retrospect. Their domestication of fire set our story in motion.

Unlike natural fire, civilized fire is a socionatural phenomenon that integrates a natural possibility (the rapid oxidation of a fuel) into the fabric of social activities. It was momentous enough to be acknowledged in the myth of Prometheus. Warding off animals, defrosting meat, cooking tubers, and making love at the fireplace in a warm cave had the potential to reduce mortality rates, increase the very small human “world” population of some thousands (103) or tens of thousands (104), and spur their migration out of Africa.[8] Consequently, the “original domestication of fire” became a multiplier of the human species and a human engineered energy transition for which nature provided the energy and humanity the transition (Goudsblom 1992:8,12).

The second event in this trendsetting history was the domestication of plants and animals during the Agricultural or “Neolithic” Revolution.[9] Some twelve thousand years ago, agriculture developed first in the “Fertile Crescent” in Southwest Asia and later in other regions of the world. Originally, an uncertain step on an initially unpromising path from hunting and gathering to farming and herding, the domestication of plants and animals took millennia to turn global. In due course, farmers changed the genetic make-up of the organisms that came under their control; infected and inoculated themselves with the germs picked up from cattle, pigs, and dogs; and began to influence the global climate with greenhouse gases (Ruddiman 2005). Clearing land, raising livestock, and irrigating rice paddies may have even forestalled the arrival of a new ice age. Once the new economy of strategic food production had become entrenched, farming landscaped much of the planet and changed the face of the earth. Today, human existence without agriculture is inconceivable. If agriculture would ever vanish from our planet, great suffering, harm, and destruction would follow.

The Industrial Revolution is the third major terrestrial domestication, but it is not commonly perceived in this light. Knowing that the Industrial Revolution opened a new chapter in the history of human power over nature is one thing, and making the transhistorical connection between Paleolithic, Neolithic, and modern domestications is another. Still, what the Paleolithic and Neolithic Revolutions did to fire, plants, and animals, the Industrial Revolution did to fossil fuels. Bringing natural products under social control and manipulating them for human use, the Industrial Revolution extended the domestication of fire to coal, petroleum, and gas. Starting in rural England in the latter part of the eighteenth century, the developments from external steam to internal combustion engines exploited high energy density fuels and quickly transformed Western Europe, North America, and Japan, later followed by Brazil, China, India, South Korea, and now other industrializing parts of the world.

The demographic consequences of the domestication of fire, plants, animals, and fossil fuels are well worth noting in this context. Around 10,000 BCE, world population had left the small population numbers behind and reached one million people (106). Around 6,000 BCE, after four thousand years of haphazard farming, it had jumped one order of magnitude to about ten million (107). The world’s population increased further over the next millennia as the economic and cultural benefits of the Neolithic Revolution globalized farming and marginalized hunting and gathering. Around 1800, at the eve of the Industrial Revolution, the earth carried nearly one billion people (109). This indicates that the “carrying capacity” of Earth for sedentary farmers as well as a limited number of city dwellers is at least one thousand times higher than earth’s capacity for nomadic hunters and gatherers (Cohen 1995).

The Industrial Revolution shattered the agricultural ceiling and upped the ante one more time. Raising the carrying capacity of the planet to 7 billion people in 2011, industrial economic development is expected to deliver a predominantly urban world population of 10 billion people (1010) someday this century. This is a tenfold increase in three hundred years! The foreshortening of transformative change from a hundred thousand years (in the case of fire) to ten thousand years (in the case of agriculture) and a few hundred years (in the case of industry) poses enormous social, cultural, and political challenges. In dynamically decreasing periods, ever-larger numbers of people must handle the stressful birth of a new way of life on a progressively globalizing planet.

The adaptation crunch at the contemporary end of our developmental line is putting the survivability of the human species on trial. Granting that it would be specious to assume an imminent upheaval analogous to the Neolithic and Industrial Revolutions, we must nevertheless consider its possibility. Another upturn of earth’s carrying capacity by one order of magnitude would raise the world population from 10 to 100 billion people (1011). The question is, of course, not the likelihood and/or sustainability of an earth with 100 billion inhabitants, but rather: What could conceivably create a society approaching that scale?

The domestication of nuclear fission has been accomplished already with nuclear reactors. The first was built in Chicago in December 1942 for the Manhattan Project, four years after the discovery of fission in Berlin in December 1938. It is important to consider three more issues in this context. First, the energy production in stars – nuclear fusion – has been replicated for the military in 1952 with the testing of “Ivy Mike,” the first hydrogen explosive device. Secondly, controlled thermonuclear fusion for civilian purposes has been on the agenda ever since. And lastly, the performance of this trick seems to be making some progress lately.[10] From this trend, I conclude that the domestication of fusion is the probable terrestrial event in the twenty-first century that could possibly herald a 1011 world. No doubt, all efforts to domesticate fusion deserve to be strongly supported in light of Earth’s limited possession of fossil fuels.

Fundamental energy transitions have the capacity to trigger the development of an unprecedented society. To appreciate this potential it is important to realize that the chemical energy of oil is measured in gigajoules (109 J), that nuclear energy has yielded tera- and petajoules,[11] and that fusion energy is comparatively clean and virtual limitless. Table 1 shows humanity’s expanding power portfolio from the paleolithic domestication of fire to the attempted control of fusion together with the corresponding population growth and new historical era.
036Fig1Table 1: Major energy, population, and era transitions

Past and present domestications have produced the “human domination” (Vitousek, Mooney, Lubchenco, and Melillo 1997) of Earth.[12] Humankind has become the preeminent terrestrial power, but it has also arrived at a crossroads. It can continue to impact the geobody without deliberation and coordination – and risk a ruinous end – or learn to manage itself and Earth’s ecosystems collectively, cooperatively, and wisely. The domestication of the human planet is poised to fail catastrophically or become a successful Type I supercivilization. To survive, the actors of Pangaea II must learn to manage the coevolution of Earth and its dominant species. This is what I mean with domestication of the human planet.

Learning from the Past: Historical Performance Studies

Modern knowledge societies seek strategically calibrated progress (Böhme and Stehr 1986; Krohn 2001). They employ innumerable research institutes to investigate all known and conceivable problems, recommend further studies and, occasionally, sensible solutions. In addition, the members and leaders of these societies are beginning to have access to what I call historical performance studies, which are studies about how earlier societies responded to an existential challenge. Designed to prepare our species for factors that could tip the balance between winning and losing attitudes and practices, historical performance studies strive to expand the event horizon of Pangaea II. They scour the human past to obtain critical insights from the handling of crucial constellations. The fact that the authors of such studies are running up against the obstacle that modern historians are wary about learning from history is unfortunate but seems to deter nobody but professional historians (2012; Schäfer 2007a).[13]

Recent contributions to this new genre have come, for example, from Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist, who explored the “historical origins of political institutions as well as the process of political decay” (2011:xiii), Gregory Clark, an economist, who has argued that the long preindustrial Malthusian era “can predict success or failure for modern societies” (2007:372), and Ian Morris, an archeologist-historian of the ancient Mediterranean, who has tried to discern patterns of history “and what they reveal about the future” (2010). Following scientist Jared Diamond’s pathbreaking works, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997) and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), past performance scholars mine the resources of history to better understand and explain societal success as well as failure. Heeding Diamond’s programmatic statement, “the past offers us a rich database from which we can learn, in order to keep on succeeding,” they are not shy to distill lessons for contemporary problems from history (2005:3).

Diamond’s methodology features “natural experiments,” that is, the observation of the variables of socionatural systems on islands or in island-like settings (Diamond and Robinson 2010). Pragmatically contending that the scientific enterprise leads to “the acquisition of reliable knowledge about the world” (2005:17), Diamond has used his field-experience as a lifelong hobby-ornithologist to point to an alternative pathway to reliable knowledge:

When I began studying birds in New Guinea rainforest in 1964, I was immediately confronted with the problem of acquiring reliable knowledge without being able to resort to replicated controlled experiments, whether in the laboratory or outdoors. It’s usually neither feasible, legal, nor ethical to gain knowledge about birds by experimentally exterminating or manipulating their populations at one site while maintaining their populations at another site as unmanipulated controls. I had to use different methods. Similar methodological problems arise in many other areas of population biology, as well as in astronomy, epidemiology, geology, and paleontology. A frequent solution is to apply what is termed the “comparative method” or the “natural experiment” — i.e., to compare natural situations with respect to the variable of interest (ibid.).

Diamond envisions “history as a science” (1997:403-425). Few authors have that hope and it is not evident that this should be the goal of professional historians.[14] History has the appropriate methods for “acquiring reliable knowledge” about the past. Thus, the historical discipline is already scientific in Diamond’s sense. Historical performance studies incorporate sound information produced by academic historians. It makes no sense to request that history should progress toward a science in the image of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

As a biologist, Diamond has probably suffered under the old epistemological pecking order himself. Starting from a concept of “real” science dominated by physics, “scientific” value goes down from physics to chemistry, then down to biology, further down to economics and sociology, and finally down to history. I suggest to run with Diamond’s other suggestion, namely the production of reliable knowledge in a spectrum of knowledge-producing disciplines. If all activities that produce reliable knowledge are scientific, history does not have to graduate from so-called non-science to science, yet can still get better and become more relevant. To improve their service, historians would not only research history with proper methods but also develop lessons from the established record for the guidance of societal performance in the future.

Prominent Diamondian success histories include Iceland and the highlands of New Guinea. Exemplary failures involve the environmental destruction of Easter Island’s Polynesian society, the Native American Anasazi, the Maya, and the Norse in Greenland. Greenland provided Diamond with a paradigmatic natural experiment. Two societies, Norse and Inuit, shared the same island, but the Inuit survived while the Norse colony faltered due to the mismanagement of their environment. Showing that ecocide – involuntary ecological suicide – has been common throughout history, Diamond’s research provides historical pointers to elements that can ruin or save a society, especially “environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, and friendly trade partners” (2005:11) as well as “long-term planning, and willingness to reconsider core values” (2005:522). The factors of the latter – extended planning and cultural flexibility – proved very helpful throughout history and should thus be considered to be requirements for global societal success.

What has happened on small islands in the pre- and protoglobal human past is happening on our virtual supercontinent today. That is, a global socionatural experiment of uncertain outcome. Though cautiously “optimistic” (2005:499,521), Diamond gives humankind “less than 50 years” (2005:498) to calibrate the progress of Pangaea II for survival. After outlining twelve problems of non-sustainability (2005:487-498), his assessment leaves no doubt: “Our world society is presently on a non-sustainable course” and if the interconnected problems of sustainability are not solved, the First World may have “the privilege of being the last to starve” (2005:276). In other words, if non- and mismanagement of the local, regional, and global commons persists, performance history predicts escalating conflicts over resources, fierce battles between interest groups, growing disregard for the common good, and finally a global “tragedy of the commons” (Hardin 1968).

Is the Collapse of Pangaea II Inevitable?

James Bryant Conant, organic chemist and President of Harvard University, a leading administrator of the Manhattan Project, saw himself as a “social inventor” (1970). After the Second World War, he summarized his management experience of big science in a crisp sentence, “Science is much too important to be left to the scientists.”[15] Never mind the irony that Conant, the Massachusetts man of science, argued against leaving science to the men and women of science – he was right. In fact, our stakes are even higher. All STEM people need to gain performance knowledge about the past and learn how to apply it to our future. In fact, global history has become much too important to be left to the scientists, historians, or any other group of specialists. Yet from nuclear engineering to biotechnology, the power of modern technoscience is driving the civilization of Pangaea II relentlessly forward. We are moving ever more quickly along the deepening path carved out by humanity’s long sweep of domestications, and have become dependent on that path. Accelerating rapidly though, we are not traveling deliberately. Historical momentum is in the driver’s seat and threatens to carry humanity over the brink.[16]

Until now the historical momentum has operated as an opportunistic quest for human domination via domestication. We have briefly visited four way stations on this multimillennial journey towards ever more power – fire, agriculture, industry, and nuclear energy – but could have stopped at minor ones too, the domestication of terrestrial space through “global mapping” for instance.[17] What the Neolithic Revolution achieved with the domestication of plants and animals, modern mapping accomplished in the last five centuries with analog and digital “control over space.”[18] GPS and GIS (Global Positioning and Geographic Information Systems) are the present technoscientific capstones of humanity’s drive for spatial control. All around the geobody, high above and deep down, spatial domestication is well-advanced at this point, poised for the efficient control of terrestrial resources and ready to assist humanity either with the management or the destruction of the global commons.

Performance history tells us that cultural flexibility and long-term planning are decisive and that a planning range of about fifty years is advisable and may be feasible. Longer than the four- or five-year perspective of nations and organizations, fifty years will afford humanity a strategic look into the future. What do we want to see at the end of that time? My answer is the achievement of a global society in charge of Pangaea II’s destiny. In fifty years, conscious and collective global human agency must be in control of Earth’s momentum, or, in the terminology of this essay, humanity’s historical momentum has to be domesticated for survival at that point.

The current situation of the human planet is unique. All previous energy-cum-society transitions simply happened. The Neolithic and Industrial Revolutions were non-teleological events. They occurred, but did not have to happen and when they did happen humanity was ignorant and clueless about them at first. A very limited number of humans could have lived forever as hunter-gatherers and a far larger amount as farmers. Yet, we have left these earlier worlds by happenstance behind.[19] Now we must negotiate our very large number and ever more demanding lifestyle with our physical carrier, the whole geobody. This is the true “global imperative of our species” (Clark 1997:24).[20]

We know that our sociocultural and socionatural expectations and necessities are not automatically in line with the support systems of Earth. Here are a few more things we know:

  • our historical trajectory, the pathway of domestications, has an optimal conclusion, namely the conscious domestication of the whole planet including ourselves;
  • we can no longer count on a hospitable planet resilient enough to carry our loads no matter what;
  • the project of Pangaea II, which links global history I and II in a coupled system, has reached the point of no safe return to an unmanaged state of planetary affairs;
  • humanity has left local collapses behind and is facing global collapse;
  • global collapse is total collapse;
  • the destructive military means of our species are now so perfectly suited for global suicide that a peaceful management of the global commons is imperative;
  • effective global institutions must be built and allowed to become astute and responsible managers of the human planet.

And what do we know about the domestication of fusion, the ultimate power surge? If it comes about then it will change all current socionatural equations and theoretically permit population growth beyond imagination and current limits. If it does not come about, humanity will have to arrange itself in the context of the ongoing Industrial Revolution. Either way, a harmonious world society on a balanced planet will not evolve spontaneously. 10 or 100 billion people do not significantly alter the acute management challenge of the global commons. The combined socionatural and sociocultural problems emanating from an industrial world population of 10 billion people are already very serious and require the domestication of humanity’s historical momentum. Reaching the Holy Grail of a Type I supercivilization with truly abundant energy will remain a fantastic ambition if humanity fails to safeguard the evolution of Pangaea II at its current level.

The romantic hope – “Wo aber Gefahr ist, wächst das Rettende auch[21] – is now in vain and much too non-interventional. Echoing a preindustrial world in which good and bad things simply “grew” fails to grasp the urgency of planetary governance with historical awareness, global foresight, and institutionalized restraint. Proactive “planet craft” (Brand 2009:276) and global management (Moss 2000) are called for to carry the project of the global age into the future.


A draft of this essay served as a keynote address for the International Conference on Global Challenges in Asia: New Development Model and Regional Community Building hosted by SNUAC (Seoul National University Asia Center) in October 2011.

[1] See “Metanarrative” at (accessed 14 Sept. 2012).

[2] This sentence was deleted in Wikipedia on August 28, 2012; see the revision history (accessed 11 Jan. 2013). I do not instruct my students to shun Wikipedia on principle, but used this example of “now you see it, now you don’t” to explain why they must provide electronic references with an access date.

[3] Alexander Rüstow’s apt phrasing. Rüstow (1885-1963), a sociologist and economist, published Ortsbestimmung der Gegenwart between 1950 and 1957 in 3 volumes. The German title resists translation. The abridged English publication does not even try to capture it (Rüstow and Rustow 1980). Rüstow left Germany in 1933 for a position at Istanbul University, where he stayed until 1949. After his return, he headed the Alfred-Weber-Institute for Economics at Heidelberg University. Most importantly, Rüstow inspired West Germany’s Soziale Marktwirtschaft.

[4] Pangaea is an inspiring trope. Miles Davis jammed about it in 1975. Robert Clark wrote: “The idea that Pangaea represents a kind of primordial global unity is a metaphor to help us begin the story of how we became a global species. But the fate of Pangaea is much more than simply a metaphor, for the fragmentation of the Earth’s landmasses can be seen as the beginning of the process of globalization” (1997:22). And: “It is almost as if humankind has been striving mightily to restore the global unity lost when Pangaea split apart” (1997:23). Impressed by the rapidly growing World Wide Web, I started thinking about man-made Pangaea in 1994. In 2003, I published an essay on Pangaea II (2003a) that distinguished between the old geophysical history of the planet (global history I) and a new global history (global history II) in which humanity “is the active and reflexive historical subject” ( 75). This essay was greeted with 21 critiques (none too friendly) to which I responded (Schäfer 2003b).

[5] “Urkontinent” means mother of all continents. The prefix ur- is used to form words with the sense of proto-, primitive, original. “Pangaea” is always attributed to Wegener but hardly used by him. The word appears only a couple of times in his work (as “Pangäa”) and is not invested with terminological weight. My research points to John W. Evans, president of the Geological Society of London, as the person who put the wings on Pangaea: “Professor Wegener supposes that the sial originally covered the whole surface of the globe, but in the course of ages, as the result of folding, it diminished in area and increased in thickness, until in late Palaeozoic and early Mesozoic times it formed a vast land area which he terms Pangaea” (Wegener 1924:x).

[6] See (accessed 9 Sept. 2012).

[7] See Wikipedia “Control of fire by early humans” (accessed 9 Sept. 2012).

[8] The reconstruction of early human population history is very much in flux since the “mitochondrial Eve” hypothesis (Cann, Stoneking, and Wilson 1987). However, it seems safe to say that modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) evolved around 200,000 years ago, that the population of earlier humans, while not exceeding tens of thousands, fell often and for long stretches of time to a few thousand,  and that a significant population expansion occurred only some 70,000 years ago, eventually leading to a pan-African population and migration out of Africa; see ScienceDaily at, 25 April 2008 (accessed 16 Sept. 2012).

[9] Since the 1920s and the pathbreaking work of V. Gordon Childe, the Agricultural Revolution is also known as the “Neolithic Revolution,” that is, the revolution of the “New Stone” era.

[10] See Wikipedia “Fusion power” (accessed 9 Sept. 2012).

[11] “Little Boy,” the Hiroshima bomb, yielded 50-63 terajoules (1012 J) in 1945 and the most powerful nuclear weapon ever exploded, the Soviet “Tsar Bomba,  210 petajoules (1015 J) in 1961.

[12] Vitousek et al. concluded: “humanity’s dominance of Earth means that we cannot escape responsibility for managing the planet” (1997:499).

[13] In early January 2013, the annual conference of the American Historical Association (AHA) discussed that historical bestsellers “are not written by professional historians” and that “historians have ceded territory to other disciplines” (Parry 2013). However, the discussion of this problem (though well placed on AHA’s opening-night plenary session) focused mainly on matters of style and technique. But the success of a book like Guns, Germs, and Steel (Diamond 1997) stems probably less from its catchy title and more from its significant subject matter. Maybe academic historians should consider that they are losing out because they are no longer asking the most important and timely questions.

[14] One of these authors is Frank Sulloway (1996:365-368) who argues that history could become more scientific with systematic “hypothesis testing.”

[15] Serving as U.S. High Commissioner (1952-1955) and first Ambassador (until 1957) in West Germany, Conant formulated this memorable sentence in German: “Die Naturwissenschaft ist viel zu wichtig, als dass man sie den Naturwisenschaftlern überlassen könnte” (1953:16).

[16] “Historical momentum” appropriates the concept of “technological momentum” developed by Thomas Hughes (1994), who was inspired by momentum in physics, a vector quantity with amount and direction.

[17] “Based on complete spatial knowledge of the earth, the global period of mapping is now taking shape. Global geography is no longer a challenge but a starting point. Every structure and spot on the planet is located in its proper context and can be mapped instantly, automatically, and with high and increasing accuracy. Scalable from local to global, digital mapping technology provides whatever mapping service is requested from the myriad clients of mapping. To the earlier domestications of fire, animals, and plants, global mapping is adding the domestication of space” (Schäfer 2007b:751).

[18] “Navigation is an integral component in asserting human beings’ dominion over the surface of the earth, and maps and charts that have been produced to enable navigation can be seen as devices to exert control over space” (Dorling and Fairbairn 1997:53).

[19] In other words, humanity’s two global economic superparadigm revolutions have yet to find a convincing causal explanation. Ester Boserup has famously argued that independent population growth was the mother of the Neolithic Revolution (Boserup 2005 [1965]; Boserup 1981). Exploring the “Malthusian Trap” that “the average person in the world of 1800 was no better off than the average person of 100,000 BC” (Clark 2007:1), Gregory Clark has tried to solve the enduring puzzle of the Industrial Revolution – “Why did the initial escape from that trap … occur on one tiny island, England, in 1800?” – with reference to the social and possibly genetic particulars of the English “descendants of the strivers of the preindustrial world” (2007:16).

[20] Unlike Robert Clark, who has given the overall human trajectory an almost vertical teleological impetus by emphasizing “our need to spread ourselves and our cultures to every spot on the planet” (1997:24), I tie the spreading of humankind to its horizontal socionatural levels (hunting-gathering, farming, and industrial production). Vertical human expansion has come to pass opportunistically and not by “our need.”

[21] “But where there is danger grows that which can also save us.” For the original, see Friedrich Hölderlin, “Patmos” at (accessed 16 Sept. 2012).


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