Population Growth – A Big Concept in “Big History”

I was intrigued after reading in last week’s New York Times about “Big History,” an online course developed by Australian World History Professor, David Christian, and bankrolled by billionaire and Microsoft founder, Bill Gates.  According to the article, Gates discovered “Big History” on an educational CD he watched while doing his daily home workouts, and thought this course should be used in high school classrooms everywhere. What excited Gates and others who have viewed Christian’s lectures and TED talks is how he tells the story of our universe (from the Big Bang to modern day), pulling in so many disciplines – biology, anthropology, geology, physics, economics, sociology, history and more. 

Big History” is divided into eight “thresholds,” the last three of which deal with human history.  Those segments are also explored in Christian’s extremely readable (and concise) book for students, This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity, in which he divides human history into three eras (Foraging, Agrarian and Modern). Population trends feature prominently in his descriptions of each of these three eras.  He discusses the slow population growth of our foraging ancestors (just 0.01 percent per year 10,000 years ago), the acceleration of population growth with the advent and spread of agriculture across the globe, and how rapid population growth in the modern era (since 1750) has completely reshaped the earth’s landscape. “Never before has a single species had the power to transform the entire biosphere on the time scale of just a few centuries,” he writes. That quote really captures the essence of human ecology and what Population Education curricula is all about.  In fact, a number of our teacher resources are excellent adjuncts to the Big History Project. Check out our poster and lesson, A Quick Trip to 7 Billion for the trends that have shaped humanity over the past 200 years and view our World Population “dot” video for the demographic and historical events over the past 2,000 years. It’ll become clear why population is a big theme for Big History.