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The Big-Picture: Ideas, Trends, & Facts that Matter

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Depicting an ancient parable: Blind monks examining an elephant. By Itcho Hanabusa.

O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
For preacher and monk the honored name!
For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.
— The Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant

Great minds discuss ideas;
mediocre minds discuss events;
small minds discuss people.
— Eleanor Roosevelt

Some ideas are so stupid, only intellectuals believe them.
— George Orwell

This Context Called Earth

Each of us is born into a world not of our making, and given little time to learn its ways. Per the old joke, in the time available we can make things happen; or watch things happen; or wonder what happened. The first option takes determination, a bit of luck, and knowing one's context - which is what this page is about.

Since childhood I've continually sought to build a useful understanding of this context called Earth - a task made somewhat more difficult with exponential rates of changes. While having a (relatively) detached perspective for one's own times may be impossible, it makes for an interesting thought-experiment. What would future historians or extraterrestrial visitors list as the most pertinent observations of Earth and humans in the early 21st century?

Resources to Build Your own Picture of the Big-Picture

This list reflects my current focus on energy, economics, and more recent history (the past few thousand years). I'm sure some will argue the stuff below falls short of the "Really Big Picture" - like the few billion years of biological life on Earth, the larger Universe, and other supra-existential stuff. Yes, such are all part of Existence (probably), but besides invoking a sense of cosmic awe (good and necessary, BTW), few things beyond a few millennia matter to making life choices and dealing with human affairs. So let this be, eh?

Books

Topics of any seriousness - demanding detailed evidence and discussion - are still best delivered via books.

  • The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter is probably the single best social science book I've ever read. With exceptionally lucid writing, Tainter presents a brilliantly simple concept able to explain the rise and fall of the two dozen complex societies in recorded history: declining marginal returns on investments in complexity. In so doing he casts a rare spell on the reader: provoking a fresh perspective to judge our own times as we do the past.
  • Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD by Angus Maddison synthesizes a macroeconomics understanding of the past 2000 years, with quantitative data collected across wide swathes of space and time, succinctly presented.
  • The Rise and Decline of the State by Martin van Creveld explains the origin and evolution of possibly the most overarching yet taken-for-granted social construct: the nation state. Creveld masterfully balances detail and the big-picture; the book is dense but rewards the reader with deep understandings and new perspectives.
  • World Systems Analysis by Immanuel Wallerstein is a short, dense, and coherent perspective on how the modern world works and came to be, and what might lie ahead. Wallerstein also explains and then refuses to abide by the usual fracturing of politics, history, economics, and sociology, aiming for a re-integration of the social sciences.
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond is already well-known, likely the most widely read treatise of the geography-is-destiny thesis. There's also a documentary by National Geographic, which isn't as good as the book, but does provide some memorable visuals.
  • The Party's Over by Richard Heinberg is a complete layman's guide to the impact of cheap energy on global civilization, and the implications of the end of such cheap energy, aka "Peak Oil." Relatively pessimistic, but not without reason. Still, Heinberg underestimates the impact of exponentially improving technology.
  • Future Agenda by Tim Jones & Caroline Dewing is an attempt to synthesize the world's best (or at least, best-funded) forecasting efforts into a coherent book/narrative. It's available for free from the website - read it if you're at least curious what the Four Certainties are within the next 1-2 decades.
  • Two books on the future of the USA: The Post-American World, Release 2.0 by Fareed Zakaria and Strategic Visions by Zbigniew Brzezinski. Both books counter the ingrained human myopia that assumes the future will be like the past.

Websites

As opposed to books, ongoing/updated information is better handled by the web - bearing in mind the tale of the blind men and the elephant.

The Future(s)
  • The Millenium Project is probably the largest non-profit, ongoing forecasting study/process, producing an annual State of the Future report that is comprehensive, but costly. Still, plenty of free food for thought, including their list of Global Challenges for Humanity.
  • Institute for the Future looks at near-term forecasts in many of the same areas that Future Agenda did, on a more ongoing basis. They tend to be technology-focused; see their Map of the Decade project.
The Story So Far
  • World Values Survey proposes that the seemingly wide variation of human culture can be "normalized" to two major dimensions: traditional vs. secular-rational, and survival vs. self-expression. See their fascinating map of world cultures, areas, and countries.
  • Global indexes - some lesser-known and less-conventional metrics for perspective:
    1. Global Peace Index ranks countries by degree of violence, instability, and general conflict levels.
    2. Corruption Perceptions Index is published annually, ranking countries by their populace's perceptions of public-sector corruption. I suspect it would be simpler to just follow Tacitus' observation: "The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the republic," but I've yet to find such a tally.
    3. International Property Rights Index ranks countries and regions by their support of property rights. Property rights, property, and economic autonomy are important means for self-determination, though beware their propensity to become ends in themselves.
    4. The Global Innovation Index is an ongoing effort by the INSEAD business school to measure innovation in national economies, see their innovation ranking of countries.
    5. Happy Planet Index is an environmental efficiency measure, meant as an alternative to GDP, or the Human Development Index. Considers human well-being vs. ecological footprint. A lot of surprising results, and much to disagree with, but it's a start to a justified shift in thinking.

Updates of the Big-Picture

When one thinks at the scale of years or decades, most current events are noise, while most short-term forecasts are linear projections. Thus significant and/or surprising changes of the Big-Picture require a longer view than typical daily/weekly/monthly news cycles, and certainly multiple perspectives.

I haven't yet compiled a vetted list of resources here; instead I plan to post monthly with a list of Big-Picture updates.