The aim and objective of this project is to find or produce a short guide to the past, present, and future of humanity – of human life on Earth – using key concepts, maps, indicators etc (I like charts or graphs showing time series data). The aim is to show the wood rather than the trees.

In 2018, I selected and read between 40 and 50 books, institutional reports and studies, and other documents, preparing to draft a manuscript for Regional Rides, which I imagined would be part travel guide, part guide to the Earth system and human system. As Pura, one of my hosts during my road trip around the UK in 2017, had recognised, it was not unlike the combination in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, albeit it was non-fiction. (I can’t recall whether I told her I was born in Guildford, the county town of Surrey, in south east England, where Ford Prefect, field researcher for the Guide, first claims to be from.)

In 2020, I added Professor Lenton’s Earth System Science : a Very Short Introduction to that number. Though introductory, I found the book a bit of a stretch; I have a scientific background, of sorts, but in the social sciences rather than natural sciences. The first chapters of the book describe what Professor Lenton terms the ‘basic architecture’ of the Earth System. Revolutions in the history of the Earth – relatively few – occur when system regulation fails, giving rise to changes in the basic architecture. This is differentiated from changes in system state – from, for example, a hotter to a cooler state, or a cooler to a hotter state – within the same architecture.

It seems to me that these are some of the key concepts that might be used in the sort of guide I have in mind. I am feeling I need to add to (or add to and subtract from) my reference material, including a number of more recent histories of the world, to be able to more comfortably suggest what is the current basic architecture of the human system, how it is regulated, historical revolutions and state changes, and alternative futures. I have a sense of these things, having thought about them at length, along with my own lived experience and study, and would like to complete what might be regarded as due diligence before setting it out.

My intention is to identify the most obvious and promising sources (I am restricted to English language sources), checking where sensible with key writers and authorities (not least my colleagues at the Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems), including popular, academic/scientific, and grey literature and work in other media. I will then draft a view of matters supported by such data as I can find. The point, as Lord Keynes said, after Professor Read, is to be roughly right, rather than precisely wrong.