How we got here

‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. 1958

The first of our species – homo sapiens – evolved in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, over 100,000 years ago. The Earth System our ancestors inherited is some 400,000 times older – at over 4 billion years old, just over a third of the age of the cosmos. The crust of the Earth had already taken on its basic, presentday structure, by the time our footprints appeared, but, globally, coastlines were very different to those of today, with mean sea level falling and rising by more than one hundred metres with the extension and recession of the cryosphere during the glacials and interglacials of the Earth’s (ongoing) Fourth Ice Age. The Earth System was one nevertheless fit for humans, with a biosphere and ecology similarly having its presentday structure.

Figure 2.1 Earth System and Human System Indicators time series 100,000 years (Population)

Something like 95% of human history is our prehistory, during which time our ancestors migrated to every corner of the planet. The Human System came to be geographically extensive then, but not unitary, with, by modern standards, small local communities living in isolation from (and ignorance of) each other, and adapting gradually to the great variety of local conditions, producing the various branches and cultural-linguistic groups  of our family. For most of the recent past – the 5% or so for which we have written, historical records – the Human System has been a ‘Live and Let Die’ System, with different classes experiencing and made to experience different conditions of life. It is only in the last 500 years (less than 1% of human history to date) that the system has assumed a unitary global extent however, and, with our changing technology, and the ‘Great Acceleration’, a capacity to permanently affect the Earth System.

Figure 2.2 Earth System and Human System Indicators time series 1500 – present (Population by material condition; Land use; Extraction/Production/Wastes)

That we live in a ‘Live and Let Die’ system and that there are existential threats to human life on Earth is well understood by our institutions, and by the minority of ultra high net worth and high net worth individuals directing them. States have taken some steps – for example, the recent UNGA resolution on forwarding multilateral nuclear disarmament; and the annual Conferences of the Parties since 1994 under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – but overall have not moved to change the basic architecture of a system responsible for widespread immiseration and premature death, and for transforming the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, and causing the sixth mass extinction in the history of life (which, on the present course, will include us). On the contrary, the major corporations and states of the world, and moneyed classes, have continued to pursue a fossil-fuel powered, neoliberal globalisation  and militarisation, domestically and overseas, actively opposing change, using a variety of legal and illegal means. The response of the middle, low net worth, and ultra low net worth peoples of the world, together with the dissident elements of the better off, has been inadequate to date, including continued use, operation, and maintenance of the system.

Box 2.1 A Brief History of Consciousness



c.750BC  The Iliad; The Odyssey;

440BC The Histories; 411 BC Lysistrata;

 19 BC The Aeneid;

c.150AD  The New Testament


820 AD  The Compendious Book; 875 AD  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

1086 AD The Domesday Book

c.1100 AD Tales of Robin Hood; 1136 AD Historica Regum Britannia

c. 1224 AD Canticle of the Sun

1320 AD  La Commedia; 1380 AD The Wycliffe Bible; 1381 AD Sermon by John Ball;

1390 AD Piers Plowman

 c.1400 AD Gawain and the Green Knight; The Canterbury Tales


1525 AD The Tyndale Bible; 1543 AD De revolutionibus

c. 1600 AD Hamlet; 1605 AD Don Quixote; 1610 AD Sidereus Nuncius; 1649 AD  The New Law of Righteousness; 1667 AD Paradise Lost;  1687 AD Principia;

1726 AD  Gulliver’s Travels; 1728 AD The Beggar’s Opera; 1759 AD  Candide; 1776 AD   US Declaration of Independence; The Wealth of Nations; 1789 AD              Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen 1791 AD The Rights of Man; 1792 AD  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

1804 AD   And did those feet; Liberty or Death; 1818 AD  Frankenstein; 1819 AD               The Masque of Anarchy; The Black Paintings; 1830 AD   Liberty Leading the People; 1838 AD The People’s Charter; 1843 AD  A Christmas Carol; 1848 AD The Communist Manifesto; 1851 AD  Moby Dick; 1859 AD On the Origin of Species; 1867 AD  Capital Vol. 1; 1869 AD War and Peace; 1879 AD Progress and Poverty; 1899 AD Heart of Darkness

1903 AD The Souls of Black Folk; 1905 AD  On the Electromagnetics of Moving Bodies; 1915 AD The Junius Pamphlet; 1916 AD Jerusalem; 1919 AD The Second Coming; 1927 AD  The Cosmic Egg; 1928 AD  The Threepenny Opera; 1935 AD War is a Racket; 1936 AD The General Theory; 1937 AD Guernica; 1939 AD The Grapes of Wrath; 1942 AD Quit India; 1947 AD The Doomsday Clock; 1948 AD The Universal Declaration of Human Rights; 1949 AD The Third Man; 1950 AD  1984; 1953 AD  Molecular Structure; 1961 AD Eisenhower’s Farewell Address; 1963 AD  Eichmann in Jerusalem; 1964 AD                  Ballot or the Bullet; The Gospel According to St Matthew; 1967 AD Beyond Vietnam; 1968 AD Earthrise;  1972 AD Limits to Growth; The Ruling Class; 1976 AD How the Other Half Dies; 1979 AD Life on Earth; Life of Brian; 1980 AD Cosmos; 1981 AD  Protest and Survive; 1984 AD Threads; 1986 AD Stabilizing an Unstable Economy; 1988 AD  States and Markets; A Very British Coup; 1998 AD  Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court; Mad Money; 1999 AD   A People’s History of the World;

2000 AD  Century; 2002 AD  Globalization and its Discontents; 2005 AD                 Syriana; Harold Pinter Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech; 2006 AD We; 2007 AD                 The Great Deception; 2010 AD Indignez-Vous; 2011 AD The Global Minotaur; 2012 AD The Untold History of the United States; Monetary Economics; 2014 AD  This Changes Everything; Years of Living Dangerously; 2015 AD  Laudato Si; 2016 AD  Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations; 2016 AD   Democracy Now! 20th Anniversary Celebration

Where to go