Greg Cermak | Big History, Factfulness, and Sustainable Development

I am a specialist in science communications/data analytics and a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Solar System Ambassador interested in expanding the scope of my public speaking about NASA’s space/earth science missions to include sustainable development. My idea was to develop a presentation titled “Big History, Factfulness and Sustainable Development.” The presentation would broadly examine our past, explain our present, and imagine our future.

I teach astrobiology at Washington State University in Vancouver. Astrobiology focuses on the search for life in the universe and integrates aspects of astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology and physics.

My first introduction to the concept of Big History was in 2018, when I read a book titled Origin Story: A Big History of Everything by David Christian. Similar to astrobiology in some aspects, Big History focuses on integrating human history into the wider history of the cosmos.

Big History is divided into 5 major subject areas:

  • The Universe
  • Our Solar System and Earth
  • Life
  • Humans
  • The Future

After reading the book, I got the idea of developing my presentation on “Big History, Factfulness and Sustainable Development.” Humans are unique in that we have developed “collective learning.” I wanted the presentation to focus on human history through the lens of globalization and on the future through the lens of sustainable development. The project would also utilize the power of stories to connect and persuade us.

But more than individual stories are needed to represent the scope of changes taking place in the world. As Max Roser wrote in “The short history of global living conditions and why it matters that we know it,” stories about individual people are engaging; however, they are not representative of the changing world, and so you must tell many stories at once using statistics.

In 2018, I decided to go back to school at the SDG Academy to research the history of globalization and sustainable development for the future. I have completed 11 courses to date.

One of the most significant reflections I have made after taking SDG Academy courses is the complicated position globalization has in our human history and development. Globalization has brought economic growth, rising living standards and the reduction of extreme poverty globally. But, globalization has also brought many injustices and inequality.  Governments have increased spending and taxes to pay for public policies that provide social transfers back to the public. Globalization and social policy both will be required for a more just and equal future for all. Globalization has also bumped up against planetary boundaries.

Another major reflection I have made is on the structure of the SDGs. The SDG framework will stimulate action on three key themes: people, planet, prosperity. According to Professor Jeffrey Sachs, the cost of achieving the SDGs is estimated to be 1% of world output per year ($125 trillion dollars) or less to mid-century: not a crushingly heavy financial cost. The biggest challenges are public education, cooperation, and organization. For my part, I am focusing on public education.

With “Big History, Factfulness and Sustainable Development,” I have developed a presentation that incorporates my lifelong interests and passions to examine our past, explain our present, and imagine our future using the power of stories to connect and persuade us  what the future could look like. Reviews have been very positive; people are enlightened, encouraged and want to learn more. With the recent worldwide Covid-19 virus pandemic and societal inequality, I hope the Agenda 2030 framework offers a blueprint of what the future holds.

Greg Cermak is a specialist in science communications and data analytics. He is a NASA Solar System Ambassador and software engineer/technical trainer with more than thirty years’ experience developing high-performance engineering, scientific, and analytical software applications. His interests include eScience, technology, history, reading, hiking, bicycling rails to trails, and exploring America’s byways. He is a frequent speaker at school programs, public, and industry events.