The Great Acceleration


Hi, this is Alex, from MinuteEarth, and this
is the so-called “hockey stick graph”. You’ve probably seen it before, because Earth’s
temperature has risen so fast over the last few decades that it looks kind of like a hockey
stick. Except, a hockey stick is also a graph of
the amount of plastic we make each year. And the number of extinctions we’re causing. And the amount of fertilizer we put in our
oceans. Aaaand the amount of fish we catch. And how many people there are on Earth. And how much energy we use. There are hockey stick graphs everywhere – we
could probably even make one about the number of hockey sticks. That’s because we’re experiencing the Great
Acceleration – a rapid and world-changing increase in the intensity and scale at which
humans do nearly everything. For most humans throughout history – meaning
the cumulative 100 billion or so people who existed along the flat part of the stick – not
much changed from year to year or even century to century. If someone went to bed in the year 1020 and
slept for 200 years, they’d wake up in a world with slightly more people, living lives
just as long (or as short), and with each person still using mostly wood for heat, and
animals for power. In other words, humans still weren’t that
big of a deal. But if someone went to bed in 1820 and slept
for 200 years (that is, until today!), they’d wake up in a world with 7 times as many people,
who live 2.5 times as long as in 1820, and who use weird and climate-changing fuels to
power their homes and run their mechanical industries. In today’s world, humans are a planetary-scale
force. This Great Acceleration – the curve in the
hockey stick – happened largely because since the 1800s, we’ve been unleashing the incredible
energy contained in fossil fuels like never before. Initially, fossil fuels powered growth mostly
in North America and Europe, but the big, planet-changing, worldwide Great Acceleration
didn’t happen until after World War II and independence movements in Africa and Asia,
when people worldwide gained more access to these fuels, as well as to new farming technology
and public health breakthroughs. As a result, our world today – and our influence
on the world – is vastly different not only from 1950, and 1820, 1220, and 1020, it’s
vastly different from the world as it was experienced by the vast majority of humans
over the vast majority of human existence. And because the world has gotten so different
so quickly, if someone fell asleep today and woke up in 200 years, there’s really no
telling what they’d find. This video was sponsored by the University
of Minnesota, where students, faculty and staff across all fields of study are working
to solve the Grand Challenges facing society. And it turns out that pretty much all of the
challenges are wrapped up in the Great Acceleration: Assuring Clean Water and Sustainable Ecosystems,
Fostering Just and Equitable Communities, Advancing Health Through Tailored Solutions,
Enhancing Individual and Community Capacity for a Changing World, and Feeding the World
Sustainably. In addition to researching these Grand Challenges,
the University also teaches about them, like through the course “Living the Good Life
at the End of the World” – where Institute on the Environment director Jessica Hellmann
and English professor Dan Philippon help students consider what it means to live a good life
in this moment of rapid change. Thanks, University of Minnesota!

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