Chapter 5
The Modern Revolution and the Future

After the rise of agriculture, powerful civilizations such as the Persians, Romans, and Mongols exploited and developed long-distance trade routes to expand their regional influence. New transportation and navigational technologies would later connect all world zones, ushering in greater global exchange, commerce, and collective learning. Humans gained control over much of the Earth. So what's next?

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Chapter at a Glance
54 Minutes
1 Threshold
5 Videos
1 Gallery

Into the Modern Era

About two hundred years ago to the world today

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Today, humans are the most powerful species on the planet, with seven billion people interacting as one interconnected global community. Human society is so powerful that it affects the fate of the entire biosphere. Some geologists call it the Anthropocene epoch.

This modern revolution is the eighth major threshold of increasing complexity in this course. We began to link up as one society and accumulated vast resources of information. Because this collective learning worked on a much larger scale, innovation sped up. With the discovery of fossil fuels, humans could leverage energy resources that have been stored for hundreds of millions of years in the Earth. Standards of living have steadily risen and, for better and worse, humans have gained control over much of the biosphere.

Fuel for the Ages

Join John Green on a Crash Course look at the greatest revolution of them all — the Industrial Revolution.

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There was a time when human hands provided most of the energy needed. Humans walked to travel long distances, planted crops by hand, and gathered fallen trees to cook and heat. That began to accelerate with the domestication of animals. Then the tiny island of England ran out of wood.

In search of something else to burn, Great Britain turned to coal, a largely abundant fossil fuel. Demand was so high it caused greater innovation, the introduction of a tremendously powerful invention — the steam engine. At first it was used to pump water out of coal mines. But these engines worked so well, they were put to other uses in North American cotton machines, then later in steam locomotives and steamships. The Industrial Revolution was well underway.


Population & Energy Consumption

See how population growth relates to global energy use

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Climate and Atmosphere

With human fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions rising much faster than ever before, scientists are seeing the biodiversity of all sectors declining faster than the Earth's usual rate of change. Some reports have claimed that up to half of all species face extinction this century. And many biologists believe it will rank as one of Earth's six major extinctions before it is over.

Even geologists are finding proof. Worldwide sediments contain radioactive signatures of atomic bomb testing in the 1960s. Similar evidence of chlorine from bomb testing and of mercury associated with the burning of coal also exists in ice-core samples.

There are differing opinions as to what these effects to the biosphere might bring and how humans might be able to overcome them. Some believe that humans have been in tight fixes before and have always been able to figure a way out, using their unique abilities of collective learning to generate new ideas, new technologies, and new solutions.

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One might think that natural changes in climate would proceed slowly and gradually. It doesn't always happen that way.

Crisscrossing and Connected

Trade, fuel, and globalization

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When humans began to take advantage of advances in transportation, exploring unknown parts of the world, they ushered in an exchange of people, ideas, plants, animals, and diseases among formerly separate regions.

By the early 19th century three factors — the interconnected world zones, the expansion and the importance of commerce, and the discovery of fossil fuels — began to rapidly transform some societies. Several of these regions found their wealth and power grew at an enormous rate, setting the stage for the first truly modern societies.


Inventions of the Modern Era

Can you identify the one item below that did NOT come into popular use after World War II?


    Jet Engines

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    Frank White's early jet engine was in development for many years prior to the start of World War II.



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    Original banana cream Twinkies were introduced in 1930. Banana rationing during World War II led to the vanilla cream version we know today.


    Radar & Sonar

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    Sonar was used to detect icebergs and submarines prior to World War II, and British scientists patented the first radar in 1935.



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    William Russell Frisbie, a baker, discovered his pie tins made excellent flying discs, but a former World War II POW eventually perfected the format.


    Nylon Stockings

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    Nylon made its debut at the 1939 World's Fair in New York, and was used as parachute material in World War II.


    The Slinky

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    In 1943 Richard James, a naval engineer, was working with tension springs when one of them fell to the ground and kept moving.



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    The modern computer as we know it was first described in 1936 by Alan Turing as a machine that could execute programmable commands.




    Early pasta dates back to the early first century, while pasta manufacturing machines have existed since the 1600s.


    Silly Putty

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    While the U.S. researched rubber substitutes during World War II, Silly Putty was created accidentally and later trademarked by Crayola.


    Synthetic Rubber

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    In 1944, a secret U.S. government initiative had American factories pouring out synthetic rubber at twice the level of the world's natural rubber production.

The Anthropocene Epoch

Humans dominate the Earth

Geologists have worked out a system to name large segments of Earth's time. They call short periods of thousands of years "epochs," longer ones that last tens of millions of years "periods," and really long ones lasting hundreds of millions of years "eras." The longest measurements of time are called "eons."

Paul Crutzen (1933— ), a Nobel Prize-winning Dutch chemist, suggested that we are in a new geologic epoch, which he proposed calling the Anthropocene. Anthropo is the Greek root for "human" and cene means "new." He believes that the state of human domination over the planet, drastically altering the Earth from its pre-industrial condition, warranted the name change.

Evidence of change

What kind of evidence could demonstrate that humans have begun to dominate and alter the life systems of the Earth? The most prominent answer is by now a familiar one: climate change. Plants and animals are moving northward; glaciers are melting; storms and droughts are increasing in severity, and weather patterns are changing.

Since 1945, humans have gained control over nuclear energy. After the United States dropped two atomic bombs, one on Hiroshima and another on Nagasaki, a handful of nations have tested bombs and several major accidents at nuclear plants have occurred. If multiple deployments of nuclear power were to happen, it could send large-scale debris up into the atmosphere, blocking the Sun's rays long enough to produce a "nuclear winter."

Another way that humans change Earth's systems lies in our ability to synthesize artificial chemicals, like drugs, pesticides, plastics, and synthetic fabrics. Earth is absorbing these chemicals, with unknown side effects.

Decisive awareness

We are becoming increasingly aware that the decisions made in the recent past, and those made in the near future, will determine the direction of life on our planet. Many leading scientists believe that our species have time to change behavior and implement positive new technologies. In other words, human ingenuity will see us through this decisive period, but it will take the commitment, innovation, and cooperation of humans across the planet to accomplish this.

Understanding Our Impact

Quiz: Threshold 8

Modern Revolution

  • Ingredients
  • Goldilocks Conditions
  • New Complexity
  • Which of the following was vital to the beginning and progress of the modern revolution?

  • All of the following were vital conditions that supported the modern revolution except:

  • One of the most important outcomes of the modern revolution includes:


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The Future

Big history is not yet finished. How might the lessons of the past eight thresholds inform our expectations for the future? What role will you play in shaping the next threshold?

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Can the past foretell the future?

What does 13.8 billion years of history tell you about yourself? How does knowing so much about the past change the way you think about the future? These may be the most important questions Big History asks. How would you answer them? Big history is an unfinished story.

What ingredients will be important, and what Goldilocks Conditions will make circumstances "just right" for a new level of complexity? Of course, we cannot see the future, but we can study those trends that seem most likely to shape the future.

The remote future

Oddly, it is easier to predict the very remote future, the future of the Earth and the Universe, because at this larger scale change is slower and there are fewer variables to calculate. The Sun will die in about 4 to 5 billion years, swelling until it gobbles up and destroys the Earth.

Evidence from distant galaxies suggests that the Universe's expansion is accelerating, which in turn suggests that galaxies will slowly become more and more isolated until, eventually, all stars burn out. The Universe will then fill up with dying stars, which will get pulled into the enormous gravitational field of black holes. The Universe will become simpler and simpler. This will not occur for billions of years. For now, we are living in the Universe's youth, in which we have abundant energy to generate new, complex, and interesting objects, such as ourselves!

Closer to home

At present, we can see both dangerous trends, such as global warming and the continued existence of nuclear weapons, as well as positive trends, such as increased collaboration in dealing with climate change, a slowing in population growth, and an acceleration in our knowledge about the biosphere.

Can we imagine a future largely free of conflict, disease, and degradation, one in which some humans may even begin to migrate to other worlds as our Paleolithic ancestors migrated to other continents? Or are we in danger of undermining the foundations of today's world with vicious conflict over scarce resources? The answers will depend on decisions made by the generations of humans that are alive today.



Poll: Our Future

Which do you think is more likely to happen in the future?


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