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Where Does It Lead?

Author: Robert J. Maxwell (rmax304823@yahoo.com) from Deming, New Mexico, USA
21 October 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In the final shot, James Burke stands in the foreground while a freighter at a Jamaican dock behind him is loaded with bauxite. Burke has spent the past forty minutes explaining to us how the industrial revolution generated a surfeit of both regimentation and wealth. No more cottage industries; no more water wheels. Factories provided the growing population with things that we now take for granted as necessities -- pottery, cutlery, and imported clothing and foodstuffs. And it was all powered by coal and it was all made possible by the use of finite materials like iron, petroleum, aluminum, chrome, and zinc.

Now Burke glances over his shoulder at the freighter and tells us, "Sure, we now have the muscle to shape the earth any way we want. But suppose we turn it into a giant hole in the ground?" He's not emphatic about it, not making an argument, not engaging in a polemic. He's just asking us the question.

And he ought to. Very few other people seem to be asking. In 1950 the earth's population was estimated at a bit fewer than two billion. Now it's about seven billion. At its current rate of growth it will reach twelve billion by 2050, another thirty-seven years. What happens when we run out of finite resources?

There isn't much difference between Burke's earlier three series, called "Discovery," and this later one, "The Day the Universe Changed," except that here he introduces a bit more of what might loosely be called social engagement or even "philosophy". (He mentions John Locke at one point. You know John Locke -- "life, liberty, and property"?) The narrative thread is the same as it was -- the development and interdependence of technology and culture, but with a few more comments on the ideas, like religion, that drove the evolution of both. Still, he remains what the anthropologist Marvin Harris called a "techno-environmental materialist." It's a reasonable position, and this is a fine series.

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