Career Description

The emergence of my ecological concerns
In December of 1968, at age sixteen, I watched the Apollo 8 flight to the moon through live black-and-white television broadcasts. Soon after, I saw the first color images of our planet at a distance photographed from lunar orbit in the January 10, 1969, issue of Time magazine.
Contemplating those photos transformed my understanding of Earth from a geographically well-known globe into a tiny, precious, and beautifully-colored orb swinging through seemingly endless space. This was our common home in the cosmos. Yet its past, present, and future did not appear to be well known, at least not to me or anyone else that I knew.
From one moment to the next, our human existence and its future suddenly looked precarious to me (and, unknown to me, to many others as well at that time). Those thoughts and feelings were reinforced through the famous Limits to Growth Report published in 1972.
This report came as a result of a study performed by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology research group led by the US computer scientist Jay Forrester and the US system analyst Dennis Meadows. It had been commissioned by the Club of Rome, a group of mostly European intellectuals and business leaders who had become similarly worried about our global future.
Most notably, a paragraph in the Dutch introduction to The Limits to Growth stated that we would only be able to effectively change our current situation for the better if we understood how the current situation differed from those earlier periods of history that had shaped humans in a biological and cultural sense. This appeared very plausible and urgent to me, then and now.
Deciding to pursue my ecological cocnerns
Yet it was only in 1978, after having completed my study of biochemistry at Leyden University, that I began to change course. During my study I had been part of research teams investigating what was then known as the genetic engineering of plants as well as the synthesis of small nucleotides. By that time I was becoming increasingly worried that none of what I had learned at Leyden University would help us to solve the global ecological problems, while it would contribute nothing at all to answering the question how humanity had got itself into its current ecological predicament.
Because I knew hardly anything about the larger world through first-hand experience, I started traveling overland, first through Europe and Israel, and subsequently also through portions of East and West Africa as well as India. In 1980, I worked on the ecological farm and production facility Gaiapolis near the city of Leyden. All of that transformed my outlook on the human condition on Earth.
During my travels, I had encountered a great many aspects of life that I had not known before and even less understood. I therefore realized that for seeking answers to my ecological concerns, I needed to obtain an in-depth global view of our human past and present, while I was not aware of publications that already offered such comprehensive views.
A chance meeting on a Sudanese train in 1979 with the thoughtful and experienced German student of cultural anthropology  Joachim Theis stimulated me, back in the Netherlands, to explore that academic field. Most notably the textbook  Culture, People, Nature (1975) by the US cultural anthropologist Marvin Harris further convinced me that for answering my ecological concerns, I needed to study cultural anthropology, which I did at the Free University Amsterdam between 1981 and 1987.
Through my earlier experiences I had realized how disconnected urban people such as myself, living within industrialized societies, had become from the surrounding land that we are totally dependent on for our survival and well-being. I wondered, therefore, how mostly self-supporting farmers would deal with their situation. Would they be more careful with the land they farmed because they realized better than urban people that they were so very much dependent on it?
My Peru Research
Thanks to one of my Free University Amsterdam teachers, Dr. Joop van Kessel, who had taught us about native Andean life  and its history in the North Chilean Cordillera, I decided to do my field research among Andean farmers in southern Peru, where their traditional lifeways had been better preserved.
Through his Peruvian academic contacts, Joop van Kessel helped me to find a suitable place to do my research in the village of Zurite, situated near the ancient Inca capital Cusco. At Cusco university (UNSAAC) at the Convenio UNSAAC-NUFFIC, most notably the Peruvian cultural anthropologists Dr. Jorge Villafuerte Recharte and his wife Dra. Auristela Toledo de Villafuerte generously supported my research in that village, which, over the years that followed, would become very dear to me.
At that time, however, my environmental concerns were not yet considered a legitimate research subject at the Free University of Amsterdam Cultural Anthropology Department. I therefore decided to research the local Andean religion, in the hope and expectation that people’s ecological concerns would be expressed in such ways. That turned out to be a fortunate choice, even though it necessitated a long detour.
Another Free University Amsterdam teacher of cultural anthropology, Dr. Mart Bax, helped me to use and further develop a variant of the sociological approach developed by the German sociologist Norbert Elias, in terms of processes of interdependent people and their associated behavior. This way of thinking turned out to be particularly useful and effective for analyzing not only Peruvian society throughout its history, but also, in principle, for all other societies worldwide throughout their history.
I performed my first fieldwork study in Peru between September of 1985 and May of 1986. This brought about an extraordinarily deep increase of my knowledge as well as a similarly profound transformation of a great many of my earlier perceptions.
Between 1988 and 1992, I was fortunate to be able to continue this research at the Postdoctoraal Instituut voor de Sociologie, later renamed the Amsterdam School for Social Science Research, supervised there by the Dutch sociologist Dr. Joop Goudsblom. As part of that, I was able to do more fieldwork in the village of Zurite in 1988 and 1991, while I also visited the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain, in 1990 for documentary studies. That research supplemented similar studies in the archives of Zurite, Cusco, and Lima.
I successfully defended my Ph.D. thesis on October 12, 1992, awarded with cum laude, the highest distinction in the Netherlands. This particular date was chosen because of its significance in human history, namely that on this very date 500 years previously, Columbus and his crew had first stepped ashore on a Carribean island (disregarding the difference of ten days resulting from the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calender in 1582 CE).
In 1996, while presenting the results of my research in Cusco, the UNSAAC greatly honored me and my work by organizing an official book presentation on August 9 in their Salón de Grados, Paraninfo Universitario, Plaza de Armas, Cusco. It can be watched here.
To my enormous dismay, however, I was unable to obtain an academic position in cultural anthropology or sociology. This situation forced me to discontinue my Peru studies, even though I have kept following the Peruvian news as much as possible ever since, which is now a great deal easier thanks to the emergence of the Internet. Yet in terms of academic job opportunities, I was then almost back at square one.
Big History
Yet fortune smiled at me again. In 1989, the Australian historian Dr. David Christian had started his revolutionary Big History course at Macquarie University, Sydney, co-taught by lecturers ranging from an astronomer to historians. By the end of 1992, Joop Goudsblom visited David Christian in Australia and brought back his course syllabus. In February of 1993, Goudsblom invited me to jointly organize a similar course at the University of Amsterdam. In December of 1994, we started our first experimental course, which turned out to be a great success. The sudden enormous increase of knowledge resulting from this course produced another deep transformation of my perceptions.
However, for many years I had a rather limited academic position, because the university was not willing to offer me more. Obtaining that would take another ten years. But the combination of my chemistry knowledge, my Peru research, and big history turned out to be very fruitful not only for seeking a better understanding of our cosmic past, but also for formulating better answers to my original ecological concerns. This led to two books, The Structure of Big History (1996), and Big History and the Future of Humanity (2010, 2015) as well as many articles.
How the Biosphere Works
Although those books and articles had already answered my original research questions to a considerable extent, I kept feeling a nagging doubt, because I knew that, theoretically speaking, we did not yet understand very well our biosphere’s functioning and its history. Yet finding such theoretical principles appeared out of reach.
But again, fortune smiled at me. Growing pepper plants in our Amsterdam apartment in 2017 while observing what they were doing led to another totally unexpected transformation of my thinking, in this case my understanding of our biosphere and its history. This resulted in my most recent book How the Biosphere Works: Fresh Views Discovered while Growing Peppers (2022).
After having finished this book I feel to have completed my original quest: answering the question of how humanity got itself into its current ecological predicament, which allows us to consider with more clarity our options for the future. Of course, a great many questions remain. But at least those major general theoretical principles now appear clear. However, one never knows for sure, and surprises may lurk around the next corner.
What should be done next?
To effectively deal with humanity’s future survival on this planet in reasonable well-being, we urgently need to establish a global network of biosphere stations: prominent interdisciplinary research centers in every country on Earth dedicated to studying the biosphere including human influences. In such institutes, outstanding scholars will devote their time and energy to researching all these issues in an integrated fashion, while offering policy recommendations for how to address them in the best possible ways.
Some of those ecological issues, most notably human-caused climate change, are already receiving such support. But the biospheric issues are far greater, more numerous, and far more wide-ranging than climate change alone. In consequence, far more will need to be done to effectively deal with all of that. I very much hope that humanity will rise to this challenge.
In doing so, we need to keep in mind that there is only one single biosphere, on which all of us depend.
A distant look from space at our home planet combined with focused approaches, zooming in and out according to the needs, may be very helpful for doing all of that. In this respect, the photos of Earth at a distance first taken by the astronauts of Apollo 8 in December of 1968 may still be inspirational. But surely, newer such images may be similarly helpful.
If you would like to take a look at our home planet from space almost in real time, from a distance of about 900,000 miles (about 1.5 million km), you might want to visit:
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