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Back in my undergraduate days, I was briefly fascinated by the work of a famous historian; well famous enough to get on the cover page of TIME magazine in the 1940s. His name is Arnold Toynbee. Over several decades he wrote a 12-volume tome on “A Study of History”. Described as a rather remote English professor, his work on the Cold War received considerable attention in the USA. But it was his theory of “challenge and response” that attracted me.

In the 50s, the ability at university to indulge in philosophical debates was possible. These debates extended into Sunday evening discussions at Church Fellowship. Thus for a period my teenage mind was being knocked about by odd inputs from across a spectrum of “big picture” thinkers. One of those was Toynbee. His large-scale philosophical history stretching back across millennia offered information on the rise and fall of civilizations. He canvassed a range of factors leading to his preferred theory. To achieve growth, a civilization or society will primarily be driven by creativity. This involved the uptake of work of a creative minority by the majority; for continued success creativity had to be sustained. If not, civilization would decay.

The relevance to me at the time was trying to grasp how we survived the Great Depression and World War II yet emerged in the 1950s with such a creative flourish. So many wonderful things were being experienced in Australia by all generations. What my parents and grandparents had previously endured was not part of my world view. From Toynbee I discovered the response to such horrible, challenging times was an ability for some to create and others to benefit. All this was part of my youthful “cycle and trend” view of history that I bored some erstwhile friends with.

Thinking now about our current global health/economic crisis, I see how we need creativity to get us over the proverbial hump and back to that desired state called normality. Here we see the power of science, not just in the way it reaches us daily as news, but also in the labs across many nations with the development of vaccines. I am optimistic that such creativity will get us out of all the pain and suffering, and along the way we may appreciate better how to respond to that other great long-term challenge facing the globe, namely climate change.

We are now being educated on just what science can achieve and how fast decision-makers can respond. Here is where communication of science is resonating and acted upon. Yes, the crisis is immediate. But the nature of challenges resulting from global warming is just as real. While more and more societies are feeling adverse impacts now, more will be in future—growth of such impacts are highly likely to increase exponentially just as they have done at a much faster time scale for COVID-19. So we must learn how to understand the nature of what science is projecting, what are the signs now of impacts attributed to climate change, and how policies must respond to address the challenges. Some further good MUST flow from this horrible virus.


Bruce Thom  

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author's thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2020, for correspondence about this blog post please email