How Earth Made Us is a documentary series produced by the BBC. Like many BBC programs, the cinematography is spectacular. But, perhaps more interesting, is the approach the program takes to history. Instead of only examining human interactions, the program focuses on how natural forces such as geology, geography, and climate have shaped history. And, the whole series is available on YouTube.
In the first episode, Water, host Iain Stewart explores the effects that extreme conditions have had on human development. He visits the Sahara Desert, which receives less than a centimeter of rainfall each year, and Tonlé Sap, which swells to become the largest freshwater lake in southeast Asia during monsoon season. The contrast is striking. One interesting factoid is that the world’s reservoirs now hold 10,000 cubic kilometers of water (2400 cubic miles). Because most of these reservoirs are in the northern hemisphere, they have actually affected the earth’s rotation very slightly.
The second episode, Deep Earth, begins in a stunning crystal cave in Mexico, in which crystals have grown to several meters long. The cave, which is five kilometers below the earth’s surface, was discovered by accident when miners broke into it. I can’t imagine what they thought when they first set foot inside.
The third episode, Wind, explores the tradewinds which spread trade and colonization, which lead to the beginning of globalization. This brought fortune to some who exploited resources and tragedy to others who were enslaved. The view from the doorway through which thousands of Africans passed on their way to the Americas is a chilling reminder of this period of history.
Fire, the fourth episode, moves from cultures that held the flame as sacred, to the role of carbon in everything from plants to diamonds to flames. And carbon is also the basis of petroleum, which has powered the growth of humankind. Several methods of extracting crude oil around the world are explored.
The final episode, Human Planet, turns the equation around tying the first four episodes together by looking at how humans have had an impact on the earth. One of the most compelling examples is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which is the result of ocean currents bringing plastic and other debris from countries around the Pacific rim. This garbage collects, is broken down by the sun, and eventually settles to the bottom to become part of the earth’s crust. This is juxtaposed to rock strata in the Grand Canyon, pointing out that eventually, one layer of rock under the garbage patch in the Pacific will be made up of this debris.
In all, there is almost 5 hours of documentary video here. It is a compelling production with spectacular imagery. There are any number of ways to use these videos with an ESL class. And because they are available on YouTube, there are even more options available to an ESL instructor. Instead of everyone watching together in the classroom, the videos can be posted in an online content management system and students can watch them anywhere, anytime on their laptops and smartphones, if they have access to that kind of technology. And if the videos are being watched outside of the classroom, there are more options for assigning different groups of students to watch different videos and then have conversations with students who watched different episodes. The ubiquity of online video can bring learning to students outside of the classroom.