Climate and History

by Will Katerberg.

Climate ChangeEverything has a history, but it’s easy not to notice. Partly that’s because we associate “history” with humanity, not the rest of the natural world. Partly it’s because some things seem timeless and unchanging, such as climate. Weather changes; climate does not seem to.

A new book by John L. Brooke, a historian at Ohio State University, can help us to think about history in a more expansive way. Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey will be available in print at the end of March. It shows how the earth-system approach of climate science can be integrated with the history of humanity.

I’ve read a rough draft of the book and paged through the Kindle version available at Amazon. In a narrative that he describes as a “rough journey,” Brooke shows that climate has a history. Changes in climate have decisively shaped human evolution and the rise and fall of empires, and humanity is now decisively shaping our planet’s climate.

Geological, environmental, and climate history help explain biological evolution, Brooke argues, including that of humanity. Specific events shaped our planet’s history over millions of years, not just general processes of genetic variation and natural selection. A famous example is the asteroid impact 65 million years ago that helps explain the extinction of dinosaurs and the emergence of mammals as a dominant group of organisms. For the evolution of early humans, dramatic changes in climate associated with ice ages and periods of warming were decisive.

We also need to put the origins of agriculture and the first states, humanity’s technological and economic development, the collapse of empires, and the start of new historical eras in the context of the history of climate, disease epidemics, and environmental circumstances more generally. Climate and disease have played a far more determining factor in human history than historians have granted. This does not mean we should downplay the role of culture, technology, social change, and ideas. Brooke is no determinist. People’s ability to learn and adapt and the acceleration of humanity’s “collective learning” explain how societies and humanity as a whole flourished in new ways after eras of environmental, demographic, and socio-political collapse.

Malthusian arguments—of societies growing too large and overwhelming the natural environments that supported them—generally don’t work, Brooke argues, at least not for the world before the mid-1700s. Exogenous disasters, related to climate and disease epidemics, do more to explain the fall of empires and collapse of civilizations than Malthusian traps.

Brooke is not blithely optimistic about humanity’s creative ability to find a technical solution to climate change. Modern agriculture and the industrial revolution did not allow humanity to escape Malthusian traps. That’s the common optimistic, modern story. Just the opposite. Modern technology and the explosion of the human population, from 1 billion to 7 billion in the past two centuries, have finally created a potential Malthusian trap, one made by humanity not nature.

In the 21st century, with with human activity causing climate change and leading to the scarcity of key resources such as potable water, arable land, oil, and rare earth elements, we are undermining the conditions that have made human civilization and history possible not just in the modern era but for the past 10,000 years.

Do we have in our collective learning the ability to change how we live to avoid a global Malthusian trap? If we do not take into account the integrated history of humanity and climate can we imagine alternative futures shaped by humanity’s impact on global climate and the planet more generally?

In “The Climate of History” Dipesh Chakrabarty lays out the challenges that climate change brings to how we think about humanity and history. Climate change and the Anthropocene “spell the collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history,” he explains. We need to put histories of globalization, capitalism especially, in conversation with the “species history of humans.” The dominant narrative of modern history writing—human agency and the emergence of freedom—must be rethought. What has human agency, in the ideal and in reality, wrought? Should the modern narrative instead be one about limits?

Finally, as Chakrabarty explains, this new climate of history is fundamentally new, “probing the limits of historical understanding.” Our species history, like the history of climate, is something we cannot directly experience.  We can only understand it through the abstractions of earth systems and science-oriented history. At very least, we need to develop a new imagination that includes the aspects of history that we can’t experience.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2013 Report

Here at Calvin we are beginning to do this. We have a flourishing Environmental Studies program. Many departments include environmental themes in their curriculum. The History Department is developing an environmental history course.

Does humanity have the capacity to solve the challenges associated with climate change and other earth systems processes? The key to that capacity is not primarily technological, Brooke concludes, but a matter of how we choose to live. In that sense climate change is not just an environmental, economic, political, moral, and religious problem, according to Mike Hulme. It also is an opportunity to reimagine our place in the world.

William Katerberg’s areas of focus are intellectual history, the North American West, environmental history, and world history. He is the chairperson of the History Department at Calvin College.

One thought on “Climate and History

  1. Pingback: Big Data and Big History | Historical Horizons

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