Friday, September 08, 2006

Climate change rocked cradles of civilization

Source: EurekAlert!

Severe climate change was the primary driver in the development of civilisation, according to new research by the University of East Anglia.

The early civilisations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, South Asia, China and northern South America were founded between 6000 and 4000 years ago when global climate changes, driven by natural fluctuations in the Earth's orbit, caused a weakening of monsoon systems resulting in increasingly arid conditions. These first large urban, state-level societies emerged because diminishing resources forced previously transient people into close proximity in areas where water, pasture and productive land was still available.

In a presentation to the BA Festival of Science on September 7, Dr. Nick Brooks will challenge existing views of how and why civilisation arose. He will argue that the earliest civilisations developed largely as a by-product of adaptation to climate change and were the products of hostile environments.

"Civilisation did not arise as the result of a benign environment which allowed humanity to indulge a preference for living in complex, urban, 'civilized' societies," said Dr. Brooks.

"On the contrary, what we tend to think of today as 'civilisation' was in large part an accidental by-product of unplanned adaptation to catastrophic climate change. Civilisation was a last resort - a means of organising society and food production and distribution, in the face of deteriorating environmental conditions."

He added that for many, if not most people, the development of civilisation meant a harder life, less freedom, and more inequality. The transition to urban living meant that most people had to work harder in order to survive, and suffered increased exposure to communicable diseases. Health and nutrition are likely to have deteriorated rather than improved for many.

The new research challenges the widely held belief that the development of civilization was simply the result of a transition from harsh, unpredictable climatic conditions during the last ice age, to more benign and stable conditions at the beginning of the Holocene period some 10,000 years ago.

The research also has profound philosophical implications because it challenges deeply held beliefs about human progress, the nature of civilisation and the origins of political and religious systems that have persisted to this day. It suggests that civilisation is not our natural state, but the unintended consequence of adaptation to climatic deterioration - a condition of humanity "in extremis".

Dr. Brooks said: "Having been forced into civilized communities as a last resort, people found themselves faced with increased social inequality, greater violence in the form of organised conflict, and at the mercy of self-appointed elites who used religious authority and political ideology to bolster their position. These models of government are still with us today, and we may understand them better by understanding how civilisation arose by accident as a result of the last great global climatic upheaval."


Lou Gold said...

Nick Brooks is possibly speculating way beyond his limited data but this is one of the most fascinating hypotheses that I’ve seen. If correct, it could explain a lot about the way we are.

In the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East the rise of the constellated forces of civilization, urbanization and agriculture were associated with the innovation of irrigation which allowed more food to be produced and support of a larger and denser population. The consensus theory is that civilization was the result of the specialization and surplus that was a consequence of this technology-induced abundance.

But, what drove people to change from their previous hunter-gatherer ways that had maintained a balance between population size, lifestyle and available food for a long time? What broke and what had to be fixed?

According to Brooks, it mostly likely it began with climate changes about 5000 years ago that produced less rainfall and forced people to concentrate along the rivers. Population density increased. More people arrived from regions that were less productive. Population began to overshoot the capacity of even this still fertile niche. Tribes fought for the scraps. And all searched for ways to increase food production. Necessity brought forth the enormous undertaking of building a large scale system of irrigation and the hard and soft technologies necessary to sustain cities. This institutionalized a new consciousness of human organization, of control of both people and nature. Civilization was born.

Food scarcities increased competition for limited resources and produced the need to satisfy or control desperate populations. Beneficent big men and petty tyrants arrived on the scene. The garden of abundance was replaced by the civilization of scarcity and the consciousness of poverty. Governments, armies and the politics of distribution were the logical result. The hunter-gatherer consciousness of adaptation, flexibility and decentralization gave way to (or was overwhelmed by) the consciousness of competition, conquest, centralization and control.

The threat of scarcity and the fear of suffering well may have been the engines that drove humans toward technological civilization. We became “techno-fixers”, or at least we tried. Some fixes worked, at least for awhile and for some. These “some”, the survivors and controllers, guided the future and wrote the history. They quite understandably named the cumulative societal and cultural development, "civilization", and technological innovation, "progress." Indeed, these words are now so laden with positive value connotations and so embedded in our language and psyche that it would be difficult to use them to signal acts of desperation.

Contrarily, “civilization” and “progress” are easily used in a narrative about the conquest of nature. The story of civilization is full of our rising up above (and against) nature: “How we won the war against the forces of the wilderness.” Could it be that these exalted words really describe a "worst case" outcome of being “thrust out of the garden”? Civilization and progress may have been more of a by-product of adapting to climate change than an “original sin”. But, nevertheless, we were set on a path of endless problem-solving that has driven the quest for new technologies ever since. Progress became a habitual cycle of reaching for techno-fixes to solve the problems created by the previously set of techno-fixes. We know that the new expressway lane only creates a bigger traffic jam but we build it anyway. Is thinking that nature might be controlled (or escaped) both the way of civilization and the path of illusion?

It is noteworthy that the very same historical era that gave us civilization also gave us the great religion traditions that survive to modern times. At first, these were exoteric religions of mono-cultural “oneness”, of conquest, power and control. Eventually, there also emerged counter esoteric spiritual traditions of compassion, forgiveness and detachment, in an effort to correct a consciousness that had become separated from nature, spirit and one another.

A new remedy was offered:

Let go of the illusion. Find the true self. Realize its connectedness to all. Treat all as one. Forgive and forget the past. It was only a learning process. The true life is the way of compassion. Relationship and change are the only realties.

But, as Nick Brooks says, "Once the cat is out of the bag, it doesn't go back. You can't uninvent technology." Civilization, like the ego, is a fact of life. Originally a circumstance-specific survival strategy, it became like old scar tissue from a childhood wound. The immediately adaptive solution grew into a limitation to later growth. Civilization, ego and the fantasy of control became entrenched as habits of a well-defended self and an ever-perpetuating institutional form. Many still live in the waking dream of controlling nature (human and ecological) through the artifacts of civilization and the instruments of innovative technology.

Of course, I’m using hyperbole. Civilization has always had its discontents. Turning it into yet another judgment against the human race is both harsh and unproductive. We are what we are and we struggle to do as well as we can. Though we get stuck with both our triumphs and our mistakes, we maintain a faith that says that we can learn. Now, in another era of great challenges, it may be that learning how to let go of our illusions is as important as learning how to fix them. Perhaps the most meaningful new technologies will be the ones that teach us how to recover the hunter-gatherer mind-set of adaptation rather than the civilized mind-set of control. Ironically, this may be the way that civilization can save itself.

Ioannis Georganas said...

Thanks Lou for such an interesting and detailed comment! Maybe you should also present it somewhere else.