Climate Change Caused Civilisation?

Professor of anthropology Nick Brooks has announced that he believes it likely that a period of significant global climate change may well have been the trigger for our transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers to static community-based lifestyles. The increased aridity would have forced humans to cooperate and coalesce around increasingly scarce resources like water. It will be interesting to see if anyone takes this fascinating insight into the cultural history of our species and tries to spin it as a justification for doing nothing about the current round of climate upheavals.

4 thoughts on “Climate Change Caused Civilisation?”

  1. 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.

  2. Hasn’t Jared Diamond, among others been saying essentially the same thing or a while now? Maybe Brooks is the first to use the “climate change” meme explicitly, but this doesn’t seem like a very new or original idea.

    Lou Gold, I think the hunter-gatherer vs “civilized” is an interesting way to present one mindset change that might have surivival value or the species and, ironically enough, for civilization.

  3. “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.”

    Civilization maybe but society was already in the hunter-gatherer groups. Perhaps this can be analogized to the change from pack to herd?

  4. The data does not support such assertions. Temperature changes have varied more over the history of the world with little regard for human intervention. In addition, man made activities are only a minor contributor to temperature changing factors.

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