Putting the life back in science fiction

More (Recreational) Reading
February 17, 2016, 6:29 pm
Filed under: climate change, more books, writing | Tags: ,

Yes, I’m still reading.

Speaking of which, yesterday, one of my readers passed along a book review essay from December 1, 2014: J.R. McNei’s Changing Climates of History.  It’s something you might enjoy, hence the link.

McNeil writes about how historians have started grappling with how historians have finally started grappling again with how climate affects civilizations, after casting environmental determinism to the outer darkness back after WWII.  Assuming McNeil’s right, this essay sheds a bit of light on why environmental determinism got such a bad rap, as well as highlighting some neat-looking books, one of which I actually read and included in Hot Earth Dreams, not knowing (as usual), that it was part of a wave going through academia over the last five years.

This last doesn’t surprise me.  As I learned when I was doing my PhD, often the thoughts that seem to spring up spontaneously in my head are springing up simultaneously in the heads of everyone else who’s reading the same stuff I’m reading.  Some ideas turn out to be pretty obvious in retrospect, even if they feel like flashes of midnight brilliance when they first pop into your brain.  I encountered a lot of that working on mycorrhizae, back when that symbiosis was hot in the late 1990s.

With the historians, there’s all these data coming out on reconstructions of past climates, and this in turn was caused by our increasing concern about understanding modern climate change driving researchers to look for older data and historical analogies.  The climatological and archaeological data allowed historians to read old histories in a new light, and hence the swarm of new works.  At least, that’s my theory.  McNeil sees it as anxiety about climate change making it respectable for historians to tackle previously verboten questions about how climate affects people, and we’re likely both right.

The problem with environmental determinism, at least for the historians, is that it’s last big incarnation was in good ol’ racism, especially as practiced by the Nazis.  They espoused the theory that they were the ubermensch (or whatever), favored by the vicious northern environment of Scandinavia, no Germany, no, certainly not the Caucasus mountains (those men aren’t even blond!), to take over the world, and other such bilge.  And historians are perfectly right to discard this crap and to disregard environmental determinism.  All humans are created equal, so therefore, history is about things like accidents and, well, the actions of great men, economics, and such.  But not the tropics making the natives slothful and slow to innovate.  That part is crap.

They get into some difficulty when they applied this disgust with environmental determinism to works like, to, say, Jared Diamond’s <i>Guns, Germs, and Steel</i>.  Diamond started by asking the question of why the people of Papua New Guinea, who have been regarded by naturalists since Alfred Russel Wallace as amazingly smart, tough, and adaptable, had only developed neolithic-level technology, while people in other parts of the world were building airplanes.  Some historians applied the same vitriol to Diamond that they’d learned fighting the Nazis, claimed that the cause for the disparity was all imperialism and Diamond was blind to  his privileges as a white American, and then went on to trash his forays into understanding culture through an ecological lens.

The irony here is that Diamond’s point was that people are pretty much the same the world over, something he and the historians agree on.  However, environments most certainly are not the same worldwide.  Some people (as in Europe) have benefited from a fairly stable climate, a large supply of potentially domesticable species, and the diffusion of a continent’s worth of everyone’s bright ideas for thousands of years, while others (as in Papua New Guinea and Australia) struggled with highly variable, quite hostile, climates in near-total isolation for the same period.  That’s a different form of environmental determinism than the Nazis were promulgating, and it looks like some historians have started to explore it too.

Of the books McNeil talks about (Richard W. Bulliet’s Cotton, Climate, and Camels in Early Islamic Iran: A Moment in World History, Ronnie Ellenblum’s The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: Climate Change and the Decline of the East, 950–1072, Timothy Brook’s The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, John Brooke’s Climate Change and the Course of Global History, and Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century), I’ve read the last one, and I ended up using it in Hot Earth Dreams. This book’s an 845 page behemoth, the same thickness as Piketty’s Capitalism, which it’s currently sitting next to on the shelf.  Still, it’s readable and worth reading, because Parker goes around the world in the seventeenth century, documenting how the height of the Little Ice Age affected everybody who left some record.  For the most part it’s bad news, and as such, it’s useful in documenting how people dealt with a climate that suddenly cooled 1-2°C.  While the global population decreased by something like one-third during the seventeenth century, it wasn’t all doom and gloom.  Tokugawa Japan, by a combination of luck and smart governance, came through in good shape.  Parker’s book is the most thorough reference I’ve read of how people reacted to climate change and crop failure.  Unfortunately, it was climate change in the “wrong direction,” cooler rather than warmer, and it was the same change repeatedly (cold snaps causing crop failures), rather than a worsening trend.  Beyond saying that people suffer when the climate changes, it’s hard to draw specific lessons to apply to a warming future.  Fortunately, other books on McNeil’s list can help fill in some of the blanks.

Parker’s book is also good because he documents the gap between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.  It’s interesting to see how many of our ideas of the modern nation-state sprang from the miseries and failures of the seventeenth century, as crop failures brought out the hidden flaws in existing political systems all over the world.  Right now, we’re seeing the unraveling of many of our nation-state based ideas, also in the face of climate change (think migration crises and island nations disappearing).  Before we abandon nation-states altogether and embrace some capitalist reinterpretation of sixteenth century authoritarian rule, it’s worth seeing how badly those old systems fared, all over the world, when the environment became less predictable and some leaders used the chaos to press their own advantage.  In doing so, they almost always made things worse, not better.  If nothing else, this should make us suspicious of ideologies, like Ayn Rand’s Libertarianism, that try to repeat these mistakes from the past.

In any case, I’ve got more books to read.  If you’re interested in historical climate change, you might enjoy reading McNeil’s review, and hunt down some of these books yourself.  If you’ve got any suggestions for reading, feel free to post them in the comments.






8 Comments so far
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I must admit that I dislike the term “environmental determinism”. It smacks of a single path future, rather than a set of conditions that can influence how civilizations develop.
As teh world gets hotter on average, and rainfall patterns become more variable, we will have to adapt to those conditions. Fortunately we have a lot more technology at our disposal than earlier civilizations, so we should have more ability to adapt to changes. How we do so, or even whether we do so, and if so, when, are open questions.

Comment by alexandertolley

It’s probably worth reading what I about environmental determinism in the introduction of Hot Earth Dreams, if you haven’t already.

Comment by Heteromeles

I reread your intro. I think we are probably on the same page regarding this, although I felt that you skirted the argument somewhat.
In my mind, cultural development will be similar to evolution – taking advantage of, but being constrained by, features of the environment. And like evolution, some forms and ways of living will not be taken, simply by chance, which would result in different trajectories if rerun. History will also play a role. We can easily imagine a different outcome for the Norman invasion of Britain (lost because of a chance arrow hit on Harold), or the outcome of the US War of Independence (nearly lost, but for a mistake by the British).

Comment by alexandertolley

I always assumed that people/civilizations came up with technologies mostly so that they could survive their climates. If sufficient food is always within arm’s reach, that’s one less reason to develop a technology. Ditto for clothing and shelter. And the more varied the environment/weather, the more strategies/technologies one would need to develop.

Comment by SFreader

In which case why aren’t Inuit colonizing Mars? 😉 Despite criticisms, I liked “Guns, germs and Steel’, in particular the collapse of Mayan civilization due to climate change. Although we don’t have records of what was being said, it seems like “drought denialism” might well have been going on if the drought theory is correct.

Comment by Alex Tolley

I’m not sure if it’s drought denialism or simple bad gambles. My favorite book on this is The Great Maya Droughts, incidentally. But the real point is that the Maya managed to get about 18 months worth of reservoir capacity. If they dealt with a drought longer than that, they ran into severe problems. Apparently such droughts only happened every few centuries, so almost always, the gamble paid off. The problem is, when it didn’t pay off, the Maya had to walk out of the affected area if they could and do it without water or food. They didn’t have any other means of transport, and that meant that escaping the clutches of the drought was, for them, far harder than it would have been in Europe or Asia.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that the Yucatan has experienced severe droughts and famines several times since the Classical Maya fell, and there’s evidence for severe drought several times before the Classic Maya. It’s something I worry about in California, because there’s good geological and archaeological evidence for severe droughts and floods here, yet most residents haven’t even heard of things like the 1861-1862 flood, or if they have (like me), they forget about it. Rare events don’t stick, and they don’t get factored into normal planning.

Comment by Heteromeles

Good points. People have short memories and a study of history is not a favored activity for most people, even decision makers. As they say in the financial markets “this time is different” (and then repeat the same mistakes).
Early civilizations may well have be forced to have limited “memories” unless they carefully recorded events. Modern civilization has no such excuses for ignoring the lessons of the past.
[And to be fair, when I suggest that technology may get us through the warming, I am in fact saying, “this time is different”. So I am guilty of this type of thinking too.]

Comment by alexandertolley

I keep forgetting the read more break…

In any event, this time will be different, because we’ve basically taken the only shot we had at using fossil fuels. The amount we’ve used takes on order 100,000,000 years to generate, so we’d have to be very special snowflakes indeed (in the league of cyanobacteria or sauropods) for hominids to be around to burn fossil fuels again when there’s enough to fuel another industrial revolution.

What we don’t know is whether we’ll survive the change we’re creating. I think most people reading this blog think we will as a species, and we’re more interested in how many of us make it, and what happens afterwards.

I’m finding it quite useful to look at previous episodes of climate chaos to see what happened then. So far, with the conspicuous exception of Tokugawa Japan, things generally don’t go well. Japan is the exception in part due to sheer luck, and in part do to the fact that they were recovering from a rather horrible civil war when the worst of the Little Ice Age hit, so they were already (re)building society, rather than trying to defend an increasingly rickety regime that had evolved to deal with that spate of problems.

Comment by Heteromeles

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