Climate Change and Authority

November 22, 2006

At some point I’m going to get back to writing about Facebook and crap like that. But these things just keep popping up, or maybe my radar’s tuned into a particular frequency right now. Andrew Leonard writes in “How the World Works” at Salon about the accident that is human civilization:

Some 6,000 years ago, vast streteches of the globe where large numbers of humans lived entered a period of increasing aridity. Around the same time, the first great civilizations of the world — in North Africa, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and Northern China — began to emerge.

The two developments are not coincidental, argues Nick Brooks, a professor at the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research and School of Environmental Sciences in the U.K., in a paper published in 2005 that is considerably more fascinating than its title: “Cultural Responses to Aridity in the Middle Holocene and Increased Social Complexity.” His thesis is that this great desiccation forced then existing societies to change drastically in order to survive, setting in motion processes of social stratification and urbanization.

Biopact reports:

[Brooks] stressed that for many, if not most people, the development of civilization 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.

“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 civilization arose by accident as a result of the last great global climatic upheaval.”

Civilization: a horrible accident forced upon us by climate change. We can only shudder at the prospects of further accidents, waiting to happen.

The implications here are fairly obvious – if the (not actually existential, at least for residents of the global North) threat of terrorism isn’t entirely successful as a device for ushering in a new authoritarian politics, then you can be sure that the actually existential threat of global climate change will be used in that capacity. Most mainstream politicians in the United States – save for the ones currently occupying the White House and Naval Observatory – are more or less convinced that climate change is a serious problem requiring serious action. That’s good, but it’s also worth noting what, exactly, will come to fall under the rubric of “serious” action.