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Climate Change and Civilizations: Lessons from the Past

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Angela A.
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  1. Introduction
  2. Ancient civilizations
  3. Historical strategies with respect to climatic changes
  4. Conclusion

Anthropogenic climate change constitutes an alarming threat to the safety and health of humankind. According to a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, some of its consequences will include heat waves, loss of biodiversity, food and water insecurity, an increase in water- and vector-borne diseases, frequent and extreme storms and floods, and intense droughts (Parry et. al., 2007:18).

Climate change presents a unique set of challenges because its effects are widely dispersed (both spatially and temporally), and it is the result of ongoing, seemingly inconsequential activities, such as driving a car or switching on a light. Scientists, ethicists, economists and politicians have all taken part in discussions about climate change, but in general, anthropologists have been slow to add their input.

This paper analyzes the following anthropological dimensions of past and present climate change: the relationship of indigenous cultures to nature, the beginning of climate change with the advent of agriculture, ancient strategies for coping with climate change, and modern mindsets that may hinder our ability to act in the face of climate change. Peering into the past allows us to gain a new perspective on our role in the natural world, and highlights the urgency of the current climate situation.

One human dimension of climate change is how we perceive our relationship to nature. When nature is seen as a collection of resources for humans to exploit, ecological damage is practically guaranteed. Many people look nostalgically to indigenous cultures and ancient societies for examples of man respecting nature. Indigenous peoples such as Native Americans and Polynesians are often perceived as being in harmony with the natural world. It is often proposed that if modern industrial societies could only adopt the conservationist viewpoint that their indigenous ancestors had, then widespread environmental exploitation would cease.

Two well-documented indigenous cultures cited as having exemplary conservationist attitudes are the hunter gatherers of the Kalahari desert and the Mundurucu of the Tapajos Valley in Brazil. According to anthropologist George Silberbauer, the hunter ?does not attempt to manipulate their habitat? (Silberbauer, 1981:291) and ?their conservation intent is demonstrated by their refusal to use locally scarce specimens? (Silberbauer, 1981:78).

[...] Due to its far-reaching nature, climate change is often assumed to be the result of modern lifestyles and sophisticated technology. Surprisingly, however, while it is true that advanced technological inventions like cars, airplanes and coal-fired power plants have been the main drivers of anthropogenic climate change since the Industrial Revolution, according to paleoclimatologist William Ruddiman, pre-industrial societies have been causing climate change for centuries. Ruddiman's daring hypothesis is that humans started warming the planet when they began to practice agriculture 11,000 years ago. [...]


[...] Modern American society looks nothing like the ancient civilizations, such as the Maya, the Akkadian empire, and the Norse, that were undermined by climate change in the past. Unfortunately, lessons from ancient civilizations reveal that in some ways we are actually less equipped to cope with climactic and environmental crises than our ancestors were. Hunter-gatherers, for example, adjusted easily to climate change for thousands of years. They adapted to droughts, floods, varying temperatures, and sea level rise by changing location or finding new food sources, and they only increased their vulnerability to climate shifts when they made the switch to living in permanent villages (Fagan, 2004:57). [...]


[...] Although we may not be capable of preventing the worst effects of climate change, we ?have to act as if acting will make a difference? (Pollan, 2008: 6). Solving climate change will truly require an interdisciplinary effort, and anthropology has the potential to contribute to the effort by analyzing many of the complex societal and cultural dimensions of past and present attempts to cope with climate crises. Coping with climate change will require a re-conceptualization of our relationship with nature. We cannot look to indigenous cultures for this conceptualization, for they were not always in harmony with nature. [...]

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