In Praise of Benny Peiser

All four regular readers of this blog (Hi Mom!) are no doubt aware of my occasional consternation with Benny Peiser and his bollocksed-up reading of climate science. But despite that, I’ve been an enthusiastic consumer of Benny’s CCNet for years. I started reading it when I was writing a lot about near-earth objects – asteroids and the like – and very much in the thrall of the journalistic opportunities offered by the “Holy shit, we’re all going to die!” school of NEO thought. The range of discussion on CCNet has long been helpful in calming my journalistic impulses in that regard.

On climate, I think Benny has earned his critics’ scorn because of his enthusiasm for outliers in the face of a broad consensus about key questions about current and future climate. So I generally treat his posts on climate science as a quick way to track the outliers on one fringe and don’t pay too much attention, aside from the occasions when my annoyance, against my better judgment, boils over.

But one of the problems in the climate wars is the scientized way we all argue about the climate science while spending little time on the rather intricate questions of societal effects. Both sides have their views on this, but the discussion is engaged very little. That’s the set of questions on which Benny’s contribution is of great value to me – the questions of what impact climate variability and change had in the past on human societies and might in the future. I’m interested in this, because drought (variability) has been a defining characteristic of the development of human societies where I live. In that regard, Benny’s posted a couple of noteworthy items recently

The first is a link to a paper by Petra Dark on the effect of climate change circa 850 BC on settlement patterns in Britain.

Climate deterioration at around the time of the Bronze Age/Iron Age transition has for long been argued to have resulted in upland abandonment in northern and western Britain, and recent research has provided evidence that a major climate downturn from 850 cal BC caused settlement abandonment in western Europe and potentially worldwide. It is, however, unclear to what extent only ‘marginal’ sites were affected, due to the lack of any systematic attempt to view the evidence for settlement and land-use change across a range of landscape types with differing sensitivities to environmental change. This paper addresses this issue by an evaluation of 75 pollen sequences spanning the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age in Britain to assess whether climatic deterioration was sufficient to cause widespread land abandonment. The results provide no evidence for wholesale land-use change at this time; the overall picture is one of continuity of land use or even increased agricultural activity.

(If you don’t have library access, Benny’s posted a lengthy excerpt on CCNet.)

Back on April 3, Benny highlighted a paper on a similar theme by Nick Brooks, which argued that rather than causing societal collapses, climatic change leads to increasing societal complexity and technological advance:

There is direct evidence of adaptation to increased aridity in the archaeological literature relating to the Sahara and Egypt. In the other regions examined, the data are consistent with the notion that increased social complexity was largely driven by environmental deterioration, although further local-scale archaeological and palaeoenvironmental data are required to clarify the processes involved.

This last point is a case that can be interestingly argued here in the southwest, where a number of researchers have argued (persuasively, I think) that climate change played a role in the termination of the classic Anasazi. The question here is whether one ought to call that a “collapse,” or whether their departure from the San Juan Basin might rather be considered a migration and adaptation, with a resulting society that was more robust to climate change. A similar argument can be made (thought I’m less familiar with the details) for the termination of the classic Maya.


  1. Brooks may be right, but there is an awful lot of collateral damage. Following this thought, the Irish should be thankful for the potato famine, because it forced many of them to move to the US where they have prospered and releaved overpopulation in Ireland. Right.

  2. I find this sort of thing fascinating, although of course Benny has the obvious ulterior motive for posting it. He exhibits the faith in the inevitability of progress (however defined) that typifies Randian libertarians. I don’t imagine we’ll see him posting a lot of papers on contrary examples from history.

    Regarding whether these things should be seen as collapses or just transitions, I would use a standard based on how many people got killed in the process. I don’t know about the Anasazi, but based on that standard what the Mayans experienced sure does look like a collapse. Also, while Mayan society after the transition was certainly less vulnerable to climate change (sort of a truism IMHO), I don’t recall hearing an argument to the effect that they advanced socially or technologically.

    The Sahara and Egypt situation is interesting, and I’ve done a little prior reading on that. While it’s true that the transition of much of the current Sahara from grassland to desert forced people into the Nile valley, another aspect of the regional climate shift was a considerable increase in Nile flow. Presumably this in turn increased the agricultural productivity of the valley (by way of the annual fertilizing inundations being able to cover larger areas). So, it’s not at all clear to me that there was an environmental deterioration at all in terms of the region’s ability to support humans, although I’m sure the social disruption involved with the migration would have been unpleasant enough for those involved. It’s worth pointing out that what happened in the Sahara is a little hard to characterize as a collapse given the very long period of time over which it took place. It’s hard to compare it with the relatively quick drought onsets experienced by the Mayans and Anasazi.

  3. Adding to Eli’s thought, probably it could be argued that Ireland’s current high-tech prosperity is in some way related to the famine.

  4. John

    Thanks for the compliment which is much appreciated.

    Now, I doubt that anyone (other than a sectarian fanatic) is ‘thankful’ to the Irish famine – or, for that matter, any of the many other mega-disasters that have occurred during much of the five million years of hominid and human evolution. Such a cynical approch to history is not only sickening but also inherently flawed (after all, why are there so many Greeks, Scots and Italians – and the rest – in the US?).

    In any event, the catastrophic starvation that followed the Irish potato blight was essentially a man-made disaster due to fatal political and economic blunders

    If today’s societies wish to learn key lessons from past calamities, how they impacted the course of societal evolution and technological progess, and how they can be averted or at least dimished in their potential impact, it is essential to better understand historical examples and their underlying dynamics. That’s what I, as editor of CCNet, have been trying to attempt in the last 10 years or so.

    In recent years, and with the growth of the environmental movement, there has been a drive to blame almost every problem ancient societies faced on environmental or climatic factors. However, this rather simplistic paradigm has come under increasing scrutiny lately, a development that I have covered over recent months

    As far as my own take on the issue of civilisation collapse and environmental change is concerned, I have outlined what I consider to be some of the pertinent issues in these two paper:

  5. As a long-time participant on the environmental movement, this statement by Benny seems made up out of whole cloth: “In recent years, and with the growth of the environmental movement, there has been a drive to blame almost every problem ancient societies faced on environmental or climatic factors.”

    A quick perusal of Benny’s first link shows where the idea comes from, though:

    “One of the most powerful drivers of environmental gloominess and cultural pessimism is the spectre of ecological apocalypse. The mutation of age-old, religious end-time prophecies into secular predictions of natural cataclysms and societal collapse – in short, the emergence of environmental apocalypticism – is perhaps the most significant ideological development in the western world since the demise of Marxism. Marxist doctrine, let us never forget, crumbled because its predicted, and eagerly anticipated, disintegration of free market economies never transpired. Deeply infuriated by the failure of their predictions and the unremitting vibrancy of capitalism, many disillusioned believers turned to ecological pessimism and environmental determinism. Not for the first time in the long history of apocalyptic movements, new wine was poured into old bottles. –Benny Peiser, Climate Change and Civilisation Collapse, 2003”

    This is so far disconnected from reality it’s breathtaking. I especially love the conflation of religion and Marxism all rolled up into a neat package of modern environmentalism.

  6. This is so far disconnected from reality it’s breathtaking. I especially love the conflation of religion and Marxism all rolled up into a neat package of modern environmentalism.

    Aw, come on Steve – if they don’t do that, how will they make a living? The denialists have mouths to feed, you know.



  7. Flattering that you guys are discussing my paper in this capacity. It seems to me that people are reading what they want into my work, based on their existing views of civilisation and progress. If we accept the substantial evidence that the first large urban, state-level civilisations emerged in large part as a response to climatic deterioration, we might think that this was a good thing, if we believe in progress based on technological and political innovation.

    Personally I don’t take this view for a number of reasons. First, if we accept the role of climate as a driver here, then we have to question our assumptions about progress, i.e. that technological innovation and increasing social complexity are just manifestations of natural human advancement. The whole idea of essentially inevitable linear progress, which to some is all about human destiny, seems a bit overblown if what we call progress was just people muddling through in response to environmental crises. Secondly, all the evidence suggests that people’s living conditions did not improve as a result of the civilising process. We may have healthcare, iPods and the like today, but we’ve had to wait 5000 years for them. Like agriculture, I suspect civilisaiton is something people “did” because they had to, and even then they didn’t invent it consciously or deliberately. Third, even if we accept that environmental crises led to the emergence of civilisation, we are still looking at collapse – the collapse of the societies that preceded these new cultures. In the Sahara we know that lifestyles based on mobile cattle herding collpsed, as did hunting and gathering. It’s the survivors who adapt, after the event.

    What I’d like to see is people taking a more objective, dispassionate view of our civilisation(s), and the progress that we believe lies behind their development. Progress and civilisation have been dangerous concepts that have led to all sorts of atrocities, as people who see themselves as civilised have tried to enforce their “superior” ways on other, less “civilised” peoples. If we abandon the quasi-religious idea of progress perhaps we will be less inclined to see less complex societies as somehow lagging behind, and less inclined to try and spread universal “civilised” values. Historically this has been a cover for economic exploitation, racial prejudice and genocide. I’m talking here principally about European colonialism, although we hear very similar language today from certain world leaders. Also, if we let go of the idea of inevitavle linear progress, perhaps we will feel more entitled to choose the kinds of innovations that we want. Today we are told that to oppose certain innovations is to oppose progress – the biggest sin we can commit today is to question modernity, which to me seems to be essentially a supporting structure for a particular brand of political ideology. Recognising the role that the environment seems to have had in our long-term cultural development might also put us back in touch with it – not necessarily in any spiritual sense, but at least to the extent that we can acknowldge that our socieites are ultimately embedded in it. At least if we desanctify the ideas of progress and civilisation, we might have a better debate about these issues.

    But as far as the paper goes, I’m mostly interested in the processes that were going on as certain parts of the world dried out and people adapted to these changes. The philosophical and political ground is open to anyone who wants to interpret the science.

    The original paper (from “Quaterary International”) is on my website, and there is a good article on it here:

    All the best


  8. Pingback: jfleck at inkstain » Blog Archive » Brooks on Climate, Society and “Progress”

  9. steve bloom; you say “This is so far disconnected from reality it’s breathtaking.” One could say the same about AGW advocates’ pronouncements on enviromental catastrophes: 100 metre imminent sea-level rises and the like. Here in Australia we have been edified by mainstram television depicting the results of ‘global warming’ as biblical fire-balls from the sky; and in a recent interview with the ABC’s Robin Williams (a hundred metre man) John Reid, an advocate of drastically reducing human population by coercion, described a biblically bleak future without such a reduction. Then, of course, there has been a spate of PETA spokeswomen announcing their altruistic terminations in the name of reducing the scourge of humanity.

    This apocalyptic mentality has had a continuity in human history: judgement day, Malthus and his modern counterpart, Ehrlich. There is no question in my mind that there is a strong undercurrent in the green movement of misanthropy which is justified by doom-laden predictions if humanity’s influence is not curtailed. When this is combined with the Lovelockian, Gaia religious form of much of the green movement, the biblical equivalence, or “new wine poured into old bottles”, is more than obvious and justified as a description.

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