Brooks on Climate, Society and “Progress”

Nick Brooks kindly dropped by a few weeks back with a comment that’s worth pulling out and highlighting in its entirety. Brooks is assistant director of the University of East Anglia’s Saharan Studies Programme, and I’d commented on a paper of his on cultural response to climate change. Nick’s comment:

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



  1. As I remarked in another place, large changes in civilizations means that a lot of people get dead very fast. As a somewhat realistic and dour soul, I assume that I will be among the squashed.

    It seems to me that today we have a lot of grasshoppers who think that not only the world will be kind to them, but also to theirs unto the nth generation. They also believe they are descended from royalty.

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