Changing climates of history
December 17, 2014 2:07 PM   Subscribe

Neither Thucydides, Gibbon, von Ranke, nor Braudel ever cited a paper appearing in Geophysical Research Letters. They did not worry themselves about fluctuations in the Siberian High or the Southern Oscillation. The vast majority of more recent historians also remained untroubled by such concerns. However, in the past five years, a handful of highly distinguished historians have come out with new books that put climate at the center of historical explanation. What on Earth is going on?

Perhaps a historiographical wheel is turning.
posted by standardasparagus (18 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

Not necessarily a bad thing, but, you know, publishers want a hook and climate change is the hook du jour.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:11 PM on December 17, 2014

Seems shortsighted to call it a fad or just a way to entice readers (though there's certainly some truth to it) - science continually marches on and discoveries of how certain things may have affected cultures, wars, and agriculture in the past necessarily cause a bit of ret-conning the past. Climate science is hot right now and lots of inquiries are being made into the history thereof. Makes sense that historians might say "hey actually now that you mention it, that WOULD explain why that famine was more extended than the previous four" or "oh so Herodotus WASN'T exaggerating the size of the dust storm, sediment analysis shows that year was among the hottest and driest that century." I like it.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 2:24 PM on December 17, 2014 [9 favorites]

I'm not convinced this is new. Changing climate and its impacts are very important to the narratives for everyone from the first cultivation of crops by a settled population (likely in response to devastating drought) to the fall of the Maya (drought again) to the Little Ice Age's impact on Europe (everything from the 30 Years War to the potato). This has been well understood for many decades.

What may be new is the cross-discipline chops to see how climactic shifts figures into areas with linguistically diverse historical sources, especially the Near East and Central Asia in the pre-modern.
posted by Slap*Happy at 2:27 PM on December 17, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's about as faddish as heliocentrism has turned out to be in astronomy, or the theory of evolution has been in biology.

Climate is and always was at the center of human affairs, but historians have been too busy telling elites what they wanted to hear to appreciate that, yet the wind is finally shifting -- probably too late to save our great grandchildren, but oh well.
posted by jamjam at 2:39 PM on December 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

In Buillet's History of the World class (on youtube here) he has a lengthy presentation on a large pre-literate population of cattle and goat and donkey herders occupying much of what is now the Sahara Desert. There is no telling what is buried under the sands there in terms of archaeolgy and paleontology data.
posted by bukvich at 2:46 PM on December 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

The only thing that's really new here is that it's historians doing it - although the examples and details here do look very interesting. Geographers, archaeologists, palaeoecologists and environmental scientists of various shades have been doing this - and being charged with environmental determinism for doing so - for at least the last forty years, albeit over different timescales and granularities.
posted by cromagnon at 2:50 PM on December 17, 2014 [7 favorites]

Cromagnon beat me to it. It's good to see historians coming on board.
posted by mollweide at 4:26 PM on December 17, 2014

"The struggle to survive and adjust to the climate (and other) shocks during the Ming pushed the Chinese into ever-greater webs of exchange and interaction, helping to bring about proto-globalization."


The struggle to compete in a globalized economy during the 21st century pushed the climate into ever-greater extremes, helping to bring about climate shocks.
posted by stbalbach at 4:27 PM on December 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

See also: Sahara Pump Theory.
posted by mullingitover at 5:58 PM on December 17, 2014

For the last year I have been reading old texts and whatever else I can find about the history of the middle east. I was amazed how the place was awash in mayhem, and waves of conjuest. Conquest takes a lot of energy. Climate is one thing that would make people migrate or move en mass.

The world's first poet Inanna the Sumerian princess starts a piece questioning God as to why he rains fire from the sky? I noticed what looks like ancient meteor craters along the coast of Yemen, and realized she may have spoken of that, or even the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah may have been volcanic or meteoritic. We with our climate and commerce mitigated lives forget the reality of life on the bare face of the planet. I was reading Zola about coal miners in nineteenth century France, sleeping five to a bed, it is one way to mitigate climate.
posted by Oyéah at 7:22 PM on December 17, 2014

A welcome return for the longue durée of the Annales School. Faddism is a glib response to books that take decades to write and published by university presses who don't need to sell to the wider market in order to make their money, but there has definitely been a turn within the academy back towards ambitious comparative histories.

I'm an historian specialising in the early modern period: Global Crisis is an immensely important book in my field, I think. Certainly another survey of the same period (albeit in Europe alone) published a couple of months afterwards looked puny in comparison. I'm glad to learn of these other titles - my university book fund is going to be considerably lighter by the end of the day.

I was lucky to catch a seminar with Geoffrey Parker at my university. It was clear that this immensely long book (only one other person on the panel of environmental scientists and historians had managed to read it all the way through) was the product of a real control of both the "human archive" (the historian's traditional domain of archival research, documents, letters, the printed word) and the "natural archive" (the scientific evidence).

Historians have long been saying we are multi-disciplinary. Too often this means that we've read some literary theory or put an anthropology article in the footnotes. Global Crisis shows what an historian who takes the time to come to terms with another discipline's methods and means of interpretation can achieve.
posted by bebrogued at 7:32 PM on December 17, 2014 [7 favorites]

I'm going to have to look up Ellenblum's book. I found this bit of the article especially interesting:
is mercifully rare that drought affects southwest Asia and the Nile Valley at the same time, because the Nile’s water comes mainly from Ethiopian rainfall, governed by an entirely different weather system than Anatolia, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Iran’s. [...] Ellenblum explains the depth of disaster in the 10th and 11th centuries by claiming that, especially in the 1050s, droughts brought harvest failure for years on end both in Southwest Asia and in Egypt, something that, he says, happens on such a scale only once every thousand years or so.
This ties in really well with the Biblical narrative. The story of Abraham is set in a world where famines are frequent and force people to travel down to Egypt for food. Abraham himself travels there twice: the Bible has a sort of parenthetical footnote that the second one was a different famine, not the first famine you were just told about. Two generations later, Jacob's sons travel down to Egypt because of yet another famine. Egypt, fortuitously, has lots of food stored away because of Joseph's premonition. Here's how the Bible describes it:
Genesis 41:56-57 And the famine was over all the face of the earth: and Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold unto the Egyptians; and the famine waxed sore in the land of Egypt. And all countries came into Egypt to Joseph for to buy corn; because that the famine was so sore in all lands.
[my emphases]
So the Bible's describing something unusual here - a famine in Egypt! And simultaneously, there was a famine elsewhere, so refugees came down to Egypt and (presumably) depleted its food stores. The consequence of this unusual event was that the Egyptians themselves ran out of food:
Genesis 47:18-21 When that year was ended, they came unto him the second year, and said unto him, We will not hide it from my lord, how that our money is spent; my lord also hath our herds of cattle; there is not ought left in the sight of my lord, but our bodies, and our lands: Wherefore shall we die before thine eyes, both we and our land? buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be servants unto Pharaoh: and give us seed, that we may live, and not die, that the land be not desolate. And Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; for the Egyptians sold every man his field, because the famine prevailed over them: so the land became Pharaoh's.
So you can see a massive social disruption caused by famine, and (if I understand Ellenblum correctly) this happened because a dual famine was massively rare: the natural safety valve that trade and migration offered failed, and consequently the Egyptian state was in a position to become much more powerful.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:27 PM on December 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

A welcome return for the longue durée of the Annales School.

And somewhat ironic to see Braudel namechecked in the OP.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:41 PM on December 17, 2014

"Historians are not alone in their recourse to climate change as an explanatory variable. Archaeologists, historical geographers, and paleoscientists..."

Interesting to historiography but not new concerning climate effects and archeological study

"Apart from other proofs derived directly from geological considerations, it will be seen from a perusal of this list of fauna that the climate of western Europe was not by any means uniform. Naturally this fact had a vital effect on the human story, and the matter will have to be considered in some detail in due course"
-Burkitt, The Old Stone Age, 1933.

This does really answer the articles main thesis of historians presenting data about climate change and its validity. Burke was talking about uniformity which is not the same as change. The crux is that history is biased in one form or another while specfic fields of inquiry seek to reduce the amount of bias and use tested methods of inquiry to arrive at a more scientific conclusion.
posted by clavdivs at 1:24 AM on December 18, 2014

I read an article recently discussion how one scientist thought the Babylonian Empire grew strong because of the introduction of Chick Peas, a food that is good fresh or dry for storage. Hummus is a major food source in the Middle East still, but at one time was a survival hedge against drought or famine.
posted by Oyéah at 3:11 PM on December 18, 2014

Surely people would eat the hummous before anything else?
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:21 PM on December 18, 2014

Joe, you omitted a key piece of information, there does not exist, as Of this date, of any reference to Joseph in Egyptian records,

"About 20 years ago Barbara Bell studied the 12th Dynasty Egyptian records of Nile levels at the Middle Kingdom Nubian forts (1975). Collating this information with an analysis of statuary, and with the well-known literary work entitled The Complaint of Khahkeperre-Seneb,[9] Bell concludes that the mid-12th Dynasty suffered erratic Nile levels which caused crop failure and the resultant social disruption mirrored in the Complaint."

Read the article. You can dismiss the source but it does not make it invalid. Invalidity in source. Oyeahs' comment is perfect example. Information without documenting its source.
History will not answer this question but archeology can help better understand these questions.
posted by clavdivs at 1:09 AM on December 19, 2014

And now
The cultural history of the Lemon.
posted by clavdivs at 1:10 AM on December 19, 2014

« Older Black people don't have that luxury to be able to...   |   ((n - (r - 1)) ÷ n) × w Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments