Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Wolfgang Behringer - A Cultural History of Climate

The interaction between society and the natural world should be a major preoccupation for everyone these days. The way in which humans interact with the world around us, and the way in which we are in turn effected by the changing world has particular significance in an era of global warming.

However this isn't simply true of our modern, industrialised world. Towards the end of this book, the author shows how recently scientists have debated whether or not increased methane emissions as a result of the agricultural revolution, may have "already prevented a new ice age in the more distant past". Whatever the truth in this, and the author characteristically remains neutral about his own conclusions, all the evidence cited shows that it is the result of the during latest stage of human society that emissions have reached the extent that dramatic warming may occur.

At it's best, this book is a wonderful exploration of how human society has been impacted in the past by climatic changes. Take the collapse of the Mayan society as a result of the fairly rapid changing of their climate and the onset of extreme droughts - "The Maya did not die out as an ethnicity, but the nobility and priesthood disappeared from the scene". Behringer brings a wealth of evidence and anecdote to the discussion.

Unfortunately, despite the scope of the book, some of the sections are very short (the important discussion about the Mayan civilisation receives just over one page). In his discussions on the importance of weather and climate to human history, Behringer comes close in places to seeing climate, if not as the only factor leading to social change, then as the one that lies close to the root causes. For instance while he concedes that the years of repeated bad weather preceding the French Revolution wasn't the only factor that caused that radical transformation, but all the other factors - the "explosive cocktail" - were "compounded by a cluster of phenomena characteristic of the Little Ice Age".

The climate aspect though does provide some interesting insights. While discussing the Enlightenment, Behringer argues that during those years, "every harvest failure due to bad weather became a test for the Enlightenment". Not simply because the new sciences must explain the world, but because those representatives of the old order were quick to try and rouse the population against the new establishment.

Behringer is at his best when examining aspects of social history and the links with climate. From Witch hunting to the painting of landscapes there is much here to intrigue and cause debate. In particular there are some useful pen portraits that discuss why particular civilisations rose and why they may have fallen. At a time when we've just experienced the impact of a fairly minor volcanic eruption, Behringer shows how huge amounts of volcanic material entering the atmosphere have caused major social problems for many of our ancestors.

But his argument becomes increasingly weak the more he writes about modern climate science and society. Partly there is little new here, but Behringer clearly believes that little can be done to reduce emissions and transform industry. In part this is because he views the discussion through the prism of the failure of Kyoto. But it is also because he clearly has no sense of the potential for social transformation arising from new mass movements inspired in part, by the failure of the politicians to deal with climate change.

Strangely though, for a book written in 2006, there is one glaring scientific and social problem. Increasingly in the last five or so years, scientists have been warning about runaway climate change, tipping points and feedback mechanisms. These occur when the processes unleashed by global warming - the melting of ice caps - feed back on themselves and cause more warming. Surprisingly, given that this is a discussion on historic climate change, Behringer gives no time to examples of ancient "abrupt" climate change. None of this is discussed, and it allows the author to erroneously and dangerously claim that "The world will not come to and end. If it becomes warmer, we will get used to it".

This statement is simply not true. Many scientists and environmentalists are concerned that runaway climate change could result in a planet that is too hot to sustain human society. Sadly in the last quarter of his book, Behringer ends up arming those who argue that we don't need to do anything and can simply carry on as we have been doing.

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