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Civilisation as a last resort..

Recently we have heard, from Dr Diamond, for instance, that climatic and environmental change is an important reason to why cultures may collapse. But the opposite seems to be true, also. Climatologist Nick Brooks quoted by Bruce Sterling:

“‘Civilisation did not arise as the result of a benign environment which allowed humanity to indulge a preference for living in complex, urban civilised societies,’ he told the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
“‘On the contrary, what we tend to think of today as civilisation was an accidental by-product of unplanned adaptation to catastrophic climate change. Civilisation was a last resort,’ he added.

This might be another thread in the larger view according to which the birth of hierarchical and stratified civilisation based on non-nomadic agriculture is not entirely a matter of “progress”. Be that as it may, Brooks argues that both in Egypt and in Mesopotamia, the birth of the early civilisations:

[t]here is widespread evidence that climatic and environmental stress played a major role in the emergence of early civilisations, and that aridification in particular acted as a trigger for increased social complexity associated with urbanisation and state formation. This paper argues that the highly urbanised, state-level societies of the sub-tropical arid belt that emerged in the middle Holocene [ca. 5000 ] did so as a result of a process of adaptation to water scarcity.

The hypothesis is that people taht were forced to move closer to the great rivers provided additional working force and ground for a societal change towards startification.

While the factors driving demographic, social and political change in Mesopotamia in the sixth and fifth millennia BP were doubtless complex and numerous, there is evidence that the wider region was subject to significant environmental change during this period, characterised by increasing aridity (Wright, 2001. p 128). It is therefore a reasonable hypothesis that water scarcity and a consequent shift of population and food production to the vicinity of major rivers was a significant factor in the evolution of
Mesopotamian society.
What does seem unambiguous is that, while
Mesopotamia is experiencing fragmentation at a time of unity in early Dynastic Egypt, in both cases cooperation and conflict are associated with the emergence of stratified state-level societies during a time of increasing aridity in the late sixth and early fifth millennia BP.

Again, like in Diamond, the idea is not that these ecological changes have anything like a necessary effect on societies. Societies react in different ways, retreating, reorganising, etc. I’m not even going to buy Brooks claim that “”When climate conditions improved again there was no return to the former order. Once the cat is out of the bag, it doesn’t go back. You can’t uninvent technology.'” Why not? Believeing in the uninventability of technology seems like a remnant of unnecessary determinism in Brooks otherwise refreshingly contrary perspective.


  1. There is a more detailed paper on this topic than the one linked to here. This later publication, in “Quaternary International” (Vol. 151) can be downloaded from Or link to the publications page from my home page.

    The point about not being able to “uninvent” technology refers to the fact that once people started living in complex, urban, state-level societies, these societies developed their own momentum. In some instances they collapsed, but the urban model has, for good or ill, endured.

    Perhaps by being more objective and dispassionate about “civilization”, we can decide which aspects of it we would like to retain and which we would like to reject. A more deliberative approach to how we run our societies therefore might be facilitated by a rejection of the idea of the inevitability of “progress”, and of the idea that human history is a story of effectively linear, if occasionally interrupted, progress and advancement.

    However, for humanity collectively to adopt a highly deliberative approach to how it interacts with the environment, based on a rejection of the idea of inevitable linear progress and manifest destiny, would require an unprecedented degree of agreement and cooperation at the global level. I for one am not going to hold my breath waiting for this.

    To suggest that we can’t simply revert to previous ways of living is not necessarily the same as endorsing existing models!

    Monday, September 25, 2006 at 4:36 pm | Permalink
  2. Tere wrote:

    Thanks! I’ll read the paper asap. And thanks for the clarifications. I’m with you: we need a “progressless” and dispassionate view on civilization. The paradox being that in the West, at least, the abandonment of progress as a way of thinking seems to require some quite passionate disappointment with civilization.

    Just one thing: couldn’t one speculate that in places like South-America and India the urban model could effectively have been forgotten and re-invented?

    Wednesday, September 27, 2006 at 10:19 am | Permalink

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