Humanities at Large

Social Response to Climate Change

Submitted by Sonja Johnston on October 03 2019.

Our first proper Fellows’ Lunch of the year got our Strange Weather theme off to a lively start with a discussion led by Ben Akrigg (FAS Classics) and based on readings from the following books:

  • Arlene Miller Rosen, Civilizing Climate. Plymouth: Altamira Press, 2007
  • Ian Morris, Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2015

Ben’s research looks at classical antiquity through human and environmental interactions and these readings help to establish a chronological framework for his work. He asked us to consider the question–how do we relate different timescales, like thousands of years vs hundreds of years?

Rosen Book CoverBen began his talk by summarizing Rosen’s chapter (Empire in the Desert: Political Ecology of Ancient Empires), which discusses the impact of climate change on empires. Rosen places empires in a political, social, and religious context and emphasizes that the interaction between humans and climate is a complicated relationship between climate variables and cultural variables. Rosen also provides some sense of how complicated the evidence is for past environmental change–data are difficult to interpret, not evenly spread geographically and often susceptible to multiple interpretations.

Morris Book CoverBen then suggested that Morris’s chapter (The Evolution of Values: Biology, Culture, and the Shape of Things to Come) provides a good summary of the last 10000 years but, being a “Big History”, it often oversimplifies energy capture, use, technology and climate change. Ben questioned the historical explanation and causation proposed by Morris and asked us to consider 1) What is wrong with Morris suggesting that energy use and technology creates values–why not the other way around? 2) Does the Big History model work at all? Does the model work when we look at the small scale, the details?

The Fellows responded with an enthusiastic conversation about politics, capitalism, determinism, free will, ethics and morals and what role these play in larger environmental concerns.