Jared Diamond asked the question in The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal some years ago. The question of just how often climate change has contributed to the collapse of civilizations continues to matter.
It isn’t an easy a question to answer, mostly because it often isn’t climate change that leads to the collapse of civilizations but its accumulated effects. Civilizations that are not destroyed by volcanic eruptions or earth quakes most often have collapsed as a result of disease and tribal warfare arising from insufficient supplies of water and food, which may be exacerbated or even caused by climate change, but also have other causes.
There is, however, a frequent pattern of civilization collapse appearing as far as 7,000 years ago. Civilizations prosper, populations increase dramatically, cities emerge with highly sophisticated systems of trade and specialized roles. And then the climate changes. Most often the most debilitating changes seem to have been extreme drought. Mayan cities were abandoned in the 9th century after 200 years of drought. So did the Mesopotamian civilization three and a half thousand years ago, and Egypt collapsed following severe drought in 2300 BC.
But flooding and extreme cold also result from climate change. The story about Noah’s and his arc is about flooding. An ice age ended the Viking dominance in Greenland in 13-1400 AD.
The list goes on.
The question for the human population today is just how devastating the climate change we are currently facing might be. In this last year flooding has displaced millions of people and destroyed crops from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Brazil, and Australia. Drought has possibly destroyed so much of China’s grain this season that it may be driven to importing it for the first time, and the encroaching desert underlies many of Africa’s wars.
The human population has doubled in less than fifty years, and continues to grow, though at a slower pace. Last month, scientists with the United Nations warned that in less than 20 years the world would have insufficient food and water unless we begin to take action now. It’s impossible to imagine this won’t lead to increased war, disease, starvation, displacements, and immense suffering.
Will we survive? Will we destroy Earth’s ability to sustain us? Will we simply starve?
The pessimistic answer always somehow sounds like the braver, wiser response. Optimism so often seems to spring from ignorance or simply naive fear of facing the awful impending reality.
But personally, I think we will survive. Along with the greed and selfishness and arrogant stupidity that plagues our species, I see also incredible ingenuity, bravery, and creativity. I see love and determination. I think we have a willingness to cooperate and share on a global scale.
It is a challenge. It is a great challenge. In fact, it is a very very great challenge, and we won’t achieve it easily. The cost, in the best scenario, will be great.
But I am hopeful that Homo sapiens, will find the depths of spirit to face this challenge. Perhaps stumbling and not always with glory.
But yes: I think we can.