What’s Next for Histories of Climate Change

Deborah Coen shows how historians miss a great deal when they rely on the quantitative tools of scientists.

What’s Next for Histories of Climate Change

NEVER BEFORE IN HUMAN history has Earth experienced a change in climate as rapid as the shift we’re living through today. Can history hold clues to an upheaval without precedent? That depends on how we frame the question. Scientists tend to have two questions. They want to know how past societies have been impacted by less dramatic episodes of climate variability, and they want to know what has motivated societies to switch from one fuel source to another. Over the past 20 years, historians’ answers have influenced the reports of major international scientific bodies, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Union of Geological Sciences. And yet, following the lead of scientists has constrained how climate historians think about drivers of change. Scientists like to think that change comes from bold new theories and technological breakthroughs. The chemist Paul Crutzen, for instance, popularized the term “Anthropocene” in part to underscore his faith that the solution to the environmental crisis would come from human ingenuity. Today, scientists seek funding for massive projects, from shoring up a melting glacier to constructing climate research centers on the scale of the Manhattan Project. In this spirit, climate historians have tended to tell dramatic stories in which societies fail or succeed according to their ability to impose top-down change. What these accounts miss are the humble drivers of change that unfold at the scale of everyday life and grow bottom-up rather than top-down. Indeed, a third question is emerging for historians today: what small-scale mechanisms might trigger a transition to a more equitable and sustainable future?

When scientists began to wonder about historical precedents for the age of human-made global warming, most historians did little more than shrug. The question was a discomfiting reminder of the tendency of 19th-century historians to speculate about climatic influences on human cultures: to yoke “civilization” to temperate conditions and attribute “savagery” to extremes of heat or cold. The whole subject had acquired the taint of amateurism due to the work of Yale-affiliated geographer Ellsworth Huntington. A leading figure in the eugenics movement, Huntington took advantage of increasingly detailed worldwide meteorological and climatic data to map everything from worker productivity to scientific innovation against atmospheric variables. Huntington concluded that weather was the hidden force behind human affairs. His academic colleagues mocked his naivete in private, but they cited him with respect in public, mostly because his maps provided a ready justification for European imperialism and white supremacy. By the late 1930s, Hitler’s use of similar arguments to legitimate his bid for world empire turned Euro-American historians against “climatic determinism.” And so, for the next 40 years, invocation of Huntington’s name was enough to silence scholarly discussion of a possible climatic influence on human history.

The question resurfaced in the 1970s, when scientists reached consensus that fossil-fuel emissions were putting Earth at risk of dangerous warming. At that time, historians answered that any climatic influence would be undetectable. They gathered at conferences, published three collections of papers in 1980 alone, and studiously avoided any tinge of determinism. Their most senior member, French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, was famous for his studies of everyday life among early modern peasants. In the 1960s, Ladurie showed scientists how to use historical documents such as harvest records to track climatic variations. Yet Ladurie saw no point in trying to follow the causal chain any further; it seemed to him improbable if not impossible that historians would ever detect long-term societal consequences of climatic variations. Most other historians followed Ladurie’s lead, assuming that the modernization of agriculture and the globalization of trade had insulated humans from the vagaries of climate.

Then, about 20 years ago, several historians noticed that the spatial resolution of climate models had increased approximately fourfold, which meant that it was now possible to detect correlations between specific historical events and dips and rises in regional temperatures and precipitation. Carefully comparing historical documents to model output, a couple of them ventured to make bold claims, with the boldest one coming in a weighty book by military historian Geoffrey Parker. He argued that unusually cold weather and poor harvests exacerbated—but did “not cause,” he was careful to add—the spate of wars and revolutions in Europe and other parts of the world in the 17th century. States were able to cope, he argued, according to their ability to manage their populations and centralize governance. Parker’s message was clear: climate change could lead to the total breakdown of social order.

Journalists were quick to connect Parker’s thesis to the claims of evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond, who had argued that a series of past civilizations had “collapsed” due to overexploitation of their environments. Pointing to recent “collapses” in “Third World countries,” Diamond warned that global warming could eventually bring the same to wealthy countries—or at least “significantly lower living standards.” As one media outlet translated it, “Adapt or die.”

Narratives of “societal collapse” met with several thoughtful critiques. Indigenous critics pointed out that the framework of collapse ignores the enduring and dynamic presence of their cultures despite dispossession and genocide. Heather Davis and Métis scholar Zoe Todd urged attention to “the renewal and resurgence of Indigenous communities in spite of world-ending violence.” Tahltan scholar Candis Callison explained that, for many Indigenous cultures, “stability” is not a given but rather an outcome of conscientious stewardship, “a result of being in good relations.” Other scholars asked whether collapse, typically defined as a relatively rapid decline of a “complex hierarchical society,” was necessarily to be feared. Why, some critics wondered, did historians of collapse always take the viewpoint of elites? Wasn’t it possible that much of the population had cheered their release from an oppressive hierarchy? A few archaeologists pointed to evidence that nonhierarchical social organization had been a viable alternative for cities in early human history. The anthropologist David Graeber even proposed that early humans in some cases had intentionally abandoned or dismantled “complex hierarchical” ways of life.

While many historians are still hard at work on studies of societal collapse, the controversy around them propelled an alternative framework for studying climatic influence. Again, historians borrowed the tools of scientists, in this case the theory of “resilience” developed by ecologist C. S. Holling in the 1970s. Holling introduced resilience theory in order to model the instabilities of coupled natural and human systems. Such complex systems can undergo radical shifts when perturbed—without collapsing. Holling argued that ecosystems—and the societies that depend on them—naturally shift between different states as conditions change and opportunities arise. By “resilience,” Holling (writing with co-editor Lance Gunderson) meant “the capacity of a system to experience disturbance and still maintain its ongoing functions and controls.” In other words, hierarchical systems out of balance can maintain “function” at the expense of their weaker parts.

Following Holling, historians in the 2010s looked for evidence of resilience in past societies threatened by climate variability. For instance, meticulous archival research by Georgina H. Endfield revealed just how vulnerable colonial Mexico was to flooding as well as agricultural crises related to drought or frost. Yet this vulnerability, Endfield argued, did not lead to societal breakdown. Instead, agricultural communities came together across social divides to build irrigation systems or dams. She rejected a competing hypothesis that the Mexican struggle for independence from Spain was motivated by inequities exposed during these weather-related calamities.

Other historians emphasized that climatic fluctuations created opportunities. Most prominently, Dagomar Degroot showed how the Dutch profited from the unusually cold winters of the 17th century when ice and storms made seafaring more difficult. They devised tactics to dominate global trade: whalers learned to corner their prey between icebergs, while merchants used novel vehicles melding ships and carriages to travel across frozen ground.

Degroot and Endfield want their readers to see these episodes as precedents for building collective resilience in the face of climate change. What they do not acknowledge is that histories of resilience share many of the traits of histories of collapse. Both focus on the factors that allow states to reassert control at moments of crisis. Both tend to equate resilience with the stabilization of the existing social order. Both tend to gloss over evidence that interventions to avoid collapse or enhance resilience are typically designed to benefit elites at the expense of others. Only quite recently have a few historians begun to explore the inequalities associated with strategies of resilience. Their conclusions illustrate the limitations of the resilience framework for addressing questions of justice: a recent study of drought in the 16th-century Ottoman Empire concludes, for instance, that “[t]he costs of imperial resilience thus fell on those least able to bear it.”

The appeal of both historical frameworks—collapse and resilience—lies ultimately in their framing of human societies as complex systems that can be modeled much like other components of the “Earth system.” In this respect, historians have dutifully answered the question posed by scientists, and they have done so in scientists’ terms. They have thereby made it possible to integrate the human factor into the models that scientists use to study and predict global change. As one 2018 paper put it, “the idea of building a forecasting engine for societal breakdown is too tempting to resist.”

Such “integrated assessment models,” which incorporate demographic and economic trajectories into forecasts of environmental change, gained currency in the 1990s with the rise of international diplomacy around global warming. The models raised the second thorny question mentioned above: How do energy transitions unfold? What motivates a society to replace one fuel source with another?

Again, the framing of the question conditioned the answers. Implicit is the assumption that human history has inevitably marched towards increasingly energy-dense fuel sources. With the onset of industrialization, animal power, wind power, and waterpower were replaced by coal and peat, which in turn gave way to gas and oil. The task of the historian became a narrow search for the factors that induced a fuel switch in the past—and which, by extension, might motivate a transition to “clean” energy in the future.

In Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (2000), which became a classic textbook in environmental history, historian J. R. McNeill vividly conveyed the magnitude of the increase in energy consumption among wealthy nations in the 20th century. He made clear that the present trajectory of industrialization was unsustainable, even as he credited it with a fourfold increase in “global average income” and deemed this “a great achievement of the human race.” McNeill described the present environmental crisis as the outcome of a sequence of rational choices in favor of ever more concentrated sources of energy. His brief final chapter on “ideas and politics” left the impression that movements critical of unrestrained growth were an epiphenomenon of a century of planetary transformation rather than a meaningful form of resistance that may hold clues to alternative futures.

Some historians have gone further to argue that alternatives to fossil-fuel dependence are, literally, unimaginable. This is the implication of Ian Morris’s 2015 Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve (2015), a consummate evolutionist account of industrialization. For Morris, as for McNeill, it is simply human nature to opt for the most concentrated available source of energy—not literally inevitable, but “as close to inevitable as anything in history can be.” Morris adds a further element of determinism, claiming that each energy source determines the moral orientation of the society that uses it: “[T]he sources of energy available to a society set the limits on what kinds of values can flourish.” This means that “liberal, individualist” values took root because they “work best” in societies that depend on fossil fuels. Of course, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany also relied on fossil fuels, but Morris uses the outcomes of World War II and the Cold War to argue that liberal values “work best.” “Work best for whom?” is not a question he entertains.

Morris and McNeill gave the scientists what they were looking for: a universal, quantitative version of human history. And yet, these historians obscured what I would call the most important feature of history: contingency. The problem stems, first, from their reliance on historical sources—such as bureaucratic records and monumental remains—that tell history from the point of view of states and their elites. Secondly, these histories constrain their field of view by adopting the language of science and policy. The very concept of “sustainability,” much like its partner, “development,” implies that the goal is to continue along the path that got us here. Reading Morris and McNeill, it is hard even to imagine what an alternative would look like—let alone how we could bring it about.

Fortunately, other historians have shown us that the course of industrialization was by no means inevitable. Energy transitions did not go unchallenged. Recent histories of coal mining (Victor Seow, Thomas G. Andrews) and fracking (Conevery Valencius) reveal that ordinary people objected to the extraction of these fuels due to the risks they posed to local communities. Dismissing past critics as shortsighted or irrational misses the point: history could have gone differently.

More pointedly, Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (2016) and Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (2013) show us whose interests were served by the shifts from water to coal and from coal to oil. In neither case was the transition a result of a rational economic calculation; industrialists made the switch only when they came to see the new fuel as affording greater control over their labor force. With coal, producers could concentrate factories in urban centers rather than dispersing them along rivers across the countryside. Little did they know that coal mining would later emerge as a hotbed of labor activism. With oil, which requires little underground extraction, producers could employ fewer workers and keep them under closer surveillance. If, as Morris claims, oil has aligned with democracy and “liberal values” among Western nations, Mitchell shows that it has come at the expense of egalitarian politics in the Middle East.

New research indicates that not even the first step in Morris’s evolutionist history of energy—from foragers to farmers—was a given. Reinterpretations of ancient archaeological sites suggest that humans long resisted settled agriculture—for good reasons. Becoming a full-time farmer was not just hard work, as James Scott argues in Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (2017). It also made you more vulnerable to contagious diseases, environmental degradation, and subjugation by greedy rulers. From this perspective, state collapse could be a windfall rather than a tragedy.

David Graeber and David Wengrow build on Scott’s insights in their monumental synthesis, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021). They argue that what has looked to archaeologists like the remains of collapsed early states might be evidence of a conscious decision to abandon the experiment. In sharp contrast to the inevitability of the evolutionist narrative, Graeber and Wengrow stress that humans have repeatedly exercised their freedom to opt out of hierarchical societies and live otherwise. Their message: We might do the same. Our values need not be dictated by the economic choices made by our forebears.

This is an inspiring vision to those of us who doubt that any kind of growth, green or not, can get us out of the present mess. Morris’s critical review of The Dawn of Everything claims that its attention to exceptions cannot disprove his model. Well then, what can? For a scholar so concerned with scientific credibility, Morris is remarkably unconcerned that his theory fails to pass Popper’s falsifiability test. He closes his review by chiding the authors for their utopianism: “It would be uplifting to think that whatever we dislike about our own age only persists because we have hitherto lacked the imagination and courage to put something better in its place.” One has to wonder: who is this “we” who lacks imagination and courage? Clearly, Morris has missed their point. “Something better” has been put in place again and again, flourishing at smaller or larger scales throughout human history.

Environmental historians Ian Jared Miller and Paul Warde diagnose the problem this way: “Purely quantitative or global approaches to energy” tend to overlook the experiences of those who are not making the decisions but whose lives are affected by them. This oversight is a result of methods that make it “difficult to grasp everyday experience as a prompt to action and an agent of change.” Otherwise put, historians miss a great deal when they rely on the quantitative tools of scientists.

History will never provide a crystal ball, and that’s not what we should ask of it. Nor should we be limited by theories of historical change that consider “events” only as unusual occurrences that were recognized as such by contemporaries. Change can also be the result of an accumulation of small disruptions that goes unnoticed by mainstream observers. Climate historians know this well, since the variability they study was often unremarked upon by those living through it. And yet, climate historians have taken little interest in processes of change that run bottom-up rather than top-down.

This is why climate historians have much to learn from historians of disenfranchised populations. Historians of slavery, for instance, show that nuances of social interactions can propel political and ecological change, even in the face of overwhelming structural oppression. Recent research by Jennifer L. Morgan and Sasha Turner explores how enslaved women resisted enslavers’ attempts to destroy their kinship ties. Morgan, Turner, and other historians read sources such as court records and planters’ accounts and personal diaries against the grain for clues to women’s affective agency. They argue that sustaining maternal bonds was an act of resistance, not compliance: these bonds gave the lie to the idea that humans could be chattel. Mothers stood in the way of attempts to treat Africans as interchangeable pieces of currency. Challenging the reigning assumption that women were largely absent from slave revolts, Morgan proposes that women’s emotional resistance was the inspiration behind these acts of liberation.

What’s more, their resistance, according to Morgan, laid the affective foundations for the communities and landscapes built by fugitive slaves—“sovereign territories where men, women, and children crafted a social and political life in opposition to the colonial slave-owning authority.” These maroon settlements were ecological as well as sociopolitical alternatives to monoculture plantations, as environmental historians of the African diaspora have shown. They were living critiques of the plantation’s eradication of biodiversity. As historian J. T. Roane observes, the enslaved knew that the plantation was a form of “ecocide,” and “[s]lave narratives are replete with examples of insurgent Black ecologies.” Maroon landscapes reflected the braiding of African and Indigenous knowledge of diverse plants and animals. Anthropologist Judith A. Carney points out that even the humble gardens that the enslaved tended outside their living quarters were models of biodiversity. Not only did these patches of land provide necessary nutrients, but they were also sites of political resistance. According to the environmental justice advocate Monica M. White, these garden plots are antecedents to the environmentalism fostered by Black farmers in the American South and by today’s Black Farmer Movement. In Roane’s words, “The seeds of a different world are already alive in the everyday practices of ordinary Black and Indigenous people.”

These histories show that human feelings and values are not dictated by the economic system in which we happen to find ourselves. On the contrary, emotions are unruly and uncontainable; they cannot be quantified and will never serve as input for Earth system models. They can, however, point towards alternative ways of living and relating. Where those alternatives lead, no one can know. But the very fact that human relations are emergent and unpredictable is grounds for hope.


Featured image: Arthur Dove. Thunder Shower, 1940. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. cartermuseum.org. CC0. Accessed January 23, 2024.

LARB Contributor

Deborah R. Coen is a professor of history at Yale University. Her research centers on the relationship between science and democracy, including the politics of climate change. Currently, she is studying the historical roots of operative concepts like “usable” knowledge and “vulnerable” populations. She also writes and teaches about feminism, disasters, and all things Viennese. Her latest book is Climate in Motion: Science, Empire, and the Problem of Scale (2018).


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