Science & Technology

Is Modern Civilization Fragile?

The radically enhanced security of the modern world


Caltech—Our ancestors made themselves and us more vulnerable to the vagaries of nature and the weather once they switched from hunting and gathering to farming. So says Brian Fagan, emeritus professor of anthropology from University of California at Santa Barbara, who spoke on the impact of climate change on ancient societies at the Environmental Wars conference of the Skeptics Society last weekend. Fagan's chief claim is that Farming in this case stands for the advent of more complex and interconnected societies. Fagan argues that nimble hunter/gatherers could respond to environmental changes faster than farmers and urbanites who are tied to their land and their cities.

Fagan began his talk by describing his sojourn as a young man in a village of subsistence farmers in the Zambezi Valley in Africa. These farmers lived on the edge. In September and October, the farmers cleared and burnt the land in preparation for planting. Once the land was ready, they waited for the rain and when it came they hurried to plant their crops. The year Fagan lived in that village, the rain failed after the crops were planted and the village granaries emptied and the villagers suffered starvation. He noted in passing that he did not have any trouble getting food. "I have never forgotten what I learned about vulnerability," declared Fagan.

Fagan posits that human societies increased their vulnerability to natural catastrophes over the past 10,000 years (evidently more fully described in his book, The Long Summer: How climate changed civilization). Thus, climate change is responsible for humanity's shift to farming. Farming, according to Fagan, began in the Fertile Crescent after temperatures plunged during a global cold snap known as the Younger Dryas period. People living off abundant forests of pistachio nut trees and other plant foods had actually settled into permanent villages. As temperatures fell, the forest began to disappear and Neolithic people could no longer depend on its bounty. But instead of moving on, people in the area began the deliberate cultivation of wild plants; in other words, they became farmers. Fagan argues that farming led to "radically enhanced vulnerability," even though the new economy "spread like wildfire" and dominated the region by 8000 BC.

Fagan turns next to ancient Egypt where the Pharaonic system was established on the basis of abundant grain harvests. The Pharaohs claimed authority based on their ability to intercede with the gods to supply the annual Nile River floods that nourished Egypt's bountiful grain fields. Fagan notes that a good flood was a mere nine feet. However, a 60 year period of gradual drying began around 2180 BC as an El Nino drought struck the Ethiopian headwaters of the Nile. In fact the river became so dry that people could walk across it. In the face of these grain shortages, Egypt fell apart and local warlords seized control. It took 100 years for Egypt to reunify and later Pharaohs massively invested in irrigation and grain storage in order to avoid the fate of their improvident predecessors.

Fagan then considers the rise and fall of the Moche on the north coast of Peru between 200 and 600 AD. Northern Peru is one of the driest areas on earth, but the Moche thrived by settling in river valleys that laced the region. These irrigation societies were headed by a caste of warrior priests who were treated by their people as infallible gods, according to Fagan. However, around 600 AD a major earthquake wiped out the Moche's irrigation systems. After the earthquake an intense El Nino drought finished off the Moche, and the culture's rigid, inflexible leaders were overthrown.

Fagan's final dolorous example of human vulnerability to climatic events is Europe in the year 1315. Medieval life was set by the passage of seasons and never seemed to change. Ninety percent of Europeans lived from one harvest to the next. The only noises heard in this bucolic world were those made by the wind, birds, and church bells. Then one day it started to rain and rain and rain. The fields turned to mud and marginal soils washed away. By Christmas people were hungry. The stormy period lasted for seven years and by 1321 one and half million Europeans had died of starvation.

Fagan argues that modern human societies are as vulnerable as the earlier ones. But is that so? Let's go back to his account of the invention of agriculture. What happened is that our ancestors exchanged one set of vulnerabilities for another when they switched from gathering wild nuts and berries to farming.

Of course, there are always tradeoffs. Some archaeologists argue that early farmers were in general less healthy than their hunter/gatherer ancestors resulting lower life expectancies. They claim that farmers suffered more epidemic diseases from living in close quarters with others and that their limited grain-based diets fostered malnutrition. However, these claims are disputed, and in any case, even if ancient farmers experienced lower life expectancies than hunter/gatherers, they must have also experienced higher fertility rates because human populations began to grow after the invention of agriculture.

Farming produced storable food surpluses that freed some portion of the population from having to spend every day all day scrounging for their subsistence. True, many of these people wasted a lot of effort on religious mumbo jumbo, but some spent their time inventing pottery, writing, weaving, metal working and so forth. Rather than increasing vulnerability these new arts and technologies helped make people more resilient rather than more vulnerable. On balance, the switch made humanity less vulnerable to the vagaries of nature. Farming increased the security of food supplies, and allowed the creation of larger scale societies in which people could trade surpluses. Dynasties and even cultures pass into history, but farmers and farming remain.

As evidence of our increased modern vulnerability to nature's whims, Fagan cites the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Katrina proves many things—among them, don't trust governments to build levees or organize effective emergency responses—but does it demonstrat increased overall vulnerability? Hardly. Katrina killed more than 1,800 people (there are hundreds more still missing), destroyed billions of dollars of property, and disrupted energy supplies, yet the American economy shrugged off the blow and continued to expand. Our elaborate globe-spanning networks of energy supplies, computers and trade actually buffer us against the effects of natural disasters.

Look back at Fagan's experience living in a village in the Zambezi Valley, where the anthropologist actually missed the lesson he should have learned. Recall that Fagan said that he never lacked for food. Didn't he ask himself: Why are the villagers starving while I'm not? Unlike the Zambezi villagers, Fagan had access to the outside modern world that could supply him Nestle chocolate, canned Spam, rolled oatmeal, powdered milk and whatever else he needed. He was less vulnerable to starvation because he did not depend on the rains falling at a specific time in a specific place.

The good news is that when the rains fail in southern Africa today, the villagers have greater access food and other supplies from across the globe—much as Fagan had five decades ago. For example, four years ago, when famine threatened (due to drought and unbelievably stupid government policies) grain was rushed to Zambia and Zimbabwe and starvation mostly averted. It is very unlikely that droughts or floods will devastate every agricultural region across the globe all at once. Mother Nature can still be a bitch, but Fagan is simply wrong when he claims that modern societies are more and more vulnerable to her caprices. Our interconnected and globalized world provides more and more of humanity with radically enhanced security rather than increased vulnerability.