The reality and urgency of human-created climate change

A spectre is haunting the entire world : but it is not that of communism. If we were not aware of the spectre’s import or what it signals for the future, then 2005’s unprecedented hurricane sequence in the Gulf of Mexico – including three near- successive category-five hurricanes, Katrina, Rita and Wilma- should be our most firm, recent guides. Climate change – no more, no less than nature’s payback for what we are doing to our precious planet – is day by day now revealing itself. Not only in a welter of devastating scientific data and analysis but in the repeated extreme weather conditions to which we are all, directly or indirectly, regular observers, and, increasingly, victims.1

Yet, bizarrely, the majority of us, academics included, seem to remain in a state of denial. Or, hardly better, in a peculiar limbo of ‘disconnect’. Surely all this talk of impending apocalypse is scare-mongering of the very worst kind?  Freak weather conditions and natural catastrophes do happen, do they not? What anyway, can you, or I, do about it?  This is something for scientists, the boffins, the ones with the expertise and know-how: the people who can find ‘the’ technical fix, ‘the’ solution to the problem. Or if not them, the politicians; those to whom we have entrusted the security and wellbeing of our societies, and broader international community. To argue that we are involved in a struggle for our very survival, and that we must all respond accordingly, is, surely, not simply to invite unwarranted and unnecessary disruption, bordering on panic and hysteria, but carries with it implicit challenges to the wisdoms upon which our very ‘civilisation’ is founded.

This manifesto begins, thus, by affirming the indisputable nature of anthropogenic climate change as stated by climate scientists worldwide. The simplest most observable evidence for this – over and beyond what is being measured and quantified in the Arctic, Antarctic, Amazonia and elsewhere – lies in the accumulation, on the one hand, of none too dramatic but significantly incremental seasonal shifts which we can all see and feel around us, and, on the other, of an accelerated frequency of truly extreme weather conditions. It is true that because our climate is complex, and dependent on so many variables, that the scientists cannot predict an exact outcome. The impact, for instance, of temperature rises in the polar regions on currently moderating weather systems, such as the Gulf Stream, remains uncertain. To some extent our destiny will depend on whether the more conservative or more radical computer scenarios turn out to be correct. Indeed, with most recent estimates in the order of between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees2 overall warming by the end of this century, many questions remain. Even supposing the lower end of this range, the scientific opinion is agreed that mass species’ extinctions will be inevitable. However, current further evidence from sub-Arctic Siberia suggesting a permafrost thaw which is likely to release billions of tons of methane gas previously trapped beneath it, points to an even more accelerated warming process. With satellite picture now confirming a year by year degradation of the polar ice-sheets, the scientific talk now is all of tipping points having been reached and of an ‘ecological landslide that is probably irreversible.’ 3 Or, as Mike Davis, arguably one of the most perspicacious commentators on the relationship between the geo-physical science and human consequence, has put it,  reporting on other recent evidence of an abrupt non-linear shift in climate patterns: ’we are living on the climate equivalent of a runaway train that is picking up speed.’4

Climate change, thus, whatever the exact trajectory, represents the most serious and potentially lethal challenge to humankind in its history, and indeed existence. Unless, we can achieve the cuts in carbon and other greenhouse emissions which the scientists ask of us in a matter of a few decades – and even then it may be too late – global warming will necessarily turn ever larger areas of the planet into uninhabitable desert, cause droughts, flood, famine, pestilence, refugee flows, and death through repeated heat or cold surges on an unprecedented scale, while whole, currently heavily populated deltaic, estuarine, coastal and other regions on all continents will be harried by storm and/or inundated. This situation, then, is much more serious – not to say inevitable – than, for example, the threat of nuclear war, not least because with the former, we had, at least in theory, the ability to put the genie back into the bottle. Once out of control, the forces of nature, by contrast, will be uncontainable. It does not require too much to imagine not only the environmental consequences, most keenly in terms of the collapse of bio-diversity, but the much more immediate social, economic, epidemiological and political impact on ourselves. For some peoples of the world, atoll nations, such as Tuvalu in the Pacific, or indigenous communities in the Arctic, the catastrophe and its consequences are literally, already upon them. For the rest of us, the relationship between climate change and the potentiality of conflict, at all social and political levels – including at the nuclear level – will become all that much greater as the struggle for remaining natural and food resources, not to say habitable territory intensifies, and, thereafter, as despair over our collective inability to halt this trajectory becomes apparent, giving way in its place to an entirely social darwinian, zero-sum competition.

The reality and urgency of human-created climate change

What then can students of a diverse human past, of its history, archaeology, geography, literatures, philosophy, religions and cultures, offer, either to understanding, or positively responding to this dread prospect? Contemporary society, as a rule, prefers to put its faith in science for answers. But is there not a role, perhaps even more than ever, now, for prescience, too? In other words, for a reformulated process of plotting the past with the foreknowledge that if we do not come to understand how we arrived at this point, how indeed we got into this utter cul-de-sac, there will be no historical future?  By the same token, historians, archaeologists, human geographers and demographers, religious scholars and indeed many others students of past societies, are perfectly aware that in many respects we have been here before: that humanity has been the prey to many vicissitudes, including climate change, and that through thousands and thousands of such crises, there have always been enough survivors to weather the storm and bring us through. Now, though, it is different: not just quantitatively, in the scale of the disaster awaiting us, but in what should be our awareness that we, ourselves, are utterly responsible for this, and that if we fail to understand the process by which we arrived here, and from that refuse to learn to respond in our own best interests - as part of a common humanity- we will, quite literally, go over the abyss.

Are historians, and other scholars of the humanities, prepared to sleep walk into that long night? And in so doing abnegate all responsibility for the future? How will our children and our children’s children – to say nothing of perhaps a very last generation of scholars – look on usfrom their increasingly woeful vantage point, at our abject and craven failure?  Climate change may still be in humanity’s gift to moderate.  The alternative is to let it run amok. For all students of human beings on this planet, indeed, it should be instantly recognisable for what it is: our last best chance to put our communities and societies on the road to survival and sustainability. Instead, we are faced with the mechanisms and juggernaut-like trajectory of an international political economy which seems almost wilfully bent on doing exactly the opposite. It is more than just a little sad that so many of us – the scholars – have consciously, inadvertently, or by default, both in large and trivial ways, become so complicit with its bankrupt imperatives. Certainly, this is not the appropriate moment for either accusation or condemnation. Nor even to challenge the redundancy of much contemporary historiography when history itself could well be coming to its final, bitter end. Instead, the way we have approached our subject, in the blithe complacency that there would be an ongoing present and future to which we could bequeath our knowledge and wisdom, is surely something we have a duty to urgently and intensely discuss.

The point of this manifesto and appeal, therefore, in the light of what we now know about climate change, is not simply to urge a rethink as to the terms of reference by which we study the past, but to make a clarion call for a new imperative. It is time we started being purposeful and useful, not just for ourselves and for our professional interests but genuinely, seriously, for the commonweal. We must now literally rescue!history for the challenge ahead. Like the practice of rescue archaeology the task before our proposition has to be founded on sound theory and good tools. However, its outcomes have also to be geared towards what is tangible and grounded. Yet because time clearly is not on our side, the exclamation mark in the midst of rescue!history is there to emphasise the extreme urgency of the undertaking.

Developing an agenda

What then is rescue!history’s immediate agenda?  On one of the second wave London CND marches in 1980, at that time against the introduction of a new generation of nuclear weapons into Europe  – and with it of an impending threat of global Armageddon, – a banner was to be seen which read ‘Historians for the right to work: We demand a continuing supply of history.’ (Significantly marching in front of it, were Edward and Dorothy Thompson, the former having recently written his famous pamphlet Protest and Survive). Rescue!history’s purpose is effectively the same as that of the banner. If humankind’s future is actually threatened with foreclosure, and students of the past (like everyone else) have a vested interest in preventing that, then surely we now have to approach that past with, at the very least, a recognition of the possibility of terminus, and – as a consequence either ask old questions anew but in a more forceful register, or perhaps alongside them add an entirely reformulated, if disturbing set of others:

How did we get into this situation, this mess?  Was there some fatal wrong turning, associated, for instance, with the rise of the West, or a predatory and globalising capitalism, or something we call modernity?  Or is this itself to take on too many modernist and Western-centric assumptions; the inherent issue of man’s relationship to nature demanding a much more long-term and more geographically diffuse approach? If so, have humans always been their own worst enemy, the aspirations for food, light, warmth, comfort and, ultimately, conspicuous consumption, demanding relentless efforts to achieve a perpetual control of the environment, and of its resource base, against the reality of what it can actually offer? Or is there historical experience which suggests otherwise; that societies can exist, even prosper, ‘in harmony’ with an even limited natural world, and that our purpose should be to ‘learn’ from deep human experience, garnered not just from archaeological but more contemporary anthropological and ethnographic studies on how this can be done?  Is it not the case that human societies have always operated close to the limits of the possible?  And if so, what such resonances from the deep, or more recent, past are inscribed in our present situation?

Or again, is it the case that human profligacy and overreach in the historical record has led to the repeated destruction of polities and civilisations and that for all their ingenuity it was the repeated failure to heed what actually was staring them in the face which is what critically matters? Should we now, then, be paying more attention to those who, at the time, made the dread warnings, even though these usually entirely marginalised and despised prophets and visionaries sometimes bequeathed to us long-standing and durable world-systems? Or should ‘lessons’ on averting our own Nemesis lead to historical consideration of much more instrumental efforts aimed at technological breakthroughs, or forms of political and social restructuring, which arguably have also been responses to resource depletion, environmental degradation and, indeed, past climate change?  What human ‘collateral damage’, however, has been the by-product of such often Herculean efforts? Have not attempts to overcome limitations on what was humanly possible simply led to ever more lethal tendencies towards destruction and self-destruction, exacerbating into the bargain not only fraught power relationships between man and nature but also between man and man? Are indeed, our own worst tendencies in recent times, imperial and colonial subjugation, total war, Auschwitz, genocide, ethnic cleansing, Hiroshima and the ‘exterminist’ thrust of the nuclear arms race, not to say contemporary efforts by hegemonic powers, lesser states and corporate cartels to monopolistically control and determine the remaining, dwindling hydrocarbon reserves and other key resources worldwide, been simply harbingers of where we are heading? Is it not, indeed, in the very nature of over-complex, urban-focused, essentially consumerist yet nearly always grossly unequal polities and societies over time and space, founded repeatedly on the non-sustainable asset-stripping of everything around them, wherein lies our fatal Achilles heel? If this is the final end of all such ‘civilisations’ what is there, actually, in this retrospectively all-too-brief historical record to commemorate, celebrate and cherish?  Or, is it, in fact, pointless, if we are already at the point of no return? Can anything be garnered from recent critical scholarly trends and discourses, post-modernism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism, post-Marxism, gender studies, and the rest, which can shed light on our plight? Or is the best thing that scholars of human polities, societies, religions, and cultures can do in the circumstances is carry on as before, as if the crisis never existed and as if there were nothing we could offer anyway!

Quo vadis?

This manifesto has been founded on the premise that students of the past have a role, and an important one, in responding to this ultimate challenge of our time. Not to use our best endeavours to shed light on its unravelling would be an abnegation of responsibility of the most monumental kind. Certainly, as in all such moments where there is a time-lag between the emergence of the problem and the full crystallisation of public awareness of its fundamental import, all manner of rationalisations, legitimate and otherwise, will be utilised and sometimes articulated to avoid, excuse, or perhaps even prevent a rush to the barricades.

But for those who can, and will, this is an appeal to all scholars of the past, indeed all academics within the humanities, social sciences, and other disciplines, teachers, students (embracing postgraduates, undergraduates, and those at other colleges and schools) independent researchers, journalists and other professionals, as well as members of a broader public who are concerned with how we arrived at this point, to join in the pursuit of rescue!history. The initial aim may be simply to develop a conference to air the issues and to see where we can, if anywhere, go. The litany of questions above may be a starting point for a research agenda or, simply, the launching pad for a debate leading to entirely different directions. A conference along rescue!history lines should aim to be international, though clearly it will have to be built on a communications premise such as video-conferencing which seeks to avoids overstepping our collective ecological footprint and keeping our carbon emissions to a minimum. That said, from this initial base-line of one – but with the principled support of a wider Crisis Forum network (see below) – an invitation is extended to all those who feel they may be able to contribute ideas, research interests, administrative and organisational skills, contacts, and sources of funding, in what must of necessity, as well as good intention, involve a development of objectives through an open, exploratory collaboration.

Contact Mark Levene, Reader in Comparative History, University of Southampton, UK. m.levene@soton.ac.uk

(Crisis Forum) http://www.crisis-forum.org.uk

October 2005

Notes

  1. Acknowledged most recently, at the international level, in a World Bank environmental report. See John Vidal, ‘Climate change and pollution are killing millions’ says study’. The Guardian, October 6 2005.
  2. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  (IPCC) projections, 2001. Quoted in Mayer Hillman, How We Can Save the Planet (London, Penguin, 2004).
  3. Prof. Sergei Kirpotin, permafrost researcher, Tomsk State University, Western Siberia. Quoted in Ian Sample, ‘Warming hits ‘tipping point,’ The Guardian, August 11 2005.
  4.  Mike Davis, ‘Melting Away,’ The Nation, October 7 2005. http://www.thenation.com/doc/20051024/davis