Examining the Odds: How Environmental Crises Yield Varied Outcomes

by Tatsuya Nakamura
societal resilience

Contemporary research underscores the value of historical environmental crises as a blueprint for addressing current climate change challenges. Through a review of more than 150 historical incidents, it has been demonstrated that societal resilience can be fostered by socio-economic and cultural transformations. These studies highlight the critical role of social unity and the redressal of social disparities in effectively dealing with the pressing global issues of today.

The narrative on climate change has evolved from attempts to stop it to strategies for living with its consequences. Insights from a study in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B suggest that our survival and advancement hinge on the examination and adaptation of our cultural practices. The Complexity Science Hub underscores the guidance that historical precedents can provide in the face of our present difficulties.

We are currently facing a confluence of global crises, where diverse threats such as climate change, economic disparities, and political divisions are testing our collective resilience. While the extent and global nature of these challenges are unprecedented, history shows that societies have met and sometimes surmounted similar threats. Even though societies today seem to lurch from one crisis to another without respite, our understanding of history gives us an upper hand, thanks to new analytical methods.

Insights from Over 150 Historical Crises

Researchers Peter Turchin and Daniel Hoyer, along with interdisciplinary collaborators, have forged innovative methodologies for gleaning insights from historical crises. They have developed the Crisis Database (CrisisDB), which is a component of the Seshat Global History Databank, documenting over 150 crises across various eras and locales.

Societies have historically faced natural disasters like earthquakes, droughts, and floods with varying outcomes. Some succumbed to upheaval, violence, or outright collapse, while others endured, preserving or enhancing social structures through reforms that advanced public welfare and democracy.

Daniel Hoyer notes, “Not every environmental disturbance or climate irregularity results in catastrophe or severe crisis, nor does every crisis stem from significant environmental strains.” The question arises: What differentiates those who collapse from those who adapt positively?

Varied Historical Outcomes

The researchers present a selection of historical scenarios to demonstrate varied outcomes. For instance, the Zapotec civilization at Monte Albán in Mexico flourished until it encountered a severe drought in the 9th century. Rather than a complete societal failure, the inhabitants dispersed into smaller groups, maintaining much of their cultural and social identity through a change in their ideological and socio-economic framework.

Conversely, the Qing Dynasty in China initially withstood adverse ecological conditions but became susceptible to these same challenges by the 19th century, leading to the catastrophic Taiping Rebellion and the dynasty’s eventual collapse in 1912.

In contrast, during the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire faced severe environmental hardships, including droughts and the Little Ice Age, which triggered social unrest and rebellions. Yet, the empire preserved its core social and political structures and continued to rule for centuries.

Broad Applicability of Research

Peter Turchin points out, “Many investigations focus on isolated incidents or singular societies. A comprehensive assessment across societies affected by the same climatic conditions can reveal the actual impact and the efficacy of responses to environmental stresses.” The researchers have thus established a framework for producing generalizable insights across diverse cases, which aids in identifying the factors that contribute to divergent outcomes.

Unraveling the Complexity of Crisis Dynamics

Turchin emphasizes that a myriad of factors determine the trajectory of a crisis, with environmental elements being critical but not solitary in influencing societal reactions. These elements intertwine with cultural, political, and economic factors, and understanding these interactions is crucial for comprehending crisis dynamics. The CrisisDB initiative aims to uncover patterns and identify crucial elements that bolster or weaken societal resilience in the face of current climate challenges.

Prioritizing the Reduction of Social Inequality

A significant finding from their research is that increasing social inequality, a slow-moving structural force, can compromise societal resilience. Hoyer underscores the necessity for substantial social cohesion to confront large-scale threats, drawing on the Covid pandemic to illustrate how societies with pre-existing social cohesion and collective action capabilities were more adept at handling the crisis and implementing essential measures.

“In an age characterized by escalating ecological disturbances, economic upheaval, inequality, and significant conflicts, our priority should be to alleviate these structural strains to foster such cohesion and resilience,” Hoyer stresses.

Reference: “Navigating polycrisis: long-run socio-cultural factors shape response to changing climate” by Daniel Hoyer, James S. Bennett, Jenny Reddish, Samantha Holder, Robert Howard, Majid Benam, Jill Levine, Francis Ludlow, Gary Feinman and Peter Turchin, 6 November 2023, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2022.0402

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about societal resilience

How do past environmental crises inform our approach to climate change?

By examining over 150 historical events, researchers have identified that socio-economic reforms and cultural adaptations can lead to societal resilience, guiding our current approach to climate change and emphasizing the importance of social cohesion and equality.

Why is societal cohesion important in responding to environmental shocks?

Societal cohesion is crucial as it underpins the collective capacity to implement systemic reforms and navigate crises effectively. Historical data shows that societies with strong social unity are better equipped to handle environmental and social challenges.

What can we learn from the Crisis Database (CrisisDB)?

The CrisisDB, with data from over 150 past crises, shows that not all environmental shocks lead to disaster. Societies that thrived implemented systemic reforms, suggesting that resilience is tied to socio-economic and cultural factors.

How did the Complexity Science Hub use historical events to address current challenges?

The Complexity Science Hub analyzed historical events to understand how societies have successfully or unsuccessfully dealt with crises, providing insights into building resilience against current and future climate-related challenges.

What does the study say about the relationship between environmental stresses and societal collapse?

The study reveals that environmental stresses do not automatically lead to societal collapse. It emphasizes that the outcome depends on various factors, including the society’s cultural, political, and economic context and its ability to adapt and reform.

How does reducing social inequality contribute to climate resilience?

Reducing social inequality helps build societal cohesion, which is necessary for collective action and resilience. As observed in the Covid pandemic, societies with higher cohesion were more successful in implementing measures to manage the crisis.

What is the significance of the research published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B?

The research provides a comprehensive analysis of how long-term socio-cultural factors shape responses to changing climates, helping us understand the dynamics of crisis and resilience, which is essential for navigating the current global polycrisis.

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Linda Q November 5, 2023 - 1:30 pm

gotta say, its fascinating how history can teach us lessons about todays climate issues, history doesn’t repeat but it sure does rhyme

Raj Patel November 5, 2023 - 4:28 pm

Did anyone else find the part about the Qing dynasty really engaging, its amazing how they lasted that long with all those crisies happening

Sarah K November 6, 2023 - 1:39 am

i think the points about social cohesian are spot on, without it were just kind of floundering when disasters hit

Dave C November 6, 2023 - 4:36 am

the article mentions socio-economic reforms a lot but doesn’t really dive into what kind those could be, could use some examples

Mike Johnson November 6, 2023 - 7:41 am

interesting read but im not sure how they can compare ancient societies to our modern world, its like apples and oranges


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