Climate and Civilizations

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Every time we are hit with a natural disaster—such as the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit the north-east region of Japan in March of 2011 and the Super-storm Sandy that hit the east coast of the United States in October of 2012, to name just two recent examples—we are reminded not only of the vulnerability of our lives but also of the fragility of our civilizations against the forces of nature. It is important, therefore, to look back on the evolution of civilizations in order to remind ourselves of the crucial role of climate, or the natural environment, in our existence as individuals, as social beings, and as members of a biological species.

Influence of Climate on Civilizations: There are at least three reasons why climate needs to be included in our discussion of civilizations. In the first place, we humans, or man as a species, are a biological species whose existence is defined in the space of interaction with climate, or the natural environment. The discovery of wild barley and wheat by our hunter-gatherer ancestors that led to the Agricultural Revolution, the spread of potatoes from the New World to the Old World that is behind the rise of European civilizations, and the Black Death in the Middle Ages are but a few examples that illustrate the crucial importance of climate in the evolution of civilizations. The phenomenon of “global warming” is the latest example that reminds us of the importance of climate for the sustenance of civilizations.

Second, as the words of Herodotus (c.484-425 B.C.E.) that “Egyptian civilization was the gift of the Nile” illustrate, a certain type of climate, or the natural environment, is conducive to the development of civilizations. Indeed, it is no accident that all four great ancient civilizations—Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Chinese, and Indian—evolved along the great rivers, for the presence of rivers not only provided fertile soil for agriculture but also stimulated the development of commerce, including transportation and other service activities, and of astronomy and other natural sciences to predict weather and control floods. And the development of political institutions to maintain law and order was also necessitated by the need to coordinate and supervise efforts to control floods.

Third, climate influences what might be termed the “character” of civilizations, as different climates are often reflected as different characteristics of culture, economy, and polity, which are the component subsystems of a civilization seen as a social system. In the subsystem of “culture”, the climate of a specific region influences the kind of things worshipped by the people and the kind of artifacts they create. For example, it is known that monotheism, with the idea of a single, jealous, and authoritarian god, developed in a harsh environment of deserts in the Middle East. In contrast, in the Far East with the climate of “monsoon” supplying plenty of water during the rainy season, people developed polytheistic religion with gods residing in grasses, shrubs, and trees. In the subsystem of “economy”, what types of natural resources are available in a specific region influences what types of economic activities thrive there, not to mention specific materials being used in building tools, houses, and roads. For example, Mesopotamian civilization is often described as “clay civilization” because of its heavy reliance on this material for its buildings. In the subsystem of “polity”, climate influences the kind of political system that is adopted to maintain social order through its influence on mentality and human traits regarding competitiveness or cooperation, independence or conformity, innovativeness or adaptability, and individuality or sociability.

Interaction between Climate and Civilizations: While man as a biological species lives in the space of interaction with the natural environment and is therefore influenced by it, man is also capable of influencing and, in many cases, shaping the natural environment he lives in. The extent to which civilization exerts its influence in shaping the natural environment depends on the availability of tools and technologies. The Industrial Revolution is particularly important in the evolution of civilizations as it marks the beginning of the era of massive change and transformation of the natural environment for man with the appearance of ever-powerful technologies.

What is not to be neglected is, of course, the role of culture, or worldview, in defining man’s place in nature. In the evolution of Western civilization, the dominant idea has been one that treats nature as an instrument that could be exploited for improving human welfare. The origin of such a worldview goes back to Judaism as typified by God’s command as recorded in Genesis: “God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” (Genesis, 1:28)

Since the Reformation, the scientific inquiry into the laws of nature has replaced the mandate coming from the Creator. In Western science, nature has been treated as an object of inquiry separate from man whose laws can be discovered by rational inquiry. Moreover, to the extent that the laws of nature are discovered and verified, it becomes that much easier to exploit nature to advance human welfare. This Western outlook on nature is at the roots of ecological crisis that we face today, as was pointed out by White (1907-87).1

Emergence of an ecological worldview: The scientific outlook on nature, which sees nature as an object of inquiry separate from man, started to change in the eighteenth century as scientists turned their attention from stars and planets to plants and animals in the natural environment. One example of this heightened interest in nature was Linnaeus (1707-78) who coined the term “natural economy” to describe the natural world as a vast mechanism containing plants and animals performing their specific functions based on the principle of specialization, which was not unlike Adam Smith’s “division of labor”. From this, it was only a matter of time before Charles Darwin (1809-82) reduced man to a mere species which ekes out its existence in nature in its struggle for life along with all other species. It was only a natural progression of ideas that the science of “ecology” would come into being in the nineteenth century, with Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) coining the term “ecology” in 1866.

It was, however, in the 1960s that the scientific community in general started to embrace an ecological view of the world intuitively grasped by Romantic artists and thinkers, and intellectually expounded by these pioneering biologists and ecologists, confronted with vivid evidence of the ecological degradation brought about by man’s pursuit of economic progress. Rachel Carson was arguably the first scientist who recognized the fundamental defect in the world view of Western science that had led to the degradation of the natural environment and explicitly stated the need for a paradigm shift in science: “The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.”2 Carson, with her pioneering insight, thus ushered in the age of ecological awareness not only among the scientific community but also among the general public.

In the meantime, the science of psychology, which saw its birth at the turn of the twentieth century, was responsible for bringing spirituality into the realm of scientific inquiry by probing the depth of the human psyche. Jung (1875-1961), in particular, clearly recognized that the traditional Western conception of self was the chief reason why nature and spirituality had been treated as separate entities: “When the primitive world disintegrated into spirit and nature, the West rescued nature for itself. … Psychic reality exists in its original oneness, and awaits man’s advance to a level of consciousness where he no longer believes in the one and denies the other, but recognizes both as constituent elements of one psyche.”3

The original oneness in psychic reality, which Jung pointed out, would be developed further by the proponents of the philosophy of Deep Ecology who developed the concept of the “ecological self”. Although mention should be made of the writings of Spinoza (1632-77), Henry David Thoreau (1817-62), and Alan Watts (1915-73) for their influence in the formation of the philosophy of Deep Ecology, it was Arne Naess (1912-2009) who gave the clearest expression of Deep Ecology. In fact, Naess sees in the ecological self hope for a non-anthropocentric environmental ethic which is to be found in Eastern thought: “If reality is as it is experienced by the ecological self, our behavior naturally and beautifully follows strict norms of environmental ethics.”4

Climate and Civilizations in the Twenty-first Century: While the development of an ecological world-view outlined above is promising in reexamining the relationship between climate and civilizations, there are still many challenges ahead of us in the globalized world of the twenty-first century. Despite increasing scientific evidence, the man-made nature of global warming is still to be taken seriously by the general public, even by some scientists, making it difficult to incorporate it as an integral aspect of public policy for citizens and corporations.

Closely connected with the phenomenon of global warming is the issue of energy supply. Development of modern civilizations since the Industrial Revolution has been contingent on securing the steady supply of energy—coal, oil, gas, nuclear power. It is becoming increasingly clear that we cannot keep relying on these sources of energy not only because they are non-renewable but also they take heavy toll on the natural environment. In the case of nuclear power, securing safety in the event of a serious accident has become an utmost concern in the wake of the disaster at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in 2011.

With the emergence of Deep Ecology, with its explicit recognition of spirituality—“Buddha-nature” as Buddhists would call it—that we share with all other things in nature, we are ready to embrace the view of nature based on the original oneness of our psychic reality that Jung talked about. It is important to follow up on this promise of developing an environmental ethics of non-anthropocentric nature if we are to develop a civilization that cherishes and preserves the unity of nature, including our economic activities. The Prince of Wales, known for his keen interest in ecology, calls for a new view of the economy that would lead to a new civilization in his article titled “Green Alert”: “Surely the starting point is to see the world as it really is, and perhaps to accept that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of Nature and not the other way around. Nature is, after all, the capital that underpins capitalism.”5 “To see the world as it really is” means that we accept and act on the original oneness of man and nature—an attitude required of all civilizations today.

  1. White, Lynn, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, Science 155, 10 March 1967.
  2. Carson, Rachel, Silent Spring, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962, p. 297.
  3. Jung, “Modern Man in Search of a Soul”, as quoted in Seldes, George, The Great Thoughts, New York: Ballantine Books, 1996, p. 24.
  4. Naess, in Sessions, George (ed.), Deep Ecology for the 21st Century, Boston: Shambhara, 1995, p. 236.
  5. Newsweek, December 14, 2009, p. 56.