Climate Change: From the Agricultural Revolution to the Industrial Revolution—and to the Spiritual Revolution

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

While there have been many revolutionary events in the history of humanity, the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution stand out for the widespread change and transformation they triggered in the way we humans interact with the natural environment in conducting our lives. As a matter of fact, climate change has a lot to do with these two revolutions: the Agricultural Revolution was induced by climate change, whereas the Industrial Revolution was the beginning of induced climate change by human activities.

The Agricultural Revolution took place in the region known as the Fertile Crescent in the Western Asia. During the Ice Age, this area was home to hunter-gatherers who lived mainly on bison and horses roaming around on the vast grassland. Starting around 13,000 BCE, the Ice Age began to recede and went through successive periods of warming. This warming trend, along with increased rainfalls, led to an expansion of forests, creating an unfavorable living environment for these animals our hunter-gatherer ancestors depended on as their food. Faced with the critical food crisis, our hunter-gatherer ancestors chose to settle down and live in the expanded area of forests.

Then, starting around 9,000 BCE, the Western Asia—and most of the Northern Hemisphere—saw the return of the Ice Age known as the Younger Dryas. The waves of cold climate led to diminished forest areas, forcing our hunter-gather ancestors to move around in search of alternative food to replace the diminished crops of nuts such as almonds and chestnuts. It was during this period of desperate search for alternative food that our hunter-gatherer ancestors stumbled upon wild barley and wheat. The Agricultural Revolution was thus triggered by a desperate response on the part of our hunter-gatherer ancestors to climate change in the natural environment around their habitat.

The Agricultural Revolution was behind the birth of what we now call “civilization.” As one authority on the subject of civilization puts it, “In the last analysis civilization is based upon the food supply. The cathedral and the capitol, the museum and the concert chamber, the library and the university are the façade, in the rear are the shambles.” (Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage, p.7) With the Agricultural Revolution, the food supply for our farming ancestors became more reliable compared with other sources of food, for harvested barley and wheat could be stored for later consumption.

If the Agricultural Revolution was induced by climate change, the Industrial Revolution reverses the role of humans in our relationship to the natural environment. Now it is we humans that induce climate change with the revolutionary change and transformation in the way we conduct our lives. Since the second half of the eighteenth century when the Industrial Revolution started in England, the world has witnessed the rise of a new global civilization called the “industrial civilization.”

The extent to which civilization exerts its influence on the natural environment depends on the use of tools and technologies. The Industrial Revolution, while bringing about increases in the material standards of living—at least, in the industrial part of the world—ushered in an era of massive change and transformation of the natural environment with the application of ever-powerful tools and technologies in the extraction of natural resources and the production of goods and services.

The pursuit of increasing material standards of living has led to our increasing dependency on coal, oil, and other material resources in the natural environment. Indeed, what scientists call the “Carbon Age” in human history may be said to have its beginning in the eighteenth century with the Industrial Revolution when the mode of production—and the mode of life itself—became increasingly dependent on the use of energy generated by carbon extracted from Earth. The Industrial Revolution thus marks the beginning of human-induced climate change caused by an ever-increasing emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Industrial civilization has thus led to a new type of climate change—global warming and extreme weather patterns, including heat waves, violent hurricanes and typhoons, and widespread forest fires. While the Agricultural Revolution was triggered by climate change in the specific region inhabited by our hunter-gatherer ancestors, the Industrial Revolution triggered climate change that now covers the entire globe. This is the reason why climate change we face today requires a global solution.

International organizations such as the United Nations (UN) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have embarked on initiatives to confront the global climate change such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. While such initiatives are encouraging in reminding us of the need for joint efforts to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, we must go beyond international or intergovernmental organizations if we are to find our way out of the climate crisis we face in the world today. This is so because climate change is a transnational phenomenon that does not honor national borders or political boundaries.

If climate change is a transnational phenomenon, what is needed is a transnational solution, which can only be called the Spiritual Revolution in view of the changing relationship between climate and humans in the history of civilization. While going through the agricultural Revolution in solving the problem of food supply and the Industrial Revolution in solving that of energy supply, we humans have come to take it for granted that Nature is an instrument that can be exploited for the production of goods and services to increase our material standards of living. What is needed is, however, awareness that Nature is a complex system of connections and interactions among all living and non-living systems. And that complex system called Nature is actually a fragile system that can be easily destroyed—just like civilization, as another authority on the subjects of civilization reminds us: “Civilisation … is actually quite fragile. It can be destroyed.” (Kenneth Clark, Civilisation, p.3) Whether we can save civilization we have inherited from our ancestors depends crucially on whether we will come to collective awakening to the role we humans play in the evolution of that fragile system called Nature. After all, civilization was, has been, and will be the generous gift from Nature.