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.

“Summer Afternoon”: Two Most Beautiful Words in the English Language?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” These are the words of Henry James as quoted in A Backward Glance, an autobiography of Edith Wharton published in 1934. Summer afternoon in the English countryside must have been lovely back in the early years of the twentieth century, for it was in 1908 on the occasion of his visit to Bodiam Castle with Edith Wharton that Henry James uttered these words. Edith Wharton expresses her agreement with Henry James when she opens the paragraph in which these words are quoted with a line: “One perfect afternoon we spent at Bodiam.”

This was, of course, back in the first years of the twentieth century when the term “global warming” was not in wide circulation as it is now. In fact, it was in 2001 that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, with a warning about the potential impact of global warming on the future of human civilizations. Would Henry James use the same words now to describe summer afternoon in the English countryside where the high temperature often goes well beyond 35˚C (95˚F)? For example, the high temperature reached 38.5˚C in August 2003 in Haversham, Kent, which is adjacent to East Sussex where Henry James was in the summer of 1908. And what about Shakespeare? It was back in 1609 when he published his Sonnets, which includes a sonnet that begins with a line: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Would he continue to use a summer’s day as a metaphor for loveliness and temperateness? What imagery would he use now to describe a summer’s day when the brutal summer heat covers the English countryside, not just the cities?

As we all know by now, it is not just England that started to see the record high temperatures in the twenty-first century. In 2007, 15 countries set the record for high temperatures. It is no coincidence, then, that the Japan Meteorological Agency decided to introduce a new category of “Extremely Hot Summer Days” in April 2007 to refer to the days of brutal summer heat with the high temperature exceeding 35˚C. The decision to introduce the new category, in addition to the two previous categories of “Summer Days” (25~29˚C) and “Hot Summer Days” (30-34˚C), was in response to the recognition, on the part of the Japan Meteorological Agency, that “Extremely Hot Summer Days” are occurring too often and that the public need to be warned about the health hazards of high summer temperatures. As a matter of fact, it is customary for weather forecasters now to include the warning about the potential danger of heat strokes whenever the high temperature is expected to exceed 35˚C in the days ahead, advising people to avoid strenuous outdoor activities and to take plenty of liquids.

Hiking is certainly one of those strenuous outdoor activities that we need to refrain from on “Hot Summer Days,” let alone on “Extremely Hot Summer Days.” Strenuous or not, Matsuo Basho, known as the finest master of haiku, is also known for his extensive travels on foot while composing his haiku. It was on July 13 of 1689 that Basho composed one of his best-known haiku for summer: “sizukasa ya/ iwa ni simiiru/ semi no koe (In serenity/ Deep into rocks penetrate/ Cicadas’ chorus)”. Basho was at Risshaku-ji in Yamagata Prefecture when he composed this haiku. Since Risshaku-ji is also known as Yamadera, or “Mountain Temple,” constructed as it is on the side of a rocky mountain, it must have been a strenuous walk for Basho to reach this temple, with no easy access like a railroad station nearby which is now available to visitors. Considering how secluded the temple must have been back then, it is easy to imagine how Basho must have enjoyed a serene moment of meditation there, while listening to cicadas’ chorus. Perhaps summer heat was not as bad as it has since become.

Yamagata Prefecture, though located in the northern region of Japan, is not exempted from “Extremely Hot Summer Days.” Yamagata City, the capital of the prefecture, had the high temperature of 40.8˚C back in July of 1933, the highest recorded temperature in Japan until August of 2007 when two other cities broke the record with the high temperature of 40.9˚C. Even this new record did not last long, and was replaced by another record high temperature of 41˚C in 2013. Then in 2018, two cities matched this new record high temperature and another city set yet another record with the high temperature of 41.1˚C. What is becoming increasingly clear is that an extremely hot summer afternoon is not suitable either for hiking or for serene meditation even for a vigorous walker like Basho. Instead of appreciating serenity amid cicadas’ chorus, a twenty-first century disciple of Basho might compose a haiku that expresses a sense of sympathy for cicadas singing in the brutal summer heat: “natu no gogo/ mosho ni aegu/ semi no koe (Summer afternoon/ Even cicadas’ chorus/ Sounds feeble with heat)”. Whether we like it or not, it is time to ask for a second opinion as to whether “summer afternoon” are the two most beautiful words in the English language or, for that matter, in any language.