Why Do Certain Environmental Shocks Result in Disasters While Others Do Not?

The focus has shifted from mere cessation to coexisting with climate change. A research initiative by the Complexity Science Hub sheds light on how our historical experiences can offer valuable guidance.

Presently, we find ourselves grappling with a convergence of global crises, where a multitude of threats intersect, intertwining and testing our collective resilience. These challenges encompass climate change, economic inequality, and political polarization, posing new obstacles on a global scale. Despite the formidable scale and reach of these challenges, they have been confronted and occasionally overcome in the past. Modern societies face limited respite between crises, but we possess a crucial advantage: knowledge. This knowledge stems from studying our history using novel methods.

Researchers from the Complexity Science Hub, including Peter Turchin and Daniel Hoyer, have spearheaded innovative approaches to glean insights from history. Collaborating across various fields, they have curated the Crisis Database (CrisisDB) as part of the Global History Databank Seshat, comprising data from over 150 past crises spanning diverse time periods and regions.

Their study titled “Navigating Polycrisis: long-run socio-cultural factors shape response to changing climate” was published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences.

When earthquakes shook the earth, droughts parched the land, or floods ravaged regions, some societies succumbed to social unrest, civil violence, or total collapse. Conversely, others displayed resilience, maintaining crucial social functions or even achieving progress through systemic reforms that enhanced well-being and increased democratic participation.

Hoyer notes, “What we observe is that not every ecological shock or climatic anomaly leads to collapse or even a severe crisis, and not every crisis involves a major environmental stressor.” But what distinguishes those that collapse from those that embrace positive change?

The researchers illustrate the divergent dynamics experienced by past societies and emphasize the comprehensiveness of their data through three historical examples.

In southern Mexico, the Zapotec hilltop settlement of Monte Albán, a significant regional settlement, faced extreme, persistent drought in the 9th century. The once-magnificent Monte Albán was abandoned, alongside many other Mesoamerican cities. Recent research challenges the notion of “societal collapse,” revealing that former residents resettled in smaller communities nearby, likely without significant mortality. This resettlement occurred through an ideological and socio-economic reorientation, preserving many aspects of their society.

On the other end of the spectrum, the immensely wealthy Qing Dynasty in China demonstrated resilience to adverse ecological conditions during the early part of their reign, including recurrent floods, droughts, and locust swarms. However, by the 19th century, social pressures had accumulated, rendering them more vulnerable to the same challenges. This vulnerability culminated in the Taiping Rebellion, often considered the bloodiest civil war in human history, and the dynasty ultimately collapsed in 1912 after 250 years of rule.

In between these extremes, the researchers highlight the Ottoman Empire, which faced formidable environmental conditions during the 16th century, such as recurrent droughts and the Little Ice Age. Despite these challenges, they managed to preserve key social and political structures, avoiding collapse and ruling a large territory for several more centuries.

The research methodology developed by the researchers aims to produce insights that can be applied to numerous cases across different regions and time periods, enabling the identification of the underlying causes of divergent outcomes.

Understanding the dynamics of a crisis involves considering numerous factors. While environmental forces are undeniably pivotal, the relationship between a specific climate event and a predetermined societal response is not straightforward. Instead, these forces interact with cultural, political, and economic dynamics.

Comprehending these dynamics is essential to understanding their interactions. Through their work on the CrisisDB program, the researchers and their colleagues aim to unveil these patterns and identify the key factors that either bolster or undermine resilience to contemporary climate shocks.

Addressing large-scale threats necessitates significant societal cohesion. For instance, during the COVID pandemic, societies with higher levels of cohesion and the capacity for collective action navigated the crisis more effectively and successfully implemented necessary distancing measures.

Given that we reside in an era marked by increasing ecological shocks, economic disruptions, inequality, and major conflicts, our priority should be to reduce these structural pressures to build cohesion and resilience, emphasizes Hoyer.

Additionally, a study featured in the Special Issue by Stephen Lansing and I Wayan Alit Artha Wiguna proposes a revolutionary approach to rice farming. This approach not only has the potential to transform rice farming methods but also significantly mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. In Asia alone, with over 200 million rice farms, rice fields contribute to a substantial 11% of global methane emissions.

The study suggests that by regulating irrigation, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by a remarkable 70%, simultaneously reducing excess commercial nitrogen fertilizer flowing from rice paddies to rivers and coral reefs. By draining and irrigating the rice fields only when hairline cracks appeared on the surface, the ideal environment for methane-emitting bacteria was avoided. This method not only reduced greenhouse gas emissions but also increased crop yield by over 20% on the drained field for the farmer who implemented it.

Lansing, an ecological anthropologist, has been studying Indonesia’s rice paddies since arriving in Bali in 1974.

Source: Complexity Science Hub Vienna

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