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The Future in the Past

Climate-based eco-scarcity has been successfully applied in historical research. Most notably, Zhang and colleagues (2007, 2011) have looked at the period between 1500 and 1800 to understand the social and political effects of climate change. Based on time series from the Northern Hemisphere, especially from Europe but also from China, Zhang et al. (2011, 17298) have come up with a sophisticated causal model that is thoroughly grounded in empirical data (Fig. 4.9).

The model is neatly illustrated by Europe's “general crisis” of the seventeenth century. A drop in average temperature around 1560 was immediately followed by a reduction of bio-productivity, which negatively affected agricultural yields and thus food supply per capita. Over the next 30 years or so, this was followed by cascading escalations of social unrest, migration, famine, war, epidemics, and widespread malnutrition. From 1618, the crisis culminated in the Thirty Years War. Subsequent warfare, together with famines and epidemics, led to a considerable shrinkage of the European population (Zhang et al. 2011).

Fig. 4.9 Causal pathways from climate change to large-scale human crisis

When tested against data from the Northern Hemisphere more generally between 1200 and 1800, the expectations derived from the model are largely confirmed. The authors observe strikingly similar macro-patterns for regions as disparate as Europe and China, at a time when Europe and China were largely detached from one another both economically and politically. Zhang et al. (2007) suggest that this synchronicity can hardly be explained unless one assumes that similar social mechanisms were triggered by similar climatic stresses.[1]

Science Integration

While the insights of Zhang and colleagues are of a heuristic nature, the interdisciplinary nature of a research program such as that suggested by Fig. 4.9 is obvious. It takes climatologists, ecologists, and agricultural experts to trace the links between climate change, reduced bioproductivity, and agricultural shortfalls. The link between agricultural production and food supply per capita must be unpacked by social scientists sensitive to political inequality. One level further down, when it comes to the study of social unrest, migration, and famine, we are entering the bailiwick of political scientists, economists, and sociologists. The study of war is the turf of international relations scholars, while epidemics and malnutrition are at the intersection of medical and social scientific disciplines. Demographers are competent to study the dynamic of population decline.

Systems scientists and people trained in advanced computer technology would be needed to further refine the operationalization of the model. Because the model is supposed to work across time and space, historians and area specialists would obviously have to actively contribute at every stage of the research cycle. Ironically, however, empirically oriented multidisciplinary papers such as those by Zhang et al. are hardly ever discussed by disciplinary social scientists.

Why do “hard” scientists such as Zhang et al. come up with deductive models, rather than social scientists developing them inductively? It is too comfortable and surely not helpful for social scientists to accuse those who develop complex models of “environmental determinism” while digging in behind disciplinary walls. Social scientists would not have to agree with every detail of such models, but they could make important contributions to improving and refining them.

  • [1] While Zhang et al. have shown that social and political dislocations in the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere are mostly associated with climatic warming, others have demonstrated that the opposite holds for the tropics where warmer El Niño years have always been, and are still, associated with serious social and political trouble (Fagan 2009; Hsiang et al. 2011)
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