Thursday, December 3, 2009

Climate, and the Rise and fall of Civilization

There are a number of different definitions of “Civilization”. Chamber’s Dictionary defines civilization as “a stage of development in human society that is socially, politically, culturally and technologically advanced” and Wikipedia considers it “a complex society or culture group characterized by dependence upon agriculture, long-distance trade, state form of government, occupational specialization, urbanism, and class stratification”. But one thing those definitions have in common is that civilization may refer to emergence of “Society”, the organized group or association, meeting to share a common interest of activity and all kinds of development (specifically material) occur in it.

As humankind has gone through thousands of years, the civilization has been developed and progressed in many ways, but the essential (basic) form or basis of civilization has never changed. People settle in certain places and still form a group which we call a society and the society develops and progresses by interaction between people or societies. With this premise, we would say that it is quite meaningful to have a question that; why and how did civilization begin and emerge? What was the most influential factor of the emergence of civilizations?

There are many assertions on the factors of the emergence of civilization; being able to domesticate, invention of farming, invention of tools etc. However, first of all of those assumptions, I would like to point out the common point of four centers of civilization which are very first of emergence of civilization; Mesopotamian, Indian, Egyptian, and Chinese Civilization which is geographical position and climate. Actually, we do not know exactly why people formed a group. The reason may be possibly found in psychology which deals with human instinct. But as a historian, what we can say about earlier people is that they formed a group and settled along the river bank and in where the climate was warm and humid and this tendency of group of people was found in all of four centers of civilization. This fact is really strong appeal for us not to overlook environmental factor and influence on the civilization. One scholar says I quote: Climate shifts have both helped to foster the rise of civilization and contributed to their demises. William Henry Mcneill in his book “Plague and People (1998)” emphasizes the importance of environmental biological factor in human society. Arnold Toynbee in his book “A study of history (1935-1948)” also mentions about environmental factor in civilization as he suggests “Challenge and Response” theory.

If we notice that the early civilizations were based on agriculture, domestication and also on hunting and gathering food, we would know that the civilizations were strongly affected by climate and geographical factors. And in fact the geographical position of four centers of civilization which were suitable for farming, domesticating, hunting, and gathering food may be the important factor of emergence of civilization. We must not ignore the fact that all the four civilizations emerged in similar place in terms of geography and climate.

Nick Brooks, in his paper “Cultural responses to aridity in the Middle Holocene and Increased Social Complexity (2006)” closely looks into the environmental, specifically climatic influence on the emergence of civilization. In his paper, he proposes that the four centers of civilizations especially Sahara were warm and humid but as the world faced a profound climatic and environmental changes: weakening of monsoon system and widespread of aridification during 6th and early 5th century BC in those centers, the social development and complexity achieved during the early civilization were driven. In other words, the civilization collapsed by environmental deterioration.

Ancient civilizations, unlike nowadays, were quite dependant on environmental setting because of they were agricultural based. So the widespread of aridity was destructive enough to collapse the civilizations down. There was nothing the people could do in facing environmental challenge which was out of their control. As what Toynbee proposes, the civilization develops and progresses through facing and overcoming challenges but at the same time the civilization which was not able to respond to the challenge disappeared into history. As long as we, human beings are the part of the nature and environment, we cannot get ourselves out of environmental influence.

As the evidence, I would want to talk about the crisis of our very own civilization being brought by environmental challenge. Our civilization, the world, is now at critical moment. Our abuse on our motherland resulted in global warming which can cause complete destruction of the Earth. This environmental challenge is (Although the human being caused it) now being stronger and driving our civilization into a corner. Like what Toynbee says, if we cannot respond to the challenge, the civilization we achieved might be vanished.

Both recent civilization and ancient civilization face an environmental challenge. What is different from recent to ancient civilization is that the environmental challenge is caused by human being in recent time unlike which of ancient time that was made by nature itself. But the point is that the civilization faces environmental specifically climatic changes (When we say “Climate Change” it does not mean changing day by day, or week by week, or even month by month. What changes on that time-scale is weather, not climate. Climatic change happens in long duration) and the fate of civilization depends upon how people respond to that challenge. Not minding the cause of it (Whether human activity or nature itself), environmental (Climate) changes are great challenge which are perhaps impossible to be overcome to mankind and the societies.

I see the two sides of Environment, climate in specific that can cause both rise and fall of civilization. As long as we are human beings, who are the part of environment, we will not be able to get out of the environmental influence. It is expected that especially during ancient time in which the societies were greatly dependant on agriculture and sensitive with climatic change, the environmental change was quite big challenge to people and civilization.

Therefore, I would agree with the well-grounded scientific speculation of Brooks considering climate as the most important factor in the rise and fall of civilization. Noting that when people settled in certain place, climatic matter was considered important in choosing the place to for them settle (suitable for farming, domesticating etc.) and this was the beginning of civilization. To sum up the civilizations began with considering climate and collapsed when the climate went against them.


Toynbee, A. J. (1935-1948). A study of history (Vol. 1). London: Oxford University.

McNeill, W.H. (1998). Plagues and Peoples. New York: Anchor Books.

Brooks, Nick (2006) Cultural responses to aridity in the Middle Holocene and increased social complexity. Quarterly International, 151 (2006) 29–49. Retrieved January 07, 2009 from

Donald Kennedy (2000) Climate and Civilization, The Scientific Evidence for Climate Change and How Our Response to It May Influence National Polic. New York: State University of New York College at Oneonta

Civilization (November 29, 2009) In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia Retrieved 08:37 November 29, 2009 from

Civilization Chambers Dictionary (1996). Edinburgh: Chambers