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Thin Ice: History, Climate Change and the Fate of Human Societies
The reasons for the rise and fall of human civilizations have been debated in the West since Edward Gibbon published the first installment of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776. As great as Gibbon’s work is, it was the 14th century Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun who first theorized the basic ideas of why and how states rise and fall. From Gibbon onward there has been considerable work in several fields, among them History, Archaeology, Economics, Sociology and Political Science, addressing the basic question: Are some societies more durable than others? Why was the Roman Empire enduring while the empires of the ancient Near East experienced cycles of rise and decline? The idea that history moved in “cycles” or “waves” was first made popular by Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918-22), although the cyclical idea of history goes back to the ancient Greeks. It has come roaring back into fashion in recent historical work and in popular discourse, made popular by Malcolm Gladwell in his The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. This kind of thinking can explain much about patterns in human history and behavior. There is a serious concept of tipping point to consider. The idea that a small change or a new behavior can be suddenly widely adopted in a society is certainly interesting, but a climatic tipping point, something many scientists argue we are approaching, is something altogether more frightening. Scientists use the concept to describe the Earth’s climate system approaching a warming threshold that would cause runaway, unstoppable ecosystem collapse, making the Earth uninhabitable, or at least really uninviting. In such a scenario, there would no longer be any point in discussing “cycles” or “waves” in human history. Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” would look like a story from Aesop’s Fables in comparison, but the course of human history provides reasons, too, optimism, which I will explore.


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Joseph Manning
William K. and Marilyn M. Simpson Professor of Classics and History, and School of the Environment; Research Scholar, Yale Law @Yale University
Joseph Manning grew up in Western Spring, IL and received his MA and PhD from the University of Chicago. Most of his early work was within a framework he terms Analytical Papyrology - establishing an historical framework for Greco-Roman period Egypt in which documentary papyri written in Greek and in Egyptian can be interpreted. With that as a technical base, his earlier work has been done in Hellenistic Mediterranean economic history with a focus on Ptolemaic Egypt. He is now working within an broader historical scope examining climatic change at various scales, and global societal "responses" on both micro and macro scales. For his purposes the investigation of human societies since the last Ice Age and the role of climatic change, among many other factors, in understanding change. His goal is to understand complexity, rather than to simplify. He outlines this philosophy, including the necessity of working in teams, in the first chapter of his latest book, The Open Sea, 2018.