SCIENCE: Climate and the collapse of society

From: Brian D Williams (
Date: Mon Feb 12 2001 - 09:48:59 MST

This is related to several recent discussion.

>From this weeks SCIENCE-WEEK EXPRESS:

.... ... H. Weiss and R.S. Bradley (2 installations, US) present a
review of current research on climate forcing of societal
collapse, the authors making the following points:
     1) The authors point out that the accumulation of high-
resolution paleoclimatic data that provide an independent measure
of the timing, amplitude, and duration of past climate events
relevant to societal collapse indicates that these climate events
were abrupt, involved new conditions that were unfamiliar to the
inhabitants of the time, and persisted for decades to centuries.
These climate events were therefore highly disruptive, leading to
societal collapse, which can be viewed as an adaptive response to
otherwise insurmountable stresses.
     2) Examples of the relationship between paleoclimate and
societal collapse in the Old World suggest that prehistoric and
early historic societies, from villages to states or empires,
were highly vulnerable to climatic disturbances, and many lines
of evidence now point to climate forcing as the primary agent in
repeated social collapse. In the New World, high-resolution
archeological records also point to abrupt climate change as the
proximal cause of repeated social collapse.
     3) Climate during the past 11,000 years was long believed to
have been uneventful, but new evidence increasingly demonstrates
climatic instability. Droughts lasting decades to centuries
started abruptly, were unprecedented in the experience of the
existing societies, and were highly disruptive to the
agricultural foundations of these societies because social and
technological innovations were not available to counter the
rapidity, amplitude, and duration of changing climate conditions.
     4) The authors point out that these past climate changes
were unrelated to human activities. In contrast, future climate
change will involve both natural and anthropogenic forces and
will be increasingly dominated by the latter. Current estimates
suggest changes will be large and rapid. Global temperature will
rise and atmospheric circulation will change, leading to a
redistribution of rainfall difficult to predict. The authors
point out that in spite of technological changes, most of the
world's people will continue to be subsistence or small-scale
market agriculturalists who are as vulnerable to climate
fluctuations as the late prehistoric and early historic
societies. Furthermore, in an increasingly crowded world, change
of habitat ("habitat tracking") as an adaptive response will not
be an option.
     5) In conclusion, the authors suggest we must use current
information "to design strategies that minimize the impact of
climate change on societies that are at greatest risk. This will
require substantial international cooperation, without which the
21st century will likely witness unprecedented social
H. Weiss and R.S. Bradley: What drives societal collapse?
(Science 26 Jan 01 291:609)
QY: Harvey Weiss:
Summary by SCIENCE-WEEK 9Feb01
For more information:


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