When we think of the current environmental crisis and climate change, it is natural to focus on the future and what is yet to come. Many of us are familiar with the fear and anxiety that comes with wondering what will happen as sea levels rise, temperatures increase and more extreme weather conditions break out across the world. But what if anxiety over the future obscures lessons we can learn from our greatest teacher: the past? In their new book Climate Chaos: Lessons on Survival from Our Ancestors, Brian Fagan and Nadia Durrani teach us that it is exactly in the past that we might be able to find the answers we have been longing for. Shifting climates is not new to humanity: Fagan and Durrani’s Climate Chaos stands out as an incredible effort to bring to light some of the lessons that our past can teach us.
Conversations around the environment and climate change tend to focus on the future, near and far. Let us think for example of movements like “Fridays for future”, and “Extinction rebellion”, born out of young people’s concerns for what their lives will look like in the years to come. The recent COP26 summit serves as a perfect example too: for two weeks, global leaders have met to discuss what needs to be done to protect life on this planet not only for today’s global population, but most of all for future generations.
As environmentalists, we fight for a better future. Some would even argue that as environmentalists, we fight to have a future at all. And rightfully so: climate change puts our very existence on this planet in tremendous danger, and it is therefore imperative that we take action today to guarantee humanity life on this Earth tomorrow.
But what role does our past play in our relationship with the ongoing environmental crisis? Turning back to look at the past may not come so naturally when everyone else seems to focus on the future. And yet, Climate Chaos does exactly that: it recalibrates the reader’s attention and it encourages us to take a look at the past.
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After their 2019 success “What We Did in Bed: A Horizontal History”, Brian Fagan and Nadia Durrani come back together for their latest release Climate Chaos, to tell the story of humanity’s relationship with climate change. In their book, Fagan and Durrani take the reader on a journey through the centuries: from Egypt, the Roman Empire and the Mayan civilization, and up to the modern era. They tell tales of resilience and adaptation, tracing down the history of events that are very much still relevant today, like El Niños, meteorological phenomena born from the dynamics of ocean currents that have affected human civilization for millenia. Through this collection of stories from our past, Climate Chaos ultimately serves as a reminder that abrupt changes in our climate is not at all new in human history.
Humanity may have dealt with climate change for longer than one would think, but Fagan and Durrani also stress that the climate change we experience today is unprecedented: the crises we currently face are a “far cry from the kinds of climatic adaptations that faced the Andeans, the Indus Civilization, medieval European farmers, and the Mughals of India.” There is, however, still much we can learn from the way we have managed the climate in the past.
Climate Chaos offers a number of lessons that can be learned from our ancestors. Our personal favorite at Earth.Org is the idea that to overcome the current environmental crisis we need leadership, action and adaptation on the local level, but that we also need, as Fagan and Durrani put it, “charismatic, authoritative leadership that transcends national interests and attacks climate change from a truly global perspective.” In other words, we agree with Fagan and Durrani when they say that we will only make progress in our fight against climate change when we will start to act both at the local and at the global level.
Climate Chaos also touches on what our past can teach us regarding surviving strategies and coping mechanisms in a world of existential climatic crises: these, among many others, are the valuable lessons from our past that the book shares with the reader.Whether you are a history aficionado, simply curious about past climate adaptations, or would like to know more about what we can learn from our past, Climate Chaos will be an informative read, with a focus on lessons from the past that can feel like a breath of fresh air in a plethora of environmental literature mostly focused on what our future may hold.
Climate Chaos: Lessons on Survival from Our Ancestors
Brian Fagan & Nadia Durrani
2021, PublicAffairs, 352pp