Deep History and the Climate

by Park

I’ve been reading up a bit recently on two related subjects. One is what’s known as “Deep History,” a recent trend in historiography associated with the Harvard medievalist Daniel Lord Smail. Deep history proposes that historians begin to study the deep past, using findings from science—including (paleo)anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary biology, primatology, and neuroscience—to study history before the advent of civilization, writing, or agriculture. History should begin 2.6 million years ago, not 10,000.

The second subject is what might be called, in a sense, ‘environmental history.’ Really, it’s a loose set of speculations as to what climate change, or the advent of the ‘Anthropocene,’ means for history, and how we understand ‘the human’ as the subject of history. Dipesh Chakrabarty provides a summary of the problem, in the title of the first of four theses advanced in “The Climate of History”: “Anthropogenic explanations of climate change spell the collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history.” That is, man is no longer separate from Nature (that’s a break from most of the Western tradition). Worse, dreams of freedom, which have, in both liberal and ‘radical’ guises, dominated Western universal civilization since the onset of modernity, are all equally predicated on the burning of fossil fuels.

The latter point is obvious, when you consider it, but at some level hasn’t quite sunken in. Chakrabarty, a postcolonial Marxist historian, draws it out a bit. The idea of the Anthropocene, which posits a break in geological time due to human destruction of the environment, reveals ‘critical’ (i.e. Marxist or post-Marxist/post-colonial) histories of capitalism to be inadequate to grasp the stakes of the present crisis. Zizek quips that Marx wanted capitalism without the capitalism: a high-tech, productive, leisured society without exploitation or division. Yet many on the left haven’t grasped the extent to which that left-wing vision rests on the assumption of abundant carbon energy.

Deep history is not primarily concerned with the climate. Yet here it intersects with climate history on the question of the species: can homo sapiens be considered as a subject, or agent, of history? And what it would mean to write a history of the species?

For deep history, our identity as a species comes from a shared physiology, evolutionary background, biological constraints, developmental tendencies, and patterns of behavior. Scientific advances have made it possible to speak of something like a human nature, even if we recognize that this nature is non- essentialist and subject to cultural variation. All humans like to stimulate the right neurotransmitters; both our bodies and our cultural forms are probably subject to selective pressures; biology, not cultural conditioning, is our best explanation for why, in every culture, men commit more murders, assaults, and rapes.

From the perspective of critical climate history, as from the perspective of most things ‘critical,’ ‘species’ is more complex and obscure. It is less a biological universal or name for a certain class of walking primate than an identity defined negatively, by its effects. Homo sapiens’ capacity to destroy its own preconditions for life is its species being, as becomes clear only when we actually threaten self-destruction. We emerge as a species into self-knowledge only in the light of shared catastrophe.

For the critical historians, even this reduced idea of ‘species’ sits uncomfortably; it looks like the abstract universal ‘humanity’ that nearly a century of critique has attempted to do away with. Just as the abstract man of the Enlightenment was, in concrete historical terms, always just the white man, so too is homo sapiens, in this view, a false universal; proclaimed by the world’s rich in order to hide the fact that they, not the ‘species,’ are responsible for the climate crisis. It was not homo sapiens that brought us into the Anthropocene, but the Europeans, the Americans, the Soviets, and now the Chinese; and it is not homo sapiens who will suffer the most if the worst comes to pass, but Bangladeshis, Indians, and sub-Saharan Africans. This is essentially a moral critique: it apportions blame, and responsibility. It is therefore political. We are beginning to recognize that the future may be difficult. It may require sacrifice. Yet how to apportion burden and blame?

What really separates the species universalists from the skeptics is the question of capitalism, or modernity itself. To what extent should we view the last two centuries—the Industrial Revolution, the Great Divergence, the Great Acceleration—as a qualitative break from the rest of human history? Quantitative measures of human activity, from CO2 emissions to GDP to population, generally appear when graphed as a J-curve, with a long flat tail stretching into the deep past, increasing first linearly, then exponentially, then, by the mid-20th century, almost hyperbolically. Environmental and economic historians now generally agree that for most of human history, there were hard, Malthusian checks on population (therefore the economy) due to the limited availability of land for food and fuel—a bottleneck that was only removed by the Industrial Revolution. ‘Capitalism’ names, roughly, the particular set of social relations that has made this escape possible and self-sustaining; ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism’ name its integration—by force or persuasion—of discrete localities into one global, modern, commercial civilization. It’s difficult to see how this could not be singular.

Yet deep historians want to argue that it’s not. For them, what appear to us as qualitative breaks are, when compared to the patterns of the deep human past, better understood as mere increases in scale. In a chapter on “Scale” from Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present, Mary C. Stiner, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona, and her co-authors argue that “human history follows the pattern of a fractal, in which the same pattern is repeated at every level of magnification.” Rather than a static pre-modern history broken by a modern rupture, Stirner et. al. see the entirety of homo sapiens’ history as “punctuated by momentous leaps in population, energy flow, efficiency, levels of political organization, and degrees of connectivity” (247). For instance, understood as emergent properties of complex systems operating at different scales, there is little difference between the leap in social connectivity enabled by the internet, and the one enabled by the cultural and cognitive evolution that allowed early humans to expand social groups beyond the ‘natural’ limit of 150 implied by the size of our neocortex.

A corollary of a fractal, or repeating past, is that human degradation of the environment—including a tendency to overshoot ‘natural’ limits, and attempt to compensate for rather than prevent crisis—is not a modern deviation, but a constant pattern in our relations with our environment. Anthropologists still debate the existence of the “ecologically noble savage,” or low-tech, pre-industrial societies that maintained sustainable relations with their environment, but there is evidence of humans precipitating local ecological collapse at nearly every level of social complexity. Stiner et. al. even cite the thesis that agriculture first arose due to changes in technology, the division of labor, and food-gathering techniques prompted by a human-induced collapse, in the Mediterranean basin, of big-game mammals some 35,000-15,000 years ago. (While the deep historians tend to be pessimistic about long-term sustainability, there are examples of successful response to ecological crisis, notably Japan’s Tokugawa-period reforestation.)

The fractal thesis is intriguing. Still, something about the sheer scale of our contemporary problems makes it difficult to credit the idea the present is not absolutely different from the past. Yet the same thing is often said about capitalist globalization and empire: nothing like this has ever happened before. I recently began reading V.S. Naipaul’s Among the Believers, a book about—to use a charitable description—Islam in the modern world. His epigraph reads as an eloquent description of the most recent century:

Now in earlier times the world’s history had consisted, so to speak, of a series of unrelated episodes, the origins and results of each being as widely separated as their localities, but from this point on history becomes an organic whole: the affairs of Italy and Africa are connected with those of Asia and Greece, and all events bear a single relationship to a single end.

Yet those words were written over 2,000 years ago, by Polybius, in his history of the Roman republic. Perhaps the past is not so foreign after all.

The question of how to act in the present is political no matter what. But what action we take will differ if we understand our condition as the result of a few bad historical actors, a flawed civilization, or an exploitative set of social relations, rather than the logical culmination of how our species relates to the world. One set of solutions runs away from ‘modernity,’ broadly conceived; the other runs through it.