Article image

Past lessons can help us face environmental shocks

Why do some societies crumble under environmental strain while others flourish? In today’s rapidly changing world, the greatest challenge is not merely stopping the adverse effects of climate change but adapting to live with them. 

To identify the best ways to endure environmental shocks, we must first understand our past. This perspective is highlighted in a special issue of The Royal Society

A study by the Complexity Science Hub has looked to historical lessons from our ancestors to identify potential strategies to address issues ranging from climate change and economic disparities to political divides.

Historical database

The Crisis Database (CrisisDB) is an ambitious project by CSH researchers Peter Turchin and Daniel Hoyer. Together with a diverse team, they cataloged over 150 past crises spanning various epochs and regions. 

This extensive data set offers insights into how societies responded to significant challenges such as earthquakes, droughts, and floods.

Some societies crumbled under the strain, descending into civil unrest or even collapsing entirely. Others, however, displayed remarkable resilience, maintaining their core social structures or even evolving positively. 

“What we observe is that not every ecological shock or climatic anomaly leads to collapse or even a severe crisis, and not every crisis involves a major environmental stressor,” explained Hoyer. But what factors determine a society’s trajectory?

Lessons from diverse societies

To illustrate the divergent dynamics experienced by past societies, the researchers provide three examples of societies which faced environmental shocks.

Southern Mexico

In southern Mexico, the Zapotec settlement of Monte Albán was once a beacon of civilization. But following an extreme drought in the 9th century, this city, along with others, was abandoned. 

However, this wasn’t a total collapse – many inhabitants moved to nearby communities, preserving significant elements of their culture.

Qing Dynasty 

The Qing Dynasty of China, despite its vast wealth, eventually succumbed to internal and external pressures. 

Initially resilient against environmental adversities, by the 19th century, social tensions made them vulnerable to the very same challenges. This culminated in the devastating Taiping Rebellion and their eventual downfall in 1912.

Ottoman Empire 

The Ottoman Empire, meanwhile, defied persistent environmental challenges in the 16th century. 

Despite facing droughts and the Little Ice Age, they staved off total collapse, continuing their dominion for centuries more.

Underlying patterns

Unlike studies that focus on specific events, Turchin emphasizes the importance of examining multiple societies affected by similar environmental shocks. 

The goal is to discern underlying patterns, determining why societies react differently to similar challenges.

“Many studies typically concentrate on a single event or a specific society. However, it is only by exploring the responses of all, or at least many, societies affected by a particular climate ‘regime’ that we can ascertain the causal influence and overall effectiveness of the environmental stressor,” said Turchin.

Interplay of factors

It would be simplistic to assume that environmental shocks alone dictate societal outcomes. These challenges intersect with cultural, political, and economic dynamics. 

Through the CrisisDB program, the researchers aim to uncover these complexities, understanding what strengthens or weakens societal resilience.

Social cohesion

A major takeaway from their initial findings is the destructive role of social inequality. Societies riddled with inequality often lack cohesion, making them vulnerable to crises. 

“Dealing with large-scale threats demands considerable societal cohesion,” said Hoyer pointing to the Covid pandemic as an example. 

He noted that societies with higher levels of cohesion and the capacity for collective action before Covid broke out navigated the pandemic more effectively and successfully implemented the necessary distancing measures. 

“Given that we reside in an era marked by increasing ecological shocks, economic disruptions, inequality, and major conflicts, our focus should be on reducing these structural pressures to build this kind of cohesion and resilience,” said Hoyer.

Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day