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‘Today, we live some 100 times better than did our ancestors at the end of the 18th century’

Homer Understood Climate Change


Ancient peoples were not particularly interested in whether the seas were rising or falling.  The warmer temperatures and consequent threats to coastal areas now bemoaned by the U.N.’s IPCC were a bonanza to ancient peoples — as they are to the world today, if rightly understood.  Their interest was in survival, and warmer temperatures, and the increased production of food that accompanied them, benefited ancient peoples.

Excess food production made possible an accumulation of wealth and with it advances in technology and the arts.  When temperatures cooled, as they did in the Late Bronze Age between the 13th and 11th centuries B.C., global food production fell, and much of the world entered a period of scarcity, hunger, and cultural decline.  As Professor Brandon L. Drake shows, it was rapid cooling that caused the collapse of Mediterranean civilization during the centuries after the fall of Troy.

Homer described that period 350 years before his own as an Age of Heroes.  After 1200 B.C., the eastern Mediterranean entered the ancient Dark Ages, in which great cities were abandoned and populations declined.  That period was also one of dramatically cooling temperatures — the global cooling that explains the “Dark Ages” in which even the Linear B script and the art of writing were lost to the Mycenaean Greeks.

It goes without saying that human influences had nothing to do with ancient cycles of climate change.  Natural cycles of warming and cooling have always existed — and the polar ice caps have formed and melted thousands of times in the course of our planet’s history.  During the Little Ice Age that ended in the mid-19th century, human populations suffered from cold, scarcity, and the suppression of human innovation that always accompanies poverty.  It is no accident that since the end of this long era of global cooling, human civilization and technology have exploded.

Today, we live some 100 times better than did our ancestors at the end of the 18th century.  The luxuries that we take for granted — abundant food on demand, clean running water, electricity, electronic communications and media, advanced medical care, inexpensive clothing, home and office heating, rapid transportation, universal basic education, free libraries, and dozens of other important advances — are linked to warming temperatures that have afforded enough surplus food to support educators, scientists, inventors, technicians, physicians, and the suppliers of so many of our modern conveniences.

Unfortunately, the current phase of warming may not last.  Natural forces will again cause the Earth’s temperatures to cool, and with this cooling will come falling food production and an associated decline in human civilization.  When this moment arrives, and it may arrive quite suddenly, our descendants may look back nostalgically on our time — just as Homer looked back to the warmer period of the Trojan War — as a period of abundance and greatness.  Those descendants will have entered a new Dark Age.  They won’t be concerned about the fact that the seas rose in the centuries following the Little Ice Age — they’ll be hungry and shivering in the dark, many of them, at least, and wishing that the Earth’s climate would warm once again, as it did in the centuries before the fall of Troy and as it has in our own.

Homer never used the phrase “climate change,” but he was acutely aware of its effects.  He celebrated ancestors who lived in a warmer, wetter, more affluent time.  And without actually saying so, he bemoaned the centuries of cooling that followed the early Bronze Age.

As the U.K.’s Times points out, Canadian farmers are now for the first time planting wheat in subarctic regions.  That is a remarkable fact, and a hopeful one.  Global food production has exploded since 1970, due in part to a favorable climate.  For the first time in human history, we live in an age during which it is not necessary for large numbers of human beings to go hungry. Surely, that fact should be paramount in the minds of climate scientists — not the potential for beach erosion or the loss of a few Pacific islands.

It is astounding that, without even trying, the ancients understood climate change so much better than we do today.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).