Climate Change & The Collapse of Civilizations: A Lesson from Enviro-History
Hi it’s Matt again! This past semester, I took a class on the history of Africa. The course covered predominantly ancient and pre-modern African history and focused on a number of Kingdoms and civilizations from across the continent. While still early in the semester, I remember being surprised by how many civilizations had collapsed because of climate change. Some of the most celebrated civilizations in Africa’s history, and in World History, have disappeared because of climate-related factors like resource depletion and drought. While disheartening, this is also a reality we can not ignore. In this current climate crisis, we must remember what history teaches us about climate change and the collapse of civilization. However, unlike the ancients, we in the 21st century have the know-how and agency to address our climate problem. History need not repeat itself if we learn from the past.
While there are (unfortunately) numerous examples of climate-related collapse from throughout history, this article will focus on only two civilizations specifically: The Indus River Valley Civilization (now a part of modern India and Pakistan) and The Kingdom of Meroe (now a part of modern Sudan).
The Indus River Valley Civilization
Stretching from East Afghanistan to North-West India, the Indus River Valley Civilization (IRVC) is among the oldest recorded civilizations in history, dating back to 3300 BCE. The IRVC was highly innovative; over its 2000 years of existence, the civilization developed metal-working, standardized weights and measures and a complex religious system and social hierarchy. Most impressively, historians estimate that the IRVC achieved a population of five million at its peak.
While the collapse of the IRVC remains a matter of debate, most historians agree that climate change was a major factor. Beginning around 1900 BCE, the Saraswati River, an important source of water for the civilization, began to dry up. Historians theorize that the inhabitants of the major cities along the river were forced to relocate, leading to a migration of climate refugees to other regions, which then subsequently spread disease and depleted local food supplies. This is an important legacy of the IRVC that we must remember: those affected by climate change do not simply disappear. History shows us that climate change will lead to a profound refugee crisis. We can not ignore this reality, especially since we are already living through a major refugee crisis.
The Kingdom of Meroe
Lasting more than a thousand years (300 BCE - 350 CE), the Kingdom of Meroe was a highly prosperous and powerful kingdom in North-East Africa. The Kingdom came to be a dominant force in Indian Ocean trade, with its iron industry supplying many across the region. Most interestingly, the Kingdom of Meroe was deeply influenced by their Egyptian neighbours to the north; Meroe famously adopted Egyptian artistic styles and even built pyramids!
Along with destabilizing political and economic changes, changes in the local environment were also a significant factor in the decline of Meroe. By the fourth century CE, the land surrounded the Kingdom had been deeply overexploited. Meroe’s agricultural land was no longer productive enough to feed a growing population and rampant deforestation had made the Kingdom’s lucrative iron industry (which was dependent on fire wood) no longer feasible. By the 4th century, the Kingdom of Meroe was nothing but a shadow of its former self. While the Kingdom’s collapse is less directly related to climate change, it is nevertheless an important lesson we must remember today: a civilization can not survive without a healthy environment.
The IRVC and the Kingdom of Meroe were among the most prosperous and powerful civilizations in their respective regions and eras. However, both civilizations eventually collapsed, due in part to climate change. While this is a disturbing reality that we can not ignore, there is a silver lining to this history lesson: we in the 21st century have the know-how, ability and agency to tackle climate change head on. Unlike the IRVC and Meroe, who had little-to-no chance to change their fates, we in the modern era absolutely can. I know we can do it and, in fact, we have to. For better or for worse, history does tend to repeat itself.
[Cover image taken from Pexels, a free photo stock website]