Climate Change Sparked Cultural Innovation 10,000 Years ago

Rapid climate changes in the distant past in South Africa are tightly correlated with changes in both cultural expression and major Middle Stone Age industries. Much later in the Little Ice age in the Netherlands, researchers noted that some elements of Dutch Golden Age culture probably reflected the influence of climate change. These included such things as poems and paintings that depicted distinct weather events more frequently during the coldest (or warmest) decades of the Little Ice Age. People responded to the new conditions of cold by inventing new devices like heating technology and ice wagons with skis or skates.

In our future, climate change will also have a direct effect on our industry (fossil fuels for example), our interactions with people as they begin to move in search of food, water, and shelter retreating from sea level rise or drought conditions. Research has shown that in recent climate change people are not adapting well. Instead they move and become refugees.

To successfully take on climate change, our culture must both take control, and respond to climate change. Does our current human ideology lend itself to rapid learning and adapting to changing conditions? Or do we tend to be bound by what we already know, by the traditions that keep us from expanding our intellect and our knowledge and understanding of our environment? What role does religion, the arts, music, and dance play in shaping our responses to global warming?

The United Nations on indigenous people and climate change

The UN has emphasized and corroborated that climate change will be especially difficult for indigenous peoples:

"Despite having contributed the least to GHG [green house gas], indigenous peoples are the ones most at risk from the consequences of climate change because of their dependence upon and close relationship with the environment and its resources. Although climate change is regionally specific and will be significant for indigenous peoples in many different ways, indigenous peoples in general are expected to be disproportionately affected. Indigenous communities already affected by other stresses (such as, for example, the aftermath of resettlement processes), are considered especially vulnerable." (UN 2009: 95)

According to the UN report, State of the World’s Indigenous People, the changes or losses in the biodiversity of indigenous groups' environments will directly threaten aspects of indigenous life, and in some cases will eliminate their island homes.

  • traditional hunting, fishing and herding practices of indigenous peoples, not only in the Arctic, but also in other parts of the world;
  • livelihood of pastoralists worldwide;
  • traditional agricultural activities of indigenous peoples living in mountainous regions;
  • cultural and ritual practices that are not only related to specific species or specific annual cycles, but also to specific places and spiritual sites, etc.;
  • health of indigenous communities (vector-borne diseases, hunger, etc.);
  • revenues from tourism. (UN 2009: 96)

Religiosity and Climate Change

Does it matter which religion you belong to? Apparently not on a global scale. There is no simple correlation between whether people strongly believe in religion or if they don't. The acceptance of anthropogenic global warming varies widely but on a global scale the rate of acceptance of global warming is roughly the same.

To quote the Pope:

"And there is also a final word in Psalm 81, “movebuntur omnia fundamenta terrae” (Psa 81:5), the foundations of earth are shaken. We see this today, with the climatic problems, how the foundations of the earth are shaken, how they are threatened by our behavior. The external foundations are shaken because the internal foundations are shaken, the moral and religious foundations, the faith that follows the right way of living. And we know that faith is the foundation, and, undoubtedly, the foundations of the earth cannot be shaken if they remain close to the faith, to true wisdom."

And yet we see that among fundamentalists in almost all religions, the concept that people can bring harm to the world, or that the God their particular fundamentalist religion will not protect them is anathema to their beliefs. The result is that they refuse to accept any need to adapt or to take steps to combat climate change. But even this is not always true. For example a survey of Christian Evangelicals demonstrated that white Evangelicals were mostly convinced global warming was not real, whereas Hispanic Evangelicals were almost all convinced it was real, caused by humans, and dangerous.

One of the most influential is Christian Evangelical Katherine Hayhoe who is also a PhD in climate science. Her approach is to interpret the bible as it was originally intended to instruct people to be stewards of the land and water. She finds hope by "looking for it." Her PBS series called Global Weirding is a huge success because she is able to bypass the difficulties and focus on the solutions with a good dollop of faith thrown in.

Designing a Culture that cares for the future

In the natural world, animals have a limited supply of essential resources such as food, water, and a place to live in safety and comfort. In an ecological sense, animals compete if their need for a similar resource overlaps. Over time the ability of the environment in which they live limits the population growth and it usually falls back down to a sustainable level. But not everything is competitive. On an evolutionary scale, over many thousands of years and dozens to hundreds of generations, some organisms begin to cooperate and live in support of each other, rather than in competition.

As our human population grows and expands, as our innovative technology reaches deeper and deeper into the resource pool, and as we begin to compete with each other in resource wars or just by denying support to others, we reduce our global potential for easy survival. If we think of the natural world as a metaphor for our own, we can see that we are still behaving as ecological competitors amongst ourselves. We also know from biology that the fiercest competition is within a species, not between species. This is because members of the same species need exactly the same resources - just like all humans need the same things to live. But we tend to form groups, sometimes called communities, sometimes nations, sometimes ideological groups, and those groups (all human of course) compete with each other for the right to use the world's resources. Still sticking with the biological metaphor but thinking of culture, humans have not had time to "evolve" culturally into a system where there is a large component of cooperative support for each other. Instead we are still at the ecologically competitive state. That competition is largely based on our economic systems supported by the grouping we have designed as communities, nations and ideological groups.

We can see the beginnings of a cooperative spirit in all these areas. Ideological groups (outside of religion or politics) have begun to advocate sustainable living styles with examples of how to work together to achieve that goal. There are internal community actions to begin the process of reusing, recycling and reducing waste - all typical behaviours evolved in the natural ecosystem. Some nations have recognized the need to support their own citizens in a cooperative rather than a competitive manner. These are expressed as universal health care, education, living wage, free access to necessary infrastructure, etc. This reduces the internal competition and enhances the capacity to live sustainably. Although many people still feel the need for small groups (up to the size of nations) some other people are beginning to realize that there are good reasons to think of the world as a single supportive group with specialists of various kinds supporting each other. Under this type of thinking, competitive forms of commerce can continue (just as in nature) but they are surrounded by support systems on which they completely depend, so there is a "mutualism."

One of the main reasons to consider this approach is energy. Currently we are using the power of the sun as it was stored many millions of years ago in fossil organisms. That has two problems, the most immediate is that it causes global warming, but the second is that (assuming we solve global warming in time) the fossil fuels will run out in a few hundred years. So we need an alternative and we need it soon. We are currently in a Type 0 civilization on the Kardashev Scale. Cosmologists use this scale to predict the technical advancement of future and alien civilizations. For civil society to survive comfortably and not under constant threat from war-like competitive forces, we need to move away from this to a Type I civilization: masters of planetary energy. This means that we can harness the sum of the energy of an entire world.

It is only under a combination of a mutualistic society and a Type I civilization that it will be possible to manage our climate into the long term future.