Culture, polity, economy decide society's future in changing climate crises, researchers say

They came to their conclusions after analysing 150 past crises spanning different time periods and regions, including the Zapotec hilltop settlement of Monte Alban in southern Mexico

Representative image of a city (photo: DW)
Representative image of a city (photo: DW)


An interplay of cultural, political, and economic factors decides the course and outcomes of a "changing climate" crisis, and not environmental forces alone, researchers say.

Drawing lessons from history, "not every ecological shock or climatic anomaly leads to collapse" and "not every crisis involves a major environmental stressor", the researchers at the Complexity Science Hub Vienna, Austria, found.

They came to their conclusions after analysing 150 past crises spanning different time periods and regions, including the Zapotec hilltop settlement of Monte Alban in southern Mexico and the resilience of the Qing Dynasty in China and the Ottoman Empire.

The team compiled the Crisis Database (CrisisDB) as part of the Global History Databank Seshat, containing the past crises, and have published their findings in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences.

In the 9th century, when faced with extreme, persistent drought, the once-great site of Monte Alban in southern Mexico, commanding the best terrain in the valley for agriculture and dense settlement, was entirely abandoned.

Recent research, however, showed that many former residents of Monte Alban, resettled in smaller communities nearby through an ideological and socio-economic reorientation, that also preserved many of their societal aspects, the researchers said in their study.

For the immensely wealthy Qing Dynasty in China, social pressures had started to build up by the 19th century, leaving them vulnerable to ecological challenges, despite having been proved to be resilient to recurrent floods, droughts and swarms of locusts previously.

The dynasty eventually collapsed completely in 1912 after 250 years of rule, taken down by a civilian uprising, according to the study.

The researchers also highlight the Ottoman Empire, which faced daunting environmental conditions during the 16th century, including recurrent droughts and the Little Ice Age, leading to social unrest and numerous rebellions led by disgruntled local officials and wealthy families.

However, the Empire managed to maintain key social and political structures and avoided collapse, ruling a large swath of territory for several hundreds of years more, the study said.

"The course of a crisis hinges on numerous factors. Environmental forces are undeniably pivotal, but it's not as straightforward as a specific climate event triggering a predetermined societal response," said Peter Turchin, one of the study authors and part of the team that compiled the Crisis Database (CrisisDB).

Another key finding of the study is that escalating social inequality can erode social resilience.

Citing the example of the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers pointed out that societies showing higher levels of cohesion and capacities for collective action 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 (such as social inequality) to build this kind of cohesion and resilience," David Hoyer, the study's corresponding author.

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