Jul 30, 2019 - Science

History, led by the forces all around us

In the East Africa Rift, Ethiopia. Photo: Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis/Getty

Some six millennia ago, temperatures abruptly plunged, and a profound drought ensued in the then-tropical Middle East: To survive, people abandoned their land, migrated, and ultimately organized into a string of cities, stewarded over by strong rulers including the pharaohs in Egypt.

Quick take: Today, geopolitics usually mean war, human ego, big economics, or disease. But the Middle East drama in the third and fourth millennia BC illustrates the much-underestimated role of earthly forces in shaping and utterly turning history — and is a window into what may be in store for current and future generations.

The big picture: Historians focus on social forces, big personalities and economics, but wind, tectonics and Earth's orbit are among the deeper dynamics that set "the very course of history," says Lewis Dartnell, author of "Origins: How Earth's History Shaped Human History."

  • Earth and space are the fixed objects that go all-but ignored: "There are huge, long chains of cause and effect that created the stage for the human drama," Dartnell tells Axios.

The list of earthly-induced geopolitics is long: The Harappan civilization, its collapse around 1700 BC blamed on drought or another weather catastrophe; the Minoans, their demise abetted by a volcanic eruption around 1500 BC; and the Little Ice Age of the 14th to the 19th centuries, which caused famine that wiped out swaths of France, Norway, and Sweden.

The Middle East events prior to the Bronze Age mirror some of the challenges we face today, according to a 2016 paper published in the Quaternary Science Reviews:

  • Back then, it was a momentous cooling trend that transformed the conditions on Earth, setting in motion a massive migration, and the rise of authoritarian leadership to cope with the chaos.
  • Now, if the past is prologue, climate-induced extreme weather is likely to reinforce and amplify the closing off of countries already under way for separate reasons, along with the authoritarian trend, Dartnell said.
  • There will be "more and more extreme politics trying to justify" such strongarm policies.

"If you fast-forward 10, 20, 30 years in the future, it will fundamentally change where rain falls. It will change where we can grow food. Throughout history, with climate change, if people can't support themselves where they are, they will move," Dartnell said.

What's next: Scientists believe that, in order to sustain complex intelligent life, other planets would have to have a very similar geological system to Earth's, including tectonics. That means that on terrestrial planets, continents would crash into each other and pull apart, mountains would push up, and the sun beating down would create a wind circulation system.

  • In other words, "it is likely that, if there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, similar natural forces are shaping the course of history on the planets on which it lives," Dartnell said.
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