History Repeating?

Working on a new post about religion. But in the meantime, reader Gregg Winston asks:

It was reported this week that the City of Chennai, India, home to approximately 4 million people, is almost out of fresh water. It was also reported that the Himalayan glaciers are now melting faster than replacement rate of winter snow. It is now projected that by 2030 (10.5 years from now) 40% of the Indian population (now at 1.38 billion) will be without access to fresh water. This means potentially 600 million refugees on the scene looking for someplace else to live. Surely no government or human social system can stand under such immense stress. Would be curious about your thoughts in future posts.

That mainly gives me the excuse to post the video from the BBC below, which has been sitting in my drafts for a while.

But in answer to his question – what can you say about that? To me, this is the greatest vulnerability civilization now faces. He’s right, there is no way 600 million people will be able to migrate. Nor is it likely that some sort of technological solution could be pressed into service in time to prevent a catastrophe, even if the political will and technological capabilities existed (which they don’t).

Just that alone is enough to end civilization as we know it, at least in greater Eurasia. But it will, of course, still be slow-moving enough to stymie any sort of constructive efforts to address the situation. How this will affects North America is questionable. But Russia and China will certainly be in the thick of it.

As you see below, the irony is that the very first large-scale civilization in India was also done in by a changing climate. The Harappan civilization, which thrived on the alluvial plains for millennia and constructed some of the most impressive drainage works of the ancient world, was eventually forced to abandon their cities due to changes in the monsoon. No longer could they practice irrigation agriculture with the change in precipitation. So they moved northward, to the foothills of the Himalayas which were fed by rainfall, and reconstituted their civilization there.

But once they settled in agricultural villages, they did not need such sophisticated engineering and left fewer remains behind. It appears that their civilization experienced a reduction in complexity as well, even losing writing. It’s likely that rain-fed farming did not need the cooperative management and political centralization that irrigation agriculture did. As Wittfogel put it, “the scattered operation of rainfall farming did not involve the establishment of national patterns of cooperation as did hydraulic agriculture.” Gone were the blocks and blocks of identical houses, which had apparently existed peacefully for millennia prior. These folks were likely the ancestors of the Indians who were subjugated by the pastoral Indo-Aryan who invaded from the northern plains later on. That new mixture formed the core of what we know as the Hindu culture.

It was a very similar situation to the Tigris/Euphrates river valley, where a complex Sumerian civilization in the lowlands which depended on inundation (flood) agriculture coexisted and intermingled with northern rain-fed highland villages which spoke the Semitic language of Akkadian, and were probably descendants of the original Natufian farmers. Eventually, the highland inhabitants invaded and subjugated their neighbors on the southern alluvium, and incorporated aspects of their civilization, such as writing and religious ideas.

“Harappa and Mohenjo [archaeology sites in Pakistan] are twins, so much alike that archaeologists believed they could have been built by the same ruler… they were planned as deliberately as Brasilia or Salt Lake City and are just as predictable. Everything was arranged. The mechanical, conservative, windowless, unchanging architecture – block after block after block – implies a totalitarian attitude… 2,500 years before Christ… came these unimaginative, dark, flat-nosed builders who knew exactly what a city should look like. And they lived in their geometrical barracks for ten centuries without changing a thing. The style of building never changed. The language did not change. The first carved amulets are the same as the last.” The Aztec Treasure House, (p. 144)

What that can tell us about a subcontinent of a billion people today, however, is probably quite limited.

2 thoughts on “History Repeating?

  1. I remember we were talking about rationing in WW2 and the kid goes, ‘what’s a shortage?’

    So we explained that we are living in a time and place of plenty, but it’s not like that for everyone all the time.

    But I realised that there’s an unspoken assumption circulating, that ‘shortages’ cannot happen any more, not in a ‘free market’ at any rate.

    • I actually found some ration books my grandparents saved from World War 2! One of these days I’ll post the photos.

      Yes, at one time Americans accepted government rationing, and even thought it was patriotic. It really is a fundamentally different country today. Something to think about on (our) Independence Day.

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