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Book Review: Smith, Peter F. Climate Change and Cultural Heritage: A Race Against Time.  London and New York: Routledge/ Earthscan, 2014.  Print.
(also to be seen at Firedoglake)

The book I'm reviewing today has a lot of science in it, but largely it's a polemic about climate change, and a rather creative polemic at that.  Peter F. Smith, listed here as an emeritus professor of architecture in England, thinks great things of our civilization (and indeed of past civilizations), but is still trying to wrap his head around the matter of why civilization hasn't yet done what is necessary to deal with the problem of impending runaway climate change.  So his book, Climate Change and Cultural Heritage, is part encomium of praise for human civilization, and part discussion of climate change, as a problem necessitating a solution.  (The Amazon page lists this book at rather high prices; maybe you can get your local college library to purchase a copy.  There's a place where you can download this book online, but I've never succeeded in doing so.)  

The fundamental idea behind "Climate Change and Cultural Heritage" is given at the end of the first chapter, as follows:

In today's world 'civilization' is a multi-faceted phenomenon thanks to the success of one species.  However, it is the scale of that success which now threatens the existence of civilization.  There are those who consider that the year 2011 may prove to have been a tipping-point when global warming entered into a runaway mode.  When it comes down to the 'tooth and claw' of survival, one of the casualties would most likely be the thousands of years of accumulated cultural heritage. (14)
So from there it's easy to see Smith's polemic aim in this book.  At the beginning he tells an optimistic history of the universe, planet Earth, biological life, and human civilization using a narrative arc borrowed from Condorcet's "Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind."  There are a couple of chapters in this book on the glories of civilization that draw upon history, upon the beauty of mathematics, and upon Smith's background as an environmentally-conscious architect.  Generally, though, he asks us in about three-quarters of this book if we don't want to see it all crashing down in flames because we can't get human-caused climate change under control.

Of course, the more critically-minded among Smith's reading audience are going to ask why Smith trusts this particular civilization to do anything about climate change, or (more specifically) why Smith says stuff like "Only an international alliance between national governments and transnational corporations to first stabilise and then seriously cut greenhouse gas emissions will do it." (5)  Question: why should we trust transnational corporations to care about greenhouse gas emissions outside of any disingenuous public relations initiatives they may offer?  Civilization may indeed save itself -- but we don't really have a compelling reason to believe that this particular civilization will save itself, so we might get to work trying to create another civilization that would succeed where our current one is about to fail.

There's an emotional appeal in "Climate Change and Cultural Heritage" of course -- if we wish to save all that has been built up over the centuries, we'd better do something serious.  But the "celebration of civilization" narrative with which Smith begins has awkward spots: so for instance, in the narrative of "the evolution of civilization":

Another anxiety can be added to the list that is even more threatening than the hordes of Huns that extinguished the flame of Roman civilisation: the relentless march of global warming and climate change.  Its predicted impacts will depend on how quickly the world manages to halt the accumulation of greenhouse gases, most notably carbon dioxide. (15)
Well OK -- we might alternately argue that just as climate change is evidence of our own civilization doing itself in, we can also say that in large part Roman civilization was responsible for its own self-destruction -- when the time came for unity against the invaders, the Romans insisted on fighting civil wars instead, and in the end Rome was sacked and the empire dismantled because the Romans themselves could not settle things amicably with the Germanic tribes entering their living-space.  

At any rate, Smith wants to identify civilization with "empathy, and the perception of beauty" -- and that "the idea of civilization is the principle of harmony" -- a Nietzschean he isn't.  At any rate, after the brief summary of time and existence so far, Smith abruptly shifts emphasis to a discussion of climate change: "there is no longer any doubt that we are beginning to pay the price for burning half a trillion tonnes of fossil fuels that enabled the developed world to power its way to prosperity," we are told on page 25.  The price, as we are told later in the book, includes the possibility that climate change might become runaway climate change, extinguishing the human species and for the most part life on Earth.

There are of course reasons for optimism about the human condition listed in this book.  "Historically, the rate of technological breakthrough has been exponential rather than linear.  If (the past) exponential rate of technological progress is sustained, this will raise hope that technical solutions will be found for energy supply, demand reduction and CO2 sequestration." (97)

Of course, after a rundown of the various options, Smith douses cold water on all that: "The inescapable reality is that renewable technologies, as they stand, will merely scratch the surface of world energy demand as population increases." (125)  Here we must be careful readers, however, for "population" is typically used as a way of making capitalism seem natural.  "Population" is a way of counting heads.  In reality, half the world lives on less than $2.50/day, and the figure that matters is that of the relative few who can afford high-energy lifestyles.  This group is where most of the "energy footprint" calculation is going to be made, and the total number isn't going to change a lot merely because economic hard times have descended upon the worst-off of us, as Smith reports: "despite the worst economic recession for 80 years, that year (2010) saw the highest carbon output in history." (133)  As for carbon sequestration to deal with excess atmospheric CO2, Smith argues: "so far, nothing competes with the idea of global-scale re-forestation." (134)

There is, of course, a chapter on the merits and drawbacks of nuclear power.  Smith argues that nuclear power plants will have a tougher time staying cooled in conditions of global warming, but that there are advantages to thorium-using breeder reactors (which have been, curiously, so rarely exploited).  There is a chapter on "essential services provided by nature," in which Smith suggests that abrupt climate change will be accompanied by dramatic crop failures and geographically-based water shortages.

 There is an excursus on China, and Smith concludes his book with a discussion of "the four degrees scenario," which he thinks is likely with current trends in carbon combustion.  At numerous points in the analysis Smith points to weasel-worded conclusions, voiced by numerous analysts, to the effect that there will be some sort of massive human dieoff due to global warming related disasters:

Another section of the same issue (17 November 2012) of New Scientist, discussing the health implications of worst-case temperature rise, states: 'It looks like if we fully develop all the world's coal, tar sands, shale and other fossil fuels we run a high risk of ending up in a few generations with a largely unlivable planet.' (170)

The solution, then, as Smith recognizes (and as climate talks increasingly fail to accomplish anything serious), is to keep the grease in the ground.


Of the sciences that deal with the laws of social life, the first to work out exact formulae of the conditions of progress was political economy.  -N. G. Chernyshevsky (1828-1889), Russian philosopher
One the one hand, I appreciate the revelations of impending disaster, and the competence with which Smith arranges them.  There will, without doubt, be an attempt to deal with climate change by planting vast forests of genetically modified trees, as Smith suggests.  And "alternative energy" will allow us to feel that we have done something, in the absence of a serious attempt to restrain the fossil fuel dealers as of yet.

 Meanwhile, however, the attempt to recognize a social dynamic to our heedless restructuring of Earth's atmosphere and climates slogs on, with Smith's work another part-way contribution.  Telling us, as Smith does, that "underpinning the idea of civilization is the principle of harmony" (16) may grant readers a greater appreciation of the importance of civilization, as well as of its dynamism, its fragility, and its limitations.  It will motivate us to "safeguard the achievements of civilisation" (89).  But such an appreciation cannot substitute for an understanding of how civilizations "do themselves in" not merely because of external circumstances or because they are based upon the wrong energy sources, but rather because the social order of any particular civilization is based on a misapprehension of the cultivation and value of human versatility.  Instead of cultivating this versatility to its maximum extent, human societies have generally catered to tradition-based struggles for power, as students of political economy well know.  Power will mean nothing when the planet is dead.

In the beginning were city-states and empires, which culminated in China, Persia, and a number of other kingdoms, but especially Rome.  Throughout its long history, ancient Rome was based upon conquest, domestication, and status, and thus the Roman Empire eventually shrunk to a small portion of what it was, and destroyed itself through its own struggles for power, while competing groups of Germanic culture discovered that the only way they could achieve any sort of status for themselves was to dismantle the Roman Empire itself.  

Later, feudal civilization made the multitude into peasants while an elite of nobles and clergy weighed down the productive power of the multitude with their demands.  The ultimate flash-point of the feudal structure was the French Revolution, in which the principle of human equality was proclaimed.  

After that, capitalist civilization exceeded all previous civilizations in its dynamism and in its harnessing of human versatility -- and has come closest so far to breaking through to Smith's values re: civilization -- yet the multitude within its domain became a mass of mere workers/ consumers performing alienated labor and one-dimensional shopping.  The creative dynamism of the capitalist system has tended to achieve success to the extent to which it can profit sufficiently off of its laboring/ consumer bases to stay in business.  

What remains to be seen is if a better way can be found before it is too late.

Originally posted to The Amateur Left on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 09:00 AM PST.

Also republished by Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter.

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Comment Preferences

  •  As a fan of 'civilization,' even this one, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Cassiodorus, Kombema

    I am a fairly easy mark for his argument, but as an activist and one with, I hope, her eyes open, I find the lack of realistic discussions of power to be a problem. It reminds me of many such tracts I've read over the years from well-meaning decent men who have in many cases sacrificed for the environmental movement, men like Gus Speth, who wrote a similar essay in 2010. They all lay out the problem admirably well, and then end by saying:  "so the governments of the world have to get together and put these rational policies in place." Many of them also say "along with the heads of the business world and finance, who also must come on board with this rational view." The implication being, get on board with the rational view, otherwise most of us will die and the legacy of centuries of history and culture will also, predictably, go up in smoke.

    What can you say in response to that except "Well, of course?"

     But as the last twenty years have shown, neither the governments of the world nor the world of business and finance have any intention of saying "Well, of course." They are dedicated to a nihilistic greed which is leading us to planetary suicide. They are, in fact, strongly dedicated to the future which contains a massive die-off of the human race. Rationality has nothing to do with their actions, unless you consider suicidal levels of addiction to be rational. Therefore, rationalists find themselves helpless to prevent the destruction.

    The problem is:  how do you make them stop setting up the planet for mass death without engaging in mass violence? And is there even time to set things right==well, right enough that the human race and most of the rest of the life on earth aren't extinguished?

    At this point, it seems to me there's no time for the 99% to do anything more; we squandered the time we had on the false notion that the rich and powerful didn't want to destroy life on earth. (In other words, we tried to reason with them; possibly a fatal mistake). The rich can save some of the life on the planet if they want. The best case scenario would be if a large portion of the rich and powerful decided they preferred a living planet to a dead one, and opposed the worst of their, um, "classmates," with all the tools at their disposal. But actions generated by the 99%, especially actions within the context of law and politics, have little or no hope of saving our lives.

    If I, as a member of the 99%, take any climate action it's for two reasons: 1)I might be wrong. My actions might be significant, and if they are, I want to take them rather than remaining passive. 2)Even if I'm utterly helpless to save the planet I love, I know where my loyalties are, and I'm going to stick to them.

    I tried to go online to find a similar bear head...but when I searched “Big Bear Head” it gave me a San Diego craigslist ad entitled “Big Bear needs some quick head now” and then I just decided to never go on the internet again.--Jenny Lawson

    by SouthernLiberalinMD on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 10:48:22 AM PST

    •  Smith's polemic is intended to sway. (3+ / 0-)

      He wants to focus attention upon the threat to civilization posed by climate change, which is fair enough for an audience in denial about how far the climate change thing could possibly (and will probably) go.

      We, on the other hand, should focus upon (as you said) power, and specifically their power over us, which needs to be neutralized as quickly as possible, for they are sick puppies indeed.

      "If you sing a song a day/ You will make a better way" -- Earth, Wind, and Fire

      by Cassiodorus on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 11:00:30 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  People in denial at this point (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Cassiodorus, Kombema

        are, IMO, not reachable, but maybe it's different up there amongst the 1%. Maybe some of them really don't believe it's happening.

        I tried to go online to find a similar bear head...but when I searched “Big Bear Head” it gave me a San Diego craigslist ad entitled “Big Bear needs some quick head now” and then I just decided to never go on the internet again.--Jenny Lawson

        by SouthernLiberalinMD on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 02:46:03 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Hard to not be impressed by a diary that quotes (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Chernyshevsky. I actually stayed on a street named for him a few blocks from the Tauride Palace gardens when I was in St. Petersburg.

    You point up a crucial problem with a lot of otherwise laudable analysis of the ecological crisis: treating the social/economic/political basis of the crisis as if it were a side issue. In fact it is the crux of the crisis. Civilizations that are based on the infinite and accelerating consumption of finite resources are foredoomed.

    The hope that that technological fixes will save us is whistling past the grave yard, so long as we remain committed to rampant exploitation for short term profitability rather than stewardship for long term sustainability.

    One detail for your consideration vis a vis the Roman Empire. The drawn out collapse of the Western Empire, as opposed to the Eastern Empire, occurred after the Empire's expansionist phase had ended. This suggests to me that there was an intrinsic failure in the social ethos of the Western Empire distinct from basis in conquest.

    After all, other ancient Empires based on the same outlasted Rome. Ruling groups came and went but the fundamental structures remained intact. The complete collapse and eclipse of Imperial institutions in the west was singular event for it's time and place.

    Just something to think about.    

    Nothing human is alien to me.

    by WB Reeves on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 11:15:20 AM PST

    •  Well, as for Rome in the west: (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      WB Reeves, Kombema

      AFAIK the groups who entered the Roman Empire (besides the Goths, who came in as a result of the Battle of Adrianople) as permanent settlers did so in the winter of 406/407, after Stilicho stripped the border guard in 402 to keep Alaric (king of the Goths) under control as well as to deal with a usurper.  Later, in 408, Emperor Honorius had Stilicho killed, and a vendetta was launched against Stilicho's army, after which large portions of said army deserted to Alaric's army.  Two years later Alaric's army sacked Rome.  

      I have to figure that that chain of events was pretty important in the end of the Roman Empire in the west -- that and the failure of the Romans and the various Germanic groups to get along (thus the two sets of law in the post-Roman kingdoms, one for the Romans and another for the invaders).

      "If you sing a song a day/ You will make a better way" -- Earth, Wind, and Fire

      by Cassiodorus on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 12:30:13 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  No disagreement as far as you go (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Cassiodorus, Kombema

        but the military and ruling elites of the Empire had been assassinating one another and fighting civil wars since the time of the Republic. Recall that the first sack of Rome was by the Gauls in 380 BCE. The Empire very nearly broke apart during the crisis of the third century CE.

        Despite all this, Roman society had enough resilience to come back from such disasters.

        There's no disputing that the sack of Rome by the Goths greatly weakened the Western Empire. The Battle of Adrianople not so much, since it was fought by the Eastern Armies under the Emperor Valens before the arrival of reinforcements sent by the Western Emperor Gratian. The Eastern Empire was ultimately able to resist the Gothic invasions despite this epic defeat, whereas the Western Empire was not.

        My only point is that the causes of the collapse of the western Empire are more complex and deeply rooted than earlier Historians, such as Gibbon, thought.  

        Nothing human is alien to me.

        by WB Reeves on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 01:14:58 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  OK, except -- (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          WB Reeves, Kombema

          1) after Adrianople, the Goths (and others) stayed within the Empire as foederati, i.e. as a group living under a sovereign king, but within the Empire itself.  Non-Romans had previously been settled within the bounds of the Empire as laeti, as groups to be assimilated into Imperial culture.  Arguably, allowing the Goths to have their own king and live together on a chunk of Thrace set a bad precedent for the Empire.  See e.g. Stephen Williams and Gerard Friell, Theodosius: The Empire at Bay.

          2) The Romans under Stilicho could arguably have destroyed the integrity of that internal kingdom and assimilated its residents -- but they didn't, because Stilicho felt he needed them around so they could be used to defeat any usurpers to the rule of Theodosius or Honorius.  Also a bad move.

          3) The Romans had been fighting each other for a long time -- but there were still periods of stability and periods of continuous civil war in Roman history, and the period between 350 and 450 was one of those periods of continuous civil war.  When the frontier became hard to defend, usurpers would arise claiming the leadership abilities necessary to defend the frontier, thus inspiring more civil war, in a vicious cycle.  See e.g. Constantine III and colleagues.

          "If you sing a song a day/ You will make a better way" -- Earth, Wind, and Fire

          by Cassiodorus on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 01:49:38 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  There is the underlying question of whether ... (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          WB Reeves, Cassiodorus, Kombema

          ... the economy as it was organized had the capacity to deliver the material perquisites of expanding or ( later) stable boundaries ... there's quite enough reason to believe that by 350CE, the material demands of the Western Empire was greater then the material benefit of holding the Western Empire. In which case the details of politics and military manuveur are only determining the timing of the collapse.

          Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

          by BruceMcF on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 02:55:33 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Excellent point (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            One could argue that the empire had exceeded the carrying capacity of its material base.

            Nothing human is alien to me.

            by WB Reeves on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 04:25:48 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  The Western Empire, of course ... (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              WB Reeves, Kombema

              ... the annual flush of soils from the headlands if the Nile River to the delta was able to sustain the Eastern Empire as a grainery for many centuries more, and even after they lost Egypt to the Arab invaders, the twin regional bases in the Anatolian and Balkan peninsulas allowed the reduced Byzantine Empire to survive for many further centuries, until the fall of Constantinople itself to the enormous cannons of the Turks.

              Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

              by BruceMcF on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 07:05:05 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

  •  Let's start off the comments in a dead thread (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Cassiodorus, Kombema

    Sorry I missed this.

    I think the focus on civilization is a good one.  That is what will be lost.  Perhaps, slim chance, that humans will care enough to do something when it comes to the civilization that keeps us alive.

    Another aspect of civilization highlighted in an excellent documentary I once saw, is that in the past, when one civilization fell, another different one remained viable elsewhere.  Now civilization is so uniform that we are vulnerable, and also climate change is a threat to all civilizations at once.

    Secrecy is a hot bed of vanity. - Joseph Brodsky They who have put out the people’s eyes reproach them for their blindness. – John Milton 1642

    by geomoo on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 09:58:00 PM PST

    •  Right. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      geomoo, Kombema
      when one civilization fell, another different one remained viable elsewhere.
      Maybe we can have multiple civilizations today, as well...

      "If you sing a song a day/ You will make a better way" -- Earth, Wind, and Fire

      by Cassiodorus on Sat Feb 01, 2014 at 06:31:30 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Trouble is, the field of environmental battle has (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        steadily expanded now to the planetary level. Nowhere left to go.

        "Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob." -- Franklin D. Roosevelt

        by Kombema on Sat Feb 01, 2014 at 11:57:56 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

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