Not Just a River

Not Just a River

Rob Swigart

Rob Swigart asks why we keep hearing about a technological fix (dubious) and rarely about adaptation as a viable response to global warming.

Ben Underwood:

In his short story Dispersion, Swigart describes a quasi-supernatural phenomenon that evokes the link between biological and technological evolution.

Lori Emerson:

The relationship between houses, domestication, and the gradual shift from cyclic to linear time in human consciousness is discussed at greater length in Swigart’s “Past Futures, Future’s Past.”


Like Huck Finn we are carried along in an endless present as on a raft. The banks of the river are far away, offering just dim outlines that change so slowly we hardly seem to notice. We encounter storms and floods, murderers and cheats, one after another; they are the landmark events of our linear story (Lakoff & Johnson 1982).

Currently (one wants to say), time’s river carries us through a long sweeping ox-bow turn: warm parts lie ahead, just around the bend, but because they are out of sight, they don’t really exist, at least not yet. Look, we say, everything’s fine. “After all,” paleontologist Richard Fortey noted, “the sun still rises, the crops still ripen - why worry?”(NYT 2005).

Why indeed. The frog doesn’t recognize the water is getting hotter. We burn our fossils, plow under our biodiversity, spread our precious civilization over the surface of the earth, pull our finite resources from its body, poison our air, land, and water. Nothing happens. The earth continues to give; we continue to take.

Yet we know it isn’t always going to be like this. Of course we do. We plan for the future. We squint, trying hard to foretell what lies ahead. We care about what’s going to happen.

Don’t we? Despite Al Gore’s speeches and his film, An Inconvenient Truth, we are so far responding weakly. It is likely that what efforts we do make will be at best ill-considered, and at worst misplaced.

“Denial,” Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “is not just a river in Egypt.”

Perhaps we can learn from the past. After all, even the deniers insist this has all happened before, many times, this warming of the planet. Man has always adapted to changing climate; what’s the big deal? Some leaders suggest we’ll just have to adapt again.

Adapt we did because we had no choice. Our adaptations were dramatic. Their unpleasant consequences - excess population, environmental destruction, widespread poverty, and starvation, climate change - are just now coming into view. But how did these things come about?

Human life evolved in an ever-changing world. Climate was, and is, constantly in flux. Yet evolution is contingent, and in hindsight we can see that certain conditions encouraged certain forms to emerge. Forest gave way to grassy savannah, and some primates were driven from the trees around 1.9 million years ago. Tall grass favored raising the head to see over the tops, looking for danger, or for opportunity, and bipedal movement evolved with Homo ergaster. Cooperative scavenging favors the development of social and communication abilities. Coming down from the trees freed the thumb, formerly used to grasp branches, to turn to the manipulation of objects in the world, and allowed the creation of simple stone tools to compensate for the lack of sharp claws. A vertical neck enabled a bigger voice box, allowing for more complex vocalization, necessary for spoken language. All contingencies.

So a foraging, scavenging primate evolved and lived in a world where the climate oscillated between warm and cold. Population density was low, and the world was abundant, complex, and rich in diet. These primates continued evolving, and spread from Africa into new ecological zones, crossing the Red Sea into the Middle East, around the coast of India, into New Guinea and Australia, and back into Europe. We have given them names: Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo sapiens Neanderthensis. By 60,000 to 40,000 years ago Homo sapiens sapiens - our species - had spread into Europe and begun to replace those already there. These new people, Cro-Magnon, had a newly rewired brain, speech, ingenuity, complexity of culture. This coalescence of mental traits and cognitive skills allowed them to leave lasting marks on the world. Deep in caves they painted magnificent images of the creatures that animated their world. In one, Rouffignac, they painted the images of mammoth and rhinoceros on the ceiling of a chamber only 60 centimeters high and two kilometers deep into the cave.

People moved constantly, leaving little permanent record on the earth. They possessed little, and only what was portable. Stone tools were easily replaced. Since they could only carry one child at a time, population remained low. Their homes were temporary, too: tents of wood and skin, or structures of mammoth bone covered with leather, soon swept away by time.

For 30,000 years or so men lived in small groups, wandering a known landscape bounded by focal points of natural landmarks - mountain peaks, lakes, rocks. They followed animal migration routes and salmon runs and ripening fruits and nuts. When the ice advanced, they retreated, and when the ice retreated they returned to fill the ecological niches for which, by their intelligence and adaptability, they were increasingly well suited. They adapted to circumstance without forcing the world to adapt to them.

Of course, technology was already changing in the upper Paleolithic. Developments like the harpoon greatly increased hunting efficiency, which encouraged increased population. This contingency, too, helped prepare the world once the ice retreated.

Then something happened, a new contingency. A period of warming began. It happened in stages, unevenly, all over the world. The garden that had been the world, admittedly sometimes harsh, but always fair, now offered a seemingly irresistible temptation to a flourishing humankind.

Humans had always eaten grass seeds, along with numerous other plants, nuts, fruits, berries, leaves, roots, tubers, and wild animals from insects and grubs to megafauna like mammoths. In one region, now called the Middle East, there were a few plants, like emmer wheat, the warmer climate encouraged to grow in thick stands. At the same time various large mammals lived in hierarchical herds. Such herds of goat and sheep, by chance, followed a leader humans could easily replace.

This was the temptation. The region became so productive, so teeming with antelope and other, more tractable, hoofed edibles, that people no longer had to move to follow the food. The food came to them, so they stopped moving. They began to build houses.

The grasses became wheat and barley, the animals were domesticated, and forever altered, dependent on humans who in turn depended on them. We weren’t aware at the time of the negative consequences of our fatal decision. It was so obvious and natural to give in to the temptation of domesticating plants and animals.

It has been fashionable for a long time - right up until the last decade or two of the twentieth century, in fact - to proclaim the benefits of agriculture, to equate it with progress itself. After all, agriculture led to cities, organized government, increased population, the nation state, prosperity, health, and wealth; to increasingly complex technology, music, art and science. Without agriculture, there would have been no Mozart, no Leonardo, no Einstein; no global transportation system, no World Health Organization, no year-round strawberries; no Homer, Rumi or Tolstoy.

Without agriculture there would have been no writing, which humans invented independently somewhere between two and five times (the two indisputable locations were the Euphrates and Tigris river valleys and Central America). The original purpose of writing, though, was to organize tax rolls, to keep track of property, and proclaim the power of the elites.

These benefits came later, of course, after we began to settle down and build permanent houses. This period was once called the Neolithic Revolution, when polished stone tools, pottery, and agriculture spontaneously emerged in several places (though not all at once). This is the Sedentary Divide: before we were hunter-gatherers, living reasonably well as part of a coherent, if mysterious, world; afterward we were civilized, masters of all creation. We had entered the New Stone Age.

The benefits of agriculture must have seemed self-evident even at the beginning. People were freed of the need to be constantly on the move. They could acquire goods and keep them. They could store food for hard times and stay warm in the winter.

They could also have more children, and their communities could grow in power and prestige. They were then compelled to protect fields and flocks, feed a professional army, go out in search of more land, more goods, more subjects. More population meant more food, and more food meant more farmers, so the pressure to have large families built up, though large families also meant more mouths to feed.

And so settlements could become empires.

The temptation was clearly too much to resist. If the Pleistocene Paleolithic was the Garden of Eden, then the Neolithic was when people learned about life and death, good and evil. Eve did not offer Adam an apple: she offered him a loaf of bread, and he gratefully accepted.

But all this progress came at a cost, often hidden. This cost constitutes the unintended consequences of our unconsidered adoption of agriculture.

We can now see this period also brought new cultural concepts like private property, marriage and monogamy, a relentless preoccupation with virginity, fear, envy and hatred, division of labor, class structures, and mass warfare.

Oops. This seems to be a pretty negative set of entrainments. As Paul Shepard says, “Crime, tyranny, psychopathology, addiction, poverty, malnutrition, starvation, war, terrorism, and other forms of social disintegration seem to be the weaknesses and flaws in our ability to live up to the expectation of being civilized” (Shepard 1995).

OK, it’s bad. But is there anything we can we do about it at this late date, with climate change closing in on us again?

Barring catastrophic social collapse on a global scale we will never willingly return to a hunter/gatherer way of life. Even if we wanted to, there remains the problem of approximately five billion excess humans (and that’s just today, not counting the three billion more we expect by 2050). The burden of population is not one easily lightened, not even through warfare, a horrific pandemic, or universal one-child birth policies. In the past such solutions have created only minor temporary dips in population. At best, reducing human pressure on the planetary system will take enormous universal political will and considerable time, time we may not have.

Let us examine then this so-called Neolithic Revolution in some detail. It begins with permanent structures built of permanent materials like stone or mud brick. These represented something new, organized space. At first these structures were round, more or less like other things in the wild world (the first settlement culture, the Natufian, flourished around 13,000 years ago, or 11,000 BCE, only to disappear when the cold returned temporarily). It’s easier to add a room to a square than a circle, though, and gradually buildings became rectilinear, defining the universe with straight lines. This restriction of the visual field also restricted thinking, and the straight line, which hitherto had rarely existed, became the square-cornered house, the norm of civilization. See McLuhan’s writings for the organization of visual and aural space.

With abundance all around, people built houses in clusters. Once they had done that, they started to bring some of those wild grains home.

Bear with me, we’ll reach the big river soon enough. The seeds they brought back were the ones that hadn’t fallen from the stalk; they were the ones that clung tightly to it. These seeds got planted nearby, probably accidentally at first, and so humans began unconsciously domesticating grain that “waited for the harvester,” and by domesticating we mean interfering with evolution. People began changing the grain’s DNA.

The word domestic comes from domus, the Latin word for house. The organization of space, and the planting nearby of newly-domesticated grains, created a frontier between the domus and the wild (agrios), a zone of “agri-culture,” or caring for the wild (Hodder 1991, Wilson 1991). The domus grew, agriculture spread, and 10,000 years later our planet is almost completely domesticated. There is little wild left, and what there is we view as a kind of preserve or zoo, there for ‘re-creation,’ or making again what once was, and is therefore not work, which is creating something new, like a crop of wheat.

We believed that agriculture (and it’s companion, animal husbandry) was the greatest invention of mankind, but a growing number of people are coming to see that it may well have been “mankind’s greatest mistake” in the words of David Lewis-Williams (Lewis & Pierce 2005).

Let us descend for a moment into a typical house at a place called Çatalhöyük in central Anatolia, in what is today Turkey. Nine thousand years ago there was a settlement there, in the middle of a vast swampy area now known as the Konya Plain. Hundreds of houses were packed together, often with wall of one built right next to the wall of another. There were no streets, no open public areas. More surprisingly, perhaps, there were no doors or windows in these houses. Because they were built next to each other, there was no place for them, so the entrance, and the sole source of natural light, was a hole in the roof over the hearth and oven area against the south wall. All the houses were built on the same plan, and about the same size. The settlement lasted more than a thousand years, and throughout that span its culture was remarkably stable and conservative.

Many burials from Çatal show evidence of carbon in the lungs, a result of burning dried dung in that oven. Winters were cold and hard. Inside the house was warmth, and companionship, and a lot of smoke. People died of lung disease. So just one of the unanticipated, and certainly unintended, consequences of the great revolution in human adaptation of that episode of global warming (summers were still getting hotter and the swamp was beginning to dry out) was that enclosed, dark winter.

They had also begun to maintain herds of sheep and goats in abandoned houses or irregular spaces between them. This meant living in close proximity with animals and other humans, leading to a dramatic increase in communicable diseases. You can read all about this in Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.

The other social phenomena we have discussed emerged during this period: division of labor, class differentiation, organized state religion, power relationships, social status, black magic, private property, marriage and inheritance, envy and fear of others, group identification, backbreaking manual labor, mutual dependency with domesticated plants and animals, a poor, starchy diet, heart disease, warfare, and so on up to our current problems, and that growing menace ahead, renewed global warming.

Of course, you say, but what about science? What about our great cities, cathedrals, Mozart, our longer, healthier lives?

Yes, some of us have all those things, but many don’t. And consider these as well: there will be approximately nine billion people on the planet by mid century; famine and genocide will grow more common, more vicious; terrorism; agricultural dislocations coming with climate change; rising sea levels; weapons of mass destruction (yes, they still exist); nitrogen in the oceans; fishery collapse (the North Atlantic cod are gone, perhaps forever); vanishing rain forests; monoculture, commoditization, mass media, pundits, continuing social unrest, boredom, domestic violence, fundamentalism.

We can trace these things back to those fatal moments when we developed our dependencies on domesticated plants and animals. Constant technological adaptations since have allowed us to keep up with our constantly increasing needs. Irrigation, fertilizers, ploughs, harvesters, agribusiness. But we are reaching the point of diminishing marginal returns (Tainter 1990) when further complexity carries greater costs than gains. This is what is sometimes called the Red Queen principle. Proposed by the evolutionary biologist L. van Valen (1973) “In this place it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place,” said the Red Queen to Alice.

Does the future hold more of the same, a constant, endless struggle just to keep up? Or is global warming truly the greatest threat our species has ever faced? To answer we must look at the future in the mirror of the past, even though the future is linear, and leads to the open sea…

The linear future was a minor mode before the Neolithic, not unknown, but less interesting and important than the cycles of daily, monthly, and yearly life - light and dark, phases of the moon, seasons, the stages of a existence. Cyclic time gave way to linear time as human beings began to notice the effects of their own behavior on the surface of the earth; as they built those walls into settlements, and planted fields, and husbanded flocks.

During the Neolithic itself the future was obscure. People were only just beginning to wonder about what would happen tomorrow, or next year, yet seeing into the future grew increasingly necessary as dependence on agriculture and herding increased, because such dependencies were leading to horrific dislocations in time. Years were often bad, with little rainfall, or too much. Crops failed. Flocks fell sick, and the diseases were leaping to their human keepers. When to plant, what the weather would do, how to cull the herds so there would be enough for the next year, enough held back for breeding.

Dependency led to fear. The natural world, which had always provided because people were constantly on the move, able to leave dearth or bad times in search of better conditions, more productive land, more game, now shrank to the size of one’s fields.

Now we are just beginning to understand the consequences as we enter a new period of global warming. Whether we are completely or partly responsible is no longer the point. The river is carrying us around a bend, and the landscape is changing. How fast? How soon? The glaciers are melting far faster now than anyone envisioned. Sea levels will certainly rise, ecosystems will change or fail, food stocks will be disrupted.

The waters of the river are gathering, the speed of time’s flow is increasing, and we are carried along, helpless.

So time’s river is not the Mississippi, but the Nile, the source and foundation of the original hydraulic culture (now disrupted by the Aswan Dam in unforeseen ways).

Denying global warming has so far been relatively easy. The process is slow, so we are able to ignore it. It didn’t happen quickly in the Neolithic, either, so the adaptation was unconscious and unthinking.

But we have begun to see the effects. The increase in hurricane violence, the refugees from the tsunami in Indonesia, the heat waves in Europe, the decrease in polar ice caps, the vanishing snows of Kilimanjaro. What this episode of global warming will bring us, very likely, includes (according to Al Gore) a hundred million refugees from coastal areas driven out by rising seas as the Artcic, Antarctic and Greenland ice caps melt; dramatic perturbations in the weather, including increasingly frequent and violent hurricanes; slowing and perhaps stopping of the Gulf Stream, resulting in much colder European winters and hotter summers. Displacement of the major agricultural areas by these and other weather changes, including more frequent and severe droughts or torrential rainfall and flooding.

And so on.

Now reconsider those nine billion people. They will have to eat. And now they have become accustomed to eating domesticated animals, which means vastly increased populations of livestock, with commensurate methane emissions (a greenhouse gas, remember), waste byproducts, and disease vectors.

It doesn’t take an oracle to see that much in the future. What it is going to take is the will to look closely at the past, to see if what we did to adapt before was indeed mankind’s greatest mistake. If it was, what can we do different this time that would avoid at least the worst of the unintended consequences.

There are, it seems, four possible responses to global warming:

1) We can call on technology to fix or slow it. We could stop burning fossil fuels, develop hydrogen cars, seed the oceans with iron to fix more carbon, develop new sources of renewable, non-polluting energy. If done on a massive scale this might have some palliative effect.

2) We can genetically modify ourselves to adapt, perhaps to breath different (more polluted) air, survive on more marginal kinds of nourishment, live in more even more extreme zones, deserts, under water, etc. This would require an enormous global will to undertake a long-term genetic modification program on the entire species.

3) We can alter our social structures, drastically reduce population, modify our demands on the planet, learn to be less destructive, more cosmopolitan, get along better. This would require an enormous investment in social science to develop truly effective methods of conflict resolution, and a global will to set aside short-term interests, such as the immediate need for water in drought-stricken places in favor of a long-term greater good.

4) We can do nothing and adapt on an ad hoc basis. Sauve qui peut, every man for himself.

Very likely we will bury our heads or feebly wave our hands at any number of uncoordinated and ineffectual solutions, unable to summon the political, cultural and moral will to come together as a species to face this self-destructive pattern we have developed. As Oscar Wilde said, we can resist anything except temptation.

Meanwhile our raft is approaching the bend, swept along, out of control. What apparently self-evident solution will tempt us this time? Will we succumb? Can we learn, think, and change, or will we continue to dither?

Denial is not just a river.

Works Cited

Hodder, Ian. The Domestication of Europe: Structure and Contingency in Neolithic Societies. London: Blackwell, 1991.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Lewis-Williams, David, and David Pierce. Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos, and the Realm of the Gods. London: Thames & Hudson, 2005.

The New York Times. 26 December 2005.

Shepard, Paul. Coming Home to the Pleistocene. Washington, D. C.: Island Press, 1995. 5.

Tainter, Joseph A. The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Wilson, Peter. The Domestication of the Human Species. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.