The Real History, Prehistory, & Mythology of Anthropogenic Climate Change (Part 4)

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This article is part of a short series. You can find Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

Why People Didn’t Want To Farm (Continued)

On top of the disadvantages discussed at the end of Part 3, having a farming village or a small city means you need to defend it from marauders and people in other towns. If there’s a drought or the game moves away, hunter-gatherers can do the same thing: move on. If you’re a farmer and the streams dry up, you’re basically condemned to death unless you can take up hunting or something to stay alive until new crops can grow.

I don’t know about you, but trading a relatively sanitary life with plenty of food, lots of leisure time, and relative safety for constant work, pests, disease, and war just isn’t a good bargain. In the nineteenth century, the native Americans living in the Southwest United States faced this choice, and often fought to the death to stay nomadic and free. They literally had to lose a war and be kept in prisons before they’d put up with living in European-style buildings. Bushmen in Africa refuse to “civilize.” There are even people in New Zealand who gave up farming and went back to hunting and gathering.

For all of those reasons, people didn’t want to farm before around 10,000 years ago. Abundant game and wild food was not only good enough, but a superior choice both before agriculture developed, and often after.

So … With All These Problems, Why Did People Start Farming?

In Part 2, I discussed a very common myth in societies around the world: people slaying dragons in the mountains to free up water the beast hoards and end droughts in the lowlands. It turns out that this myth has some loose fact behind it.

While there isn’t any good evidence of dragons today, we do know that there was a lot of megafauna around the world that people killed off. In fact, these animals disappear from the fossil record not long after humans got to any particular place. Wooly mammoths, dire wolves, giant sloths, giant armadillos, enormous kangaroos, Irish elk, wooly rhinos (this may be where unicorn stories come from), and many other species around the world were driven to extinction by humans as they spread into any of these areas.

Small game like rabbits and deer reproduce faster and aren’t as easy for humans to hunt, so they survived. The large game, on the other hand, all got hunted to extinction. This first human-caused ecological disaster made the hunter-gatherer way of life unsustainable, and people were forced to find other food sources, like agriculture.

While no literal dragons were slain (that we know of), many other large and ferocious creatures were killed off, and it turns out that killing these creatures off and embracing agriculture did indeed free water from places where nature was hoarding it in the mountains, but at a cost.

The Climate Effects of Agriculture

It’s well known today that agriculture has enormous impacts on climate change today. People like me who like Big Macs and Whoppers don’t like what we’re seeing, but to deny the data is silly. Fortunately, my Whopper habit can still be fed by the Impossible Whopper.

But it’s also silly to deny that agriculture predates the Industrial Revolution, and by thousands of years. So wouldn’t it make sense to analyze preindustrial and even prehistoric human contributions to climate change? After all, our first anthropogenic ecological disaster came over 10,000 years ago, so the “noble savage” argument falls flat, and early. But, how much of an impact would these early human contributions add up to? How would I even find that out?

Fortunately, the climate scientists I’m getting to know on Twitter are cool guys, and Michael Mann pointed me in the right direction when I asked him who the best scientists were who have studied this question. Just to drive home how cool that is–despite all of the world-saving work he’s doing, he had time for us. Scientists are definitely cool people.

The book I ended up reading to figure this out was Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate by William F. Ruddiman, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia. In this book, Ruddiman explores a variety of scientific evidence, including data from ice cores, ocean sediments, and astronomical information. Then, he compares this to evidence of human activities to see how much impact we’ve had over the last 10,000 years.

What he found not only challenges our ideas on post-industrial climate change, but makes our species’ impact on climate a whole lot bigger. According to his estimates, humans started producing climate-changing levels of CO2 8,000 years ago, and climate-changing levels of methane 5,000 years ago. Rice farming, widespread deforestation, and then other forms of farming all contributed to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

What’s more controversial in his book is the argument that these greenhouse gases and deforestation prevented the planet from veering toward another glacial period. This would mean that preindustrial global temperatures and greenhouse gas levels were already unnaturally high. Other scientists dispute his estimates, saying that the current interglacial period would have naturally would have lasted a lot longer than he thinks, but he addresses and provides a strong counterargument to that in his book. More recent studies also seem to be providing solid evidence for Ruddiman’s hypothesis, so it is increasingly looking like a good theory for ancient climate changes.

This whole argument, that humans have been changing the climate and warming it up a lot more than we thought, is now known as the “Early Anthropocene Hypothesis.”

Ancient Pandemics Provide Even More Evidence Of This

If you look back at the end of Part 3, you’ll remember that permanent human dwellings were generally not the best thing for our health until we figured out how to keep them clean from pests and disease, and that even in the eithteenth and nineteenth centuries, we largely weren’t there yet.

That proved to be a much bigger disadvantage than prehistoric agricultural pioneers could have predicted. Not only was the average person sickened by their nasty houses and cities, but entire towns and cities have been wiped out by things like the Bubonic Plague, which came in on rodents. When Europeans came in contact with Native Americans, who were still mostly living in temporary shelters, all hell broke loose, and up to 90% of the populations of the Americas died off.

It turns out that when these big population losses happened, entire regions would end up getting reforested while greenhouse gas producing human activities took a big hit. This led to periods where the earth got a chance to cool off a bit, leading to dramatic climate shifts like the Little Ice Age.

In Part 5, I’m going to tie all of this together, and show how myth and reality line up to give us the best view on long-term anthropogenic climate change that we can get today.

Featured image by Public Library of Science, CC-BY 2.5 license.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1983 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba