Natural Causes: How Climate Wrote History

Interdisciplinary Team

  • Marcelle Doheny, Instructor in History and Social Science 
  • Jerry Hagler, Instructor in Biology

Focus Area: Creativity & Innovation

Project Overview

The impact of human activity on the behavior of the earth’s climate has become one of the overriding concerns of the modern world, making climate change the central environmental problem of our time. Anticipating the impact of climate change on modern civilization, however, is not an easy exercise. Past climate change can help us to understand it as a catalyst for change that humans were not aware of, and can then help us to decide the role humans have played in the current environmental situation. Through a series of case studies, this class will investigate how civilizations have been influenced by weather and climate change. Starting with a historical overview of broad changes in climate, students will investigate specific instances when weather has influenced the course of history. How, for example, did winter weather protect Russia from invasion by first Sweden, then Napoleonic France and Nazi Germany? The class will then expand its scope to examine the larger and longer-term influence of climate shifts on the course of regional civilizations such as the Maya in Central America, the Tang Dynasty in China, and the Harappan/Indus Valley civilization. The third group of case studies will examine the impact of global climate shifts on the interaction between civilizations on a continental scale. Examples could include the rise and spread of the Mongol civilization from central Asia to Eastern Europe and eastern Asia. The term will end with an examination of the possible consequences of climate change on the future course of modern civilization.