Introduction to Cataclysms

2020, 11/11 – Publication announcement: Cataclysms. An environnemental History of Humanity, Katherine Throssel translated, University of Chicago University Press. Introduction following… Editor’s page with table of contents here

The desire to write this book first began to take shape as I was sitting on the edge of a hot volcanic pool near Yamanouchi, a village deep in the Japanese Alps.

At first sight the place seems idyllic – if you overlook its theme-park-like name, Jigokudani, or Hell Valley. Perhaps you already know of this park and the Japanese snow monkeys who live here, now immortalized in numerous documentaries and photographs. The pool is where the monkeys bathe. Once, bathing might have been a perfectly spontaneous event for them, but these simian ablutions have become a boon for tourism. So now the snow monkeys are gently encouraged to take a dip.

I arrive early in the afternoon. Some young monkeys are playing. They dive into the water, swimming and squabbling. The biggest one delights in dunking the smaller ones under the watchful but sporadic eye of a few adults, until the game goes too far, and an older female intervenes with a growl and a smack. It could almost be a human kindergarten. The monkeys hold the visitors’ gaze, their eyes heavy with all the emotions we normally think of as reserved for our own kind.

Tourist photos of this place are ubiquitous but misleading. They are generally taken in winter, in the snow, with the monkeys huddled together in the hot water while a tempest rages. They hint at a place lost in time, inaccessible, in the depths of a lost valley. It seems so “natural.”

In reality, the snow falls on concrete. The pool was artificially built in an easy-to-access location – easy, that is, if the gaijin (foreigner) has mastered the subtle dance of Japanese driving. It is only a ten-minute walk from the car park up to the house of the park’s guards, where a small fee will grant you entry to the gorge that leads to the pool.

Two hundred monkeys live here. A peaceful tribe. The afternoon stretches out, marked only by the cavorting of the young ones. At the end of the day, it becomes clear why they stay by the pool. Two employees appear, carrying a large crate of apples. The macaques converge on them, organizing themselves in concentric circles. A few punches are thrown. A large male moves forward, insistent, toward the humans.

He will be the first to be fed, but not without also being served a reminder that he is inferior to his feeders. The two employees reinforce the group hierarchy and impose themselves as superior, while also ensuring that no one is forgotten. They throw the apples violently, like baseballs, smashing them on the rocks and on the concrete. The monkeys run in all directions. Some jump into the water. The dominants gobble down the fruit while the subordinates fight for the scraps.

The sun is setting. The monkeys are also going, climbing up the cliffs. This is nature Japanese-style. There is no overt trace of human intervention, yet it is totally artificial, anthropized, shaped entirely by human hands. It is a striking analogy for our planet today.


The saga of Monkey

This book is like a film. It relates how humans have progressively transformed the planet, creating peaceful places and urban hells. It also recounts how nature, distorted, has retaliated: in return for the metamorphoses it has been subjected to, it has reshaped humans’ bodies and minds.

It is blockbuster material. The narrative covers three million years, conservatively speaking. Of course, given just a few hundred pages, we will be staging key scenes and focusing on pivotal stories. And we have cast some actors to bring this planetary drama to life.

The main character is Monkey, because, of all the animals, he is the closest to us. We are, after all, “naked apes” (1). The figure of Monkey provides a condensed vision of humanity as a whole. He is also a major mythological character in both China and India, two of the historically most important cultures on the planet.

In China, Monkey, known as Sun Wukong, is the protagonist in Journey to the West (2), a picaresque sixteenth-century novel that is more popular in China than its Western equivalents – Pantagruel, Gargantua, Gulliver’s Travels – are in Europe. Journey to the West has two parts. The first puts Monkey center stage. He is a peasant among supernatural beings, destined to embody the underdog, a rube who must live in the shadows, a stable boy to the gods. But Monkey has a cunning mind. He tricks his way into learning sorcery and steals a magic sword from the Dragon King. Something like a Star Wars light saber, this twenty-foot-long iron bar can be shrunk to the size of an embroidery needle. He breaks into the Heavenly Peach Garden, whose peaches bestow everlasting life, and eats them all. Furious that the secret of immortality has been lost, the gods send their most powerful armies to punish the thief. But to no avail. Monkey cannot be captured; the heavenly peaches have given him astronomical power and he gives a good beating to any immortal who comes near.

Only the intervention of Buddha puts an end to Monkey’s antics. As punishment for his wanton ways, Buddha orders him to as the bodyguard for a young monk who is traveling into the west (to India) to revive the sacred word of Buddhism at its source. Overcome with remorse, Monkey accepts. This pilgrimage constitutes the second part of the book, which is just as rich in social satire and fantastical battles as the first. At the service of pious humanity, Monkey and his companions strike down all the chimerical forces that nature throws in their path.

In India, Monkey takes the form of Hanuman, King of the Monkeys; he has enormous strength, can lift mountains, and leap as far as Sri Lanka in a single bound. In the epic poem Ramayana, Hanuman helps the god Rama rescue his wife Sita, who has been abducted by the demon Ravana. This monkey-god is extremely popular because he symbolizes the wisdom of the people, defends peasants, and incarnates the generosity of those who have nothing other than their word. The monkey weeps not for himself, but for others, holds an old Indian proverb.

These two Monkey figures provide a perfect metaphor for humankind – who is, as we will see, a hyper-predator who has become the unlawful king of the Earth. Yet we also owe our special status to our acute sense of empathy that enhances cooperation between humans. Monkey is an animal whose vitality has been boosted by culture. It is through collaboration that humanity can move mountains, alter the vegetation of continents, and fly through the skies from London to Japan.

Moreover, using Monkey as a metaphor for humanity helps us remember a fundamental premise: humans are animals. We are animals who consider ourselves exceptional, and yet today we struggle to define just what sets us apart. We have culture. But other animals demonstrate culture. Tools? Cognition? We are not alone in these either. Humanity is above all characterized by the scale on which these qualities have been applied; no other species can alter nature to the same extent.

Our story will therefore be that of Monkey, a concentrated essence of humankind. We must keep in mind that Monkey is always a trickster – like Loki, the mischievous Scandinavian god of fire, or Prometheus, the polytechnic Titan who gave humans fire and tricked the gods out of the tastiest morsels of sacrificial meat. In punishment for these crimes, Zeus chained Prometheus to a mountain top, where every day a giant eagle would devour his liver and every night his liver would grow back again.

Prometheus is often held up as a tutelary deity personifying our technical age, marked by the industrial revolution of fire. He is the reflection of a humanity that must pay for the liberation of the terrestrial forces of coal and oil in suffering which sometimes gnaws at its organs, like some endocrine-disrupting eagle.

Monkey’s saga is made up of seven Revolutions (detailed below), each of which is the object of one of our chapters. These seven Revolutions are capitalized because they are major evolutionary processes (3), predated by long periods of adaptation. The succession of these Revolutions has progressively become faster and faster, as the cumulative effects of human culture have made themselves felt. It took five to seven million years to amass the effects of the Physiological Revolution that transformed a frugivorous, quadrupedal primate into an omnivorous, bipedal, tool-using human. Hundreds of thousands of years then paved the way for the Cognitive Revolution, while tens of thousands of years (and a global heatwave) provided the prerequisites for the Agricultural Revolution. The Moral Revolution began over a few thousand years, and the Energy Revolution emerged in a few hundred. The Digital Revolution that followed took only a few decades. The next, the Evolutive Revolution will take only a few years. In fact, it is already here.

Monkey has initiated an extraordinary acceleration of time itself.

The scene is set: the whole planet and its different environments. Monkey, the lead actor, has signed on without hesitation. The screenwriter is yours truly, professional journalist, lecturer and teacher in world history, submerged in this discipline for more than a decade. But there can be no film without a script. How can we trace the history of the world over three million years? We need a method – global history – and a field – world environmental history.


Toward a global history

Global history can be defined as a method that allows us to explore the field of world history, all the different pasts of humanity, from its tentative beginnings in Africa three million years ago to the globalization we see today (4). It is the living tool that allows us to produce this world history, and it is brought to life by four strands of DNA: 1) global history is trans-disciplinary; it brings together other disciplines in equal measure, including economics, demographics, archeology, geography, anthropology, philosophy, social sciences, and evolutionary biology; 2) It analyzes the past over the long term; 3) It encompasses a broad space; 4) It plays out on different levels, both temporal and spatial. It produces a narrative that opens the door wide to humanity’s varied pasts, emphasizing a biographical anecdote, for example, before looking at its global implications. Could the lost harvest of a peasant in 1307 be attributed to a global cold snap? And what might that cold period tell us about global warming today?

I have written an in-depth review of the Anglophone studies in world history, published as a book, combining different historiographic approaches, and this increased my awareness of the importance of the natural environment in human history (5). If Monkey is an actor in his own story, the environment is its stage and determines its possibilities.


Toward an environmental narrative

Environmental history was officially born in the United States in the 1970s, although it is possible to trace its origins much further back, first to Montesquieu and then to Aristotle and his Chinese contemporaries. American authors also emphasize the fundamental role of Anglophone pioneers, such as George Perkins Marsh. In Man and Nature (1864), this linguist documented the impact of human action on the lands of the ancient Mediterranean civilizations and deduced that deforestation was the systematic prelude to desertification. By way of conclusion, he called (even then) for the restoration of ecosystems, forests, soils, and rivers. And he prayed for the advent of a humanity that would collaborate with nature rather than destroy it. In 1915, the geographer Ellsworth Huntington diagnosed the aridification of Asia in Civilization and Climate; he also noted that, in the past, variations in climate have led to the destruction of civilizations.

In the period after the Second World War, the geographer William M. Thomas edited the book Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth (1956), which documents the extent of the environmental change produced by humans from prehistory to today. A little later on, Roderick F. Nash set about demonstrating the social evolution of the perception of nature in America, in his book Wilderness and the American Mind (1967). In the same year, the geographer Clarence J. Glacken published his landmark work Traces on the Rhodian Shore, a monumental history of human attitudes toward nature in the West, from antiquity to the eighteenth century. Environmental history was officially baptized in 1972 by the historian Alfred W. Crosby Jr, with his book The Columbian Exchange (see Chapter 9). By a happy coincidence, the same year saw Nash establish the first chair of environmental history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The benefit of continuing in this intellectual direction was confirmed in 1976 by the historian William H. McNeill with Plagues and Peoples, a masterful analysis of microbes as a driving force in history (see Chapter 8).

Since then, publications in this area have abounded. In addition to work in North America, certain European historians, especially British, sometimes Swiss, German, Dutch, Italian, and more recently French (6), are also involved in this movement. South Africa, India, and Australia have also established solid traditions in this field, but the environmental histories of China, Japan, Russia, or the Islamic world still remain largely the domain of American historians.

Schematically speaking, environmental history can take three main forms: one that aims to bring nature into history, to historicize it; one that studies the impact of humankind on the environment, which is particularly in demand today as societies fight environmental damage; and, finally, one that looks at the impact of the environment on humanity – for example, in terms of health or the trajectories of societies. The discipline is by nature eclectic. It incorporates social sciences and geography, as well as physical and biological sciences. But it sometimes struggles to reconcile these different forms and is often accused of overreaching. This book, for example, will look at wars, religions, political ideologies, and economics because these products of human societies are not only subjects for the social sciences, they are also ways of interacting with our surroundings. Religions and political ideologies dictate the ways in which we engage with the environment, the economy exploits natural resources, and war leaves biotopes battered and scarred.


A film on human-nature relations

Clearly, a book like this cannot exhaustively cover the three-million-year history of the whole world. Choices had to be made. Certain scenes illustrate global processes. Chapter 12, for example, will focus on forests in the modern era; at other points in the book they will be mentioned only in passing, even though their evolution has always been crucial for humanity. Elephants will often be in the spotlight, while salmon will not – yet both of these animals have things to teach us about humans’ relationships with nature. Africa will be mentioned only rarely, because the environmental historiography provides us with few sources on it. China, India, and Europe, the decisive spaces of global history as it is written today, provide our regular backdrops.

Before we go any further, let us state the obvious. Like any animal, a human organism has three obsessions. Number one, finding food, to ensure short-term survival. Number two, sleeping, to ensure medium-term survival. Number three, reproduction, to ensure long-term survival.

I am going to spoil the suspense right away and reveal the thesis that underpins this book. As with all animals, evolution pushes us to have as many descendants as possible, regardless of their quality of life. We live in societies of incomparable wealth and comfort, yet we are not programmed to make rational choices in terms of food, nor to force ourselves to exercise. If we were, obesity would run less rampant. Nature, seen through the magnifying glass of evolutionism, is laughing at us individuals. All that matters to it is the perpetuation of the species, its expansion. Individuals matter for their multiplication, not for their qualities. In view of obsession number three, human history reads like Monkey’s success story, with the expansion of the population to a genuinely incredible scale. But what if the trickster has tricked us? What if we have signed a pact with the devil? Will there not be a price to pay at the end of the story?

Monkey has achieved an unprecedented feat – we have transformed our surroundings in a way that was previously unimaginable. But although we can radically alter our environment, we can never be free of its influence. Like Prometheus, we have usurped the power of the gods, in the form of energy, only to discover that it is destroying us from the inside. Monkey has overcome epidemics; we now live longer and better lives. But we pay for it in cancers, diabetes, and heart disease, much of which is caused by the invisible modifications we have inflicted on the environment.

All books must be selective, and I do not think that there is a right way to explore history, particularly when working on very large temporal, disciplinary, and spatial scales. Much as there is no neutral journalism, there is no historian presenting “real history.” All history is written out of the subjective experience of its author. I have therefore tried to avoid the pitfalls of “tunnel history,” denounced by the geographer James M. Blaut, in which we use the present to explain why – in light of the past – we could not possibly be elsewhere than where we are. If history were that deterministic, mathematicians would have long since had the absolute monopoly on the production of historical knowledge. History is malleable. At any moment, it could have led to other trajectories. It is important to understand that. The realm of possibilities remains open as far as the environment is concerned. The state of the world may have been quite different if in 1048 the embankments of the Yellow River had been reinforced enough to resist the devastating floods that carried away the Song Dynasty (see chapter 7). If in 2009 US President Barack Obama had chosen, as Iceland did, to consider the banks responsible for compensation after the financial crisis, our present may have been very different (7). The point here is not to produce counterfactual history (8), but to bear in mind that we can always shape our future. I simply hope that by presenting certain key elements from our long, shared history with mother nature, we will be able to think more clearly about the future that we desire, in the hope that we can make the vital decisions that are needed to achieve it.

The trailers are over, the lights have gone down. The film opens with the African savanna, where our story begins…


The seven Revolutions

The Physiological Revolution (also called anatomical, around 3 million years ago): emergence of the Homo species and of tools, bipedalism, running, throwing objects, omnivorous feeding, global expansion. Monkey becomes human (Chapter 1).

The Cognitive Revolution (also called symbolic, between 500,000 and 100,000 BCE): fire, art and language, domination of the environment and extinction of all the Homo species except sapiens. Monkey becomes a hunter (Chapter 2).

The Agricultural Revolution (also called the Neolithic, begins nearly 12,000 years ago): leads to the domestication of nature and a demographic boom. Monkey becomes a farmer (Chapter 3).

The Moral Revolution (also called axial, 2,500 years ago): societies become connected over long distances, generating collective groups – empires and religions – that aspire to universality, collaborating more effectively to exploit their surroundings, and inventing money to boost their interactions. Monkey finds religion (Chapter 5).

The Energy Revolution (also called industrial, around the year 1800): the choice to burn fossil fuels for energy pushes humanity onto a new trajectory. Like the preceding ones, this revolution is multifaceted. Depending on the discipline and on which component is emphasized, it can be read as scientific, military, economic, or demographic. What is important is its effect: the unification of the world under European hegemony, followed by the profound modification of the global environment, and the beginning of the Anthropocene. Monkey becomes a worker (Chapter 13).

The Digital Revolution (also called the media revolution, around the year 2000): communication technologies enable intricate connections over the whole planet in real time. Monkey becomes a communicator (Chapter 16).

The Evolutive Revolution (also called demiurgic, over the course of the twenty-first century). Two main trends coexist: 1) the “great convergence” of NBIC technologies – nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science – leads to the emergence of new entities (augmented humans, cyborgs, artificial intelligence, etc.) who will replace or coexist with humanity; 2) the inability of humanity to change its behavior will alter the planet’s environment to the point where humans will involuntarily be transformed into “mutants” adapted to the new ecological situation of the Anthropocene. Monkey will become either a god, or a mutant (Chapter 17). The future, by definition unpredictable, should fall somewhere between these two extremes. Or perhaps it will combine them? It is easy to imagine super-rich elites able to indefinitely prolong their precious existence with exorbitantly expensive technology, while common mortals suffer the burden of increasing environmental degradation.




(1) To use the expression coined by zoologist Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape.

(2) Wu Cheng’en, Journey to the West.

(3) These Revolutions are also chrononyms, specific periods which, much like geographic areas (which are attributed capital letter by virtue of the fact that they are toponyms), have a specific location – temporal rather than spatial.

(4) For a presentation of the methodological approaches, see Testot (ed.), L’Histoire globale. Un nouveau regard sur le Monde

(5) Testot, La Nouvelle Histoire du Monde, Sciences Humaines Éditions, 2019. The most remarkable contributions in this area include, Harari, Sapiens. A brief History of Humanity; Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies; Morris, Why the West rules – for now.

(6) A new generation of French scholars emerged in the wake of the pioneering studies on the climate by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie: Grégory Quenet, Christophe Bonneuil, Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, François Jarrige, Thomas Le Roux, Jean-François Mouhot, among others.

(7) Scenario evoked in Klein’s book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.

(8) For French perspectives on counterfactual history, see Deluermoz, Singaravelou, Pour une histoire des possibles. Analyses contrefactuelles et futures non advenus. See also, Besson, Synowiecki (eds.), Ecrire l’histoire avec des si.