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The coming desert: Mike Davis on Kropotkin's theory of climate change


In the January-February issue of the New Left Review, Mike Davis has a fascinating and deeply researched article on the climate change theories of scientist, geographer, prince, and anarchist Piotr Kropotkin. His theory of natural climate change was hotly disputed in his day, but has since been confirmed by modern instruments and methods. An excerpt:

Oddly, it required the ‘discovery’ of a supposed dying civilization on Mars to finally ignite interest in the idea, first proposed by the anarchist geographer Kropotkin in the late 1870s, that the 14,000 years since the Glacial Maximum constituted an epoch of on-going and catastrophic desiccation of the continental interiors. This theory—we might call it the ‘old climatic interpretation of history’—was highly influential in the early twentieth century, but waned quickly with the advent of dynamic meteorology in the 1940s, with its emphasis on self-adjusting physical equilibrium. What many fervently believed to be a key to world history was found and then lost, discrediting its discoverers almost as completely as the eminent astronomers who had seen (and in some cases, claimed to have photographed) canals on the Red Planet. Although the controversy primarily involved German and English-speaking geographers and orientalists, the original thesis—postglacial aridification as the driver of Eurasian history—was formulated inside Tsardom’s école des hautes études: St Petersburg’s notorious Peter-and-Paul Fortress where the young Prince Piotr Kropotkin, along with other celebrated Russian intellectuals, was held as a political prisoner…

This was the first scientific attempt to make a comprehensive case for natural climate change as a prime-mover of the history of civilization. As noted earlier, Enlightenment and early Victorian thought universally assumed that climate was historically stable, stationary in trend, with extreme events as simple outliers of a mean state. In contrast, the impact of human modification of the landscape upon the atmospheric water cycle had been debated since the Greeks. For instance, Theophrastus, Aristotle’s heir at the Lyceum, reportedly believed that the drainage of a lake near Larisa in Thessaly had reduced forest growth and made the climate colder. Two thousand years later, the Comtes de Buffon and de Volney, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander von Humboldt, Jean-Baptiste Boussingault and Henri Becquerel (to give just a short list) were citing one example after another of how European colonialism was radically changing local climates through forest clearance and extensive agriculture. (‘Buffon’, wrote Clarence Glacken, ‘concluded it was possible for man to regulate or to change the climate radically.’) Lacking any longterm climate records that might reveal major natural variations in weather patterns, the philosophes were instead riveted by the innumerable circumstantial reports of declining rainfall in the wake of plantation agriculture on island colonies. In the same vein, Auguste Blanqui’s older brother, the political economist Jerome-Adolphe Blanqui, later cited Malta as an example of a man-made island desert and warned that the heavily logged foothills of the French Alps risked becoming an arid ‘Arabia Petraea’. By the 1840s, according to Michael Williams, ‘deforestation and consequent aridity was one of the great “lessons of history” that every literate person knew about.’

Image of Kropotkin via Wikicommons.