The Recurring Dark Ages: Ecological Stress, Climate Changes, and System Transformation

By Stevens-Arroyo, Anthony M. | Comparative Civilizations Review, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Recurring Dark Ages: Ecological Stress, Climate Changes, and System Transformation


Stevens-Arroyo, Anthony M., Comparative Civilizations Review


Sing C. Chew, The Recurring Dark Ages: Ecological Stress, Climate Changes, and System Transformation. Alta mira Press: Lanham, MD, 2007.

This is the second in a trilogy. It follows the publication in 2001 of the author's World Ecological Degradation: Urbanization, and Deforestation, 3000 BC - AD 2000 and it precedes the 2008 appearance of the third in the series, Ecological Futures: What History Can Teach Us. Doctor Chew is co-editor of the journal, Nature and Culture, and the scholarly theme of this book on the Dark Ages is consonant with the vital sector of academic research into civilizational history. I highly recommend this book to ISCSC members. Moreover, the author lists in his bibliography the key works of Andr? Gunder Frank, an ISCSC member we all know, and the indefatigable, irrepressible, invaluable David Wilkinson, whom we all love.

The subtitles of this book on the Dark Ages pretty much say it all: "Ecological Stress, Climate Changes, and System Transformation." Chew's text provides exhaustive analysis wim empirical measures of what might be categorized as "environmental factors." He matches these with historical phenomena such as the invention of metallurgy; the diffusion of currency; the manufacture of pottery, jewelry and glass; the utilization of weaponry; and general types of state organization paired with cultural expression. The creativity of this scholarship, I mink, is in how the author links various and well-known topics to more opaque data from scientific sources and blends both to forge a comprehensive view of the interaction between nature and civilization. In his introduction (xvi) he states that "history is theory and theory is history." This is his justification for identifying three major Dark Ages in the human experience that are recognized in civilizational perspectives but opens the door to add some innovative matching of cultural dimensions to ecological data. I think the author succeeds in showing the interrelation of socioeconomic eclipse with environmental events.

An example of his analytical methodology is delivered early on (26ff) where he explores the unavailability of materials for pottery creation as the chief explanation for a decline in pottery's quality in Egypt as well as in Mesopotamia after 3200 BC. While Braudel (2001) is cited for tying causality to the invention of the potter's wheel in Mesopotamia, Chew points out that Egypt did not use the potter's wheel until around 2600 BC. Why then the simultaneous decline? Chew suggests on Page 27 that "trade disruption with the natural resource-producing hinterland areas . . . (caused by depressed ecological conditions...) forced the skirting of pottery design." He engages in similar analysis about textiles in the Fertile Crescent, both linen and wool. Copper and tin come under like scrutiny. He cites his earlier book that analyzed the use of timber and wood in order to underscore his point: trade in such items across various territories with different civilizations can be affected by change in only one of the termini. Thus, he reasons, simultaneous decline in quality or production of trade items is often caused by simple ecological factors in one region that reverberate like sound waves to a larger ambit. Let it be added that Chew does not make ecological change the sole cause of such decline, but rather describes how material resources in supply and demand provoke cultural, socioeconomic and ultimately civilizational change.

In two places, the author provides lists of the Dark Ages of world civilization. He cross-lists archeological data to substantiate his linkages to climatic effects that are not man-made. The first list on page 41 is accompanied by Table 3.3 on page 54. A digested version of his tables is found in Chapter 6 (Table 6.1, page 174), where three Dark Ages are listed. Two occur in the Bronze Age: 2200-1700 BC, mostly in the Fertile Crescent; and 1200-700 BC, in the Mediterranean, simultaneous with the migration of the "Sea Peoples. …

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