Sing C. Chew: ecology, history, and the future

Published online 11 November 2008.

This is, in short, a book review of Sing C. Chew’s new book Ecological Futures: what history can teach us.  Chew is important because he wants to incorporate ecological data into historical discussions of the rise and fall of civilizations; his most recent book attempts to use this “ecologized” version of history to make a solid (if somewhat scary) prediction about the future of the human race.  Chew doesn’t mean to scare us, however; what’s scary are the implications of his naturalistic point of view when it comes around to analyze the disastrous course our civilization has taken in its relations to the natural world.

I will end with a short set of prognostications of my own, related to reflections in the book review.

SING C. CHEW is Associate Professor of Sociology at Humboldt State University and editor of the Humboldt Journal of Social Relations.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

Book Review: Chew, Sing C.  Ecological Futures.  Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.

Sing C. Chew’s (2008) Ecological Futures is the third book in a series.  Each part of the series offers a different angle in Chew’s attempt to bring ecological data into world-systems theory.  World-systems theory is an attempt to create a sort of “big-picture sociology” out of historical materials.  This stuff is important because it tries to discover a “higher logic” in the operations of civilized societies, so as to understand the basic principles of how human social systems work.  Systems theories can be shown wrong — as Kees van der Pijl suggests, they can be “smashed by insight” (see the previous link, p. 15).  But doing so can also make the theories themselves better.

Chew’s first book in the series, World Ecological Degradation, details past civilizations against ecological evidence of deforestation, suggesting that in each case deforestation undercut the resilience of the civilization itself.  This shows how civilizations typically operate — they develop metabolic interactions with nature which have long-term destructive effects.  The second book, The Recurring Dark Ages (2006), takes a more overall view of the ecological stress which civilization places upon its environments, with a view to explaining the collapse of past civilizations.  The last volume, which came out in sometime in July of this year, attempts to use all of this historical analysis to prognosticate about the future.

At the beginning of the second book, The Recurrent Dark Ages, Sing C. Chew tells us that “I wish to clarify further the Nature-Culture relations via an examination of the Dark Ages in order to have a clearer understanding of system crisis and system transformations from an ecological world system history perspective…” (xv)  This, Chew emphasizes, is a “Dark Ages” continuation of the argument made in the first volume of the series, World Ecological Degradation.

Chew’s systems theory, much informed by the likes of Andre Gunder Frank (who looked at a manuscript of this book), wishes to identify the ecological determinants of history rather than ascribing the “progress” of history merely to the strength of human ingenuity or (in the marxist sense) to the state of class relations in any particular time and place.  Chew’s analysis is comprehensive, but rather reliant upon secondary sources.  For Chew the Dark Ages (his term) serve as ecological cooling-out periods; when civilization devastates ecosystem resilience, its disappearance grants nature opportunities for regrowth.  Thus Chew tries to put a sort of smiley-face on the notion of the dark age.

In The Recurrent Dark Ages, Chew establishes a pattern of “Dark Age” recurrence by specifying the prerequisites he sees in the historical/ anthropological record for the occurrence of a “Dark Age.”  These are:

  1. That “civilized” exploitation of the land typically reduces the resilience of ecosystems – in this regard the modern era’s record of deforestation, oceanic devastation, and biodiversity loss reveals a metabolic interaction with nature that takes the natural world apart in relatively short order.
  1. That over the course of centuries the climate of geographic regions tends to change, naturally – these long-term climate changes reveal the fragility of the ecosystems which were damaged by civilization, and past civilizations were cast into ruins as a result.  With abrupt climate change we can expect the tempo of climate change to accelerate dramatically.
  1. That there be some sort of political and economic instability catalyzing the disruption of the old civilization’s regimes – and in this regard when looking at the present day we can point to the instability of the neoliberal capitalist profits system.  In many places Chew implies that the most serious crises are those which have been prompted by ecological damage.

And, finally, which Chew did not point out but which can be inferred from his text, we can read:

  1. That there be a social/ technological fragility to the civilization in question which does not allow it to persist despite factors 1) through 3)

In that volume, Chew trains his analysis of “Dark Age” occurrence to three ostensive “Dark Ages”: 1) the Fertile Crescent in the period 2200-1700 BCE, 2) the eastern Mediterranean in the period 1200-700 BCE, and 3) the “Classical Dark Age” of 400-900 CE.  The analysis in this book forms a background for Chew’s estimation of our present-day society, given in his following book, Ecological Futures.  The reasoning is that our own world civilization will at some point be headed for decline and fall, and it, too, will experience a “Dark Age.”  The strong point of this reasoning is that, through his trilogy of historical analyses, Chew has established an “ecology in the driver’s seat” version of history, similar to that of Jared Diamond or of Joseph Tainter, but more nuanced and less dogmatic.  The non-judgmental, non-deterministic way in which Chew puts facts together really allows the reader a refreshing capacity to think freely about history.  This virtue of Chew’s writing cannot be overemphasized.

In the most recent, rather short (142 pp. + biblio and index) volume, Chew adds to the previous work by suggesting that just before the advent of historical “Dark Ages” there were cultural phenomena which suggested a renewal of civilization.  So, for instance, the Greek city-states are said to have foreshadowed the end of the “Dark Age” of 1200-700 BCE, and the monastic orders of the early Christian Church were the building block upon which post-Roman civilization was founded in Europe.  For our civilization Chew points to “bioregionalism,” which I suppose serves as a meaningful label for what is going on in various environmentally-conscious local movements around the world.

Much of Ecological Futures consists of brief overviews of past and present cultural trends, perhaps too brief in light of the complexity of the phenomena themselves.  This, of course, is an overview of history in the style of the great world-systems theorists (e.g. Giovanni Arrighi, with his Long Twentieth Century).  Chew does devote space to the phenomenon of abrupt climate change, of the “information revolution,” and of energy technologies.  Of interest is a careful examination of the historical spread of monasteries throughout the Old World before the collapse of the Roman Empire.  Chew’s writing style retains some of the dry “sociology” prose that one can see in other readings of world-systems theory.

Important historical details are sometimes downplayed in order to bring other historical details into the dialogue of “what history is really about” – for instance, in order to establish climate change as playing a role in the decline of the Roman Empire, Chew feels obliged to downplay political and economic explanations of Rome’s decline.

In his analysis of the present moment, Chew does attempt to give some credence to the ideas prompted by ecotopian authors (especially Bill McKibben, whose works I’ve reviewed previously) as regards the possibility of a global “conserver” society.  This, I would argue, would be what we as residents of the present era should aim to create.  But his overall prediction, given toward the end of this book, belies his own argument that “collapse is not a condition that we should dread.”  Here, precisely, is what Chew thinks will happen (as he suggests on p. 130):

Market optimism, regionalization, and globalization policies and practices will be pursued until ecological and natural limits are reached.  The “business as usual” approach will be fostered similar to what we witness in the palace-centered kingship economies that percisted at the end of the Late Bronze Age crisis (the second Dark Age (1200-700 BCE, in other words).  No doubt, as the catastrophes continue to mount as effects of global warming compound and recur, more stringent measures will be implemented to maintain economic, social, and political control.

Furthermore, with energy shortages it is very likely that certain places in the world would become more isolated.  By no means should this be seen as negative.  Like the monasteries following the collapse of the Roman Empire, isolation can provide the opportunity for innovations as the predominant or common way of managing socioeconomic and political affairs in the globalized world no longer can be practiced or is an option.

What Chew is suggesting, then, is that there will be no broad social transformation even with recurrent ecological, social, and political crisis, and that the existing system will organize to protect itself in a sort of “fortress” manner in order to stave off real political change.  (For another discussion of the “fortress” model and its alternatives, see this old editorial in the journal Monthly Review.)  This will continue, Chew seemingly argues, until energy shortages collapse the globalized economy, and allow for some degree of local isolation such that local entities will be able to attain some degree of autonomy before forming the basis for the next civilization.  Realistic but scary.

The idea of isolation as a prerequisite for change seems to me to be rather difficult to achieve in the age of the global Internet.  I would imagine that, if and when energy crises become severe enough, what will “go” first will be the fossil-fueled transportation networks.  The Internet will remain.  Perhaps the elites will reserve some form of electrified, solar-powered transportation for themselves at some point in this process, overseeing the neoliberal, capitalist economy as it drives the planet into further disaster.

I can imagine that it will take an awfully severe catastrophe to make globalization altogether impossible, though an intermediate crisis, a semi-collapse, seems to me to be altogether quite possible as well, and perhaps semi-collapse could lead to our world-society’s complete transformation (thus avoiding the Dark Ages).  If those are the choices, I vote for semi-collapse.  Maybe I could survive semi-collapse; I would like to be with the living so as to see it all happen.  The charm of human existence is not some mere selfishness — but, rather, that if you are alive (and sighted and if your brain functions well enough) you get to see what happens next.

Chew’s attitude toward the rise and fall of civilizations seems to me to be a lot like that expressed by George Carlin, in his famous routine on “Saving the Planet”:

As Carlin describes it, the Earth will shake us off like a case of bad fleas, because nature is always self-correcting.  In that stand-up routine, Carlin offers a naturalistic view of the world: people come and go, nature just moves on.  Chew suggests, in somewhat the same vein (but a lot less caustically, of course), that five centuries of Dark Ages was the traditional remedy for the environmental abuses of civilization.  Naturalism is valuable because it sobers us up, reminds us that nature is not “about us.”


This is the part where I depart from the book-review script, and get personal about the ideas I’ve expressed on “ecology” in this and previous diaries on .  The idea that there will be no real social change in world society prior to the most earth-shattering of crises seems to be a recurrent feature of the responses I get when proposing ideas for social change.  “People will never buy into your radical ideas,” I am told.  We have to have coal mining, I am being told, because it supplies half of our electricity, and we just couldn’t economize our way out of all that “necessary” energy consumption because that would be bad for our “standard of living.”  (So let’s wait until our “standard of living” is thwarted by abrupt-climate-change crop failures.)  Our world-society just has to consume 85 million bbls./day of crude oil each and every day, leading to the same disaster, because no other source of energy is half as cheap, and getting out of the oil business would just be “uneconomical.”  (Never mind that our economy is fake and that the value of the dollar is based on faith.)  Let’s bail out the existing economy even when its failure grants us the opportunity to create a new one.  We can’t have “socialism,” so when the capitalist system uses up the bounty of planet Earth, we will descend into neo-feudalism.  The status quo will continue, Chew tells us, until it no longer can.

Usually such responses strike me as prescriptions for despair.  It seems to me that, in light of the accelerated time of living in our present day world-society, we should instead view our society as capable of rapid and startling changes.  The Internet, the transportation networks, the spread of information and ideas, and the transformation of social norms make social change easier, even if the culture industry attempts to hold these social changes back by suffusing popular discourse with meaningless consumer babble.  The question, then, is one of whether or not we will continue to be fazed by “things will never change” arguments, while we are over-awed by the power of the status quo, or if we have the collective will-power to make changes rapidly enough (and at all levels) to give the future a fighting chance at survival, and to avoid the recurrence of Dark Ages in this lifetime.

Chew’s prognostication, then, can serve us as a sort of “if this goes on” warning to the world.

Moreover, I can’t for the life of me imagine that “collapse is not a condition that we should dread.”  Involuntary collapse will bear too many marks of trauma and catastrophe.  Perhaps we could collapse voluntarily, an idea proposed (I think) by Richard Heinberg in his books.  (I wouldn’t, however, rely entirely upon Heinberg for a proactive vision of the future; when I questioned him about his vision of the future at one of his lecture appearances, he seemed rather the pessimist.)

In short, then, we want to focus upon the demand for immediate change, not so much as a demand for results tomorrow, but as a demand that we start demanding change, and that we start demanding a more comprehensive change, in the direction of a more ecologically harmonious world-society, than the piecemeal change which we’ve been demanding so far.


At a recent conference I presented some of my own ideas of the future, much influenced by reading such as this, and I was asked this question by the husband of a schoolteacher:

How would you present these ideas to an audience of twelve- to fourteen-year-olds?

Here is what I suggested: you want to start by teaching them about the idea of ecology, and about how ecologies contain a number of interrelationships, between plants and animals, between plants and animals and sunlight and water and planet Earth.  And then you want to introduce the idea of equilibrium, in which ecologies create the conditions for continued life, from century to century, across millions of years.

Then you want to have your students look at human society and the way it has structured the land.  Ask them this: how could human society be more like an ecology in equilibrium?

That, at least, is what I think would get our students thinking in the right way.


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