- The Recurring Dark Ages: Ecological Stress, Climate Changes, and System Transformation
The Recurring Dark Ages emerges squarely from the world-systems discourse of sociology, and in these origins lie many of its flaws as well as its strengths.
The thesis of this social scientist's book is admirably clear, concisely stated, and reiterated at relevant points in the text; no reading between the lines or coppering of bets here, as in so many writings from the humanities. First, Chew proposes that rather than the explanatory model of society which he calls "economy-in-command," readers should instead consider a model of "ecology-in-command." He is quite frank in his conviction that environmental determinism explains the course of the world, and in particular in his conviction that climate changes are the driver of the meta-trends of history. (No option other than these two explanatory paradigms is given press by him here; the text as well as the footnotes indicate that he assumes that his audience is pretty well limited to world-systems sociologists and Annales-style historians who are presumably weighing these as their only two theoretical options.)
According to Chew, world history is characterized by periods of expansion and progress, each of which has been followed by a crisis and a "Dark Age." There have been three of these Dark Ages so far, each one fundamentally precipitated by climatic shifts that caused drought, famine, disease, population collapse, environmentally instigated migrations [End Page 523] and invasions, and then finally a resulting political and economic collapse. The human contribution to historical crises lies mostly in intensifying and straining a straightforward exploitative relationship between society and nature sufficiently that a vulnerability to natural events is created. During the Dark Ages that always ensue after these crises, and which are taken to be in fact quite dark times for humans, nature is finally relieved of the unrelenting exploitation of humans and is able to heal.
An account of how a society reaches a sort of tipping point where meteorological conditions become determinative might be historically sophisticated. In this instance, however, Chew's avowed goal is to write a dehistoricized history; he points out that he aims to move away from a historical focus on contingency to a generalized theory of world-system evolution. Accordingly, his pages describe the trajectory across time of giant social organisms, which adjust, equlibrate, function, produce, reproduce, fail, and in general act as undifferentiated units. Few actual people are anywhere to be seen within this seemingly singular and self-motivating and self-propelled structure. Not only individuals are absent (as they are in much of social history), but also missing are people as groups: classes, genders, races, peasants, workers, merchants, soldiers, servants—these are nowhere to be seen. Instead, societies move in an inevitable evolutionary fashion, expanding, complexifying, and progressing in response to universal laws of development rather than as a result of any human action that might have been done differently.
Authors writing about the past from a discipline other than history often take on broad themes and general sweeps that historians won't tackle; tightly circumscribed research ventures seem to define even world history these days. This boldness can produce insights and theories that historians admire or even envy; think James Blaut (geographer), Eric Wolf (anthropologist), Orlando Patterson (sociologist), or John Hobson (political scientist). But unlike these authors, who bring outside perspectives and yet engage with historical literature and paradigms, Chew falls victim to a historical näiveté that renders his work unconvincing, and perhaps even irrelevant to a historian.
For instance, in addition to an obliviousness to history as a creation of humans, Chew fails to examine the concept of a Dark Age, which he merely juxtaposes quite simplistically to progress, modernity, civilization, science, and so on (each of these being unexamined concepts as well). He takes for granted the "naturalness" of what many environmental historians would point out are humanly created "natural disasters." He never questions the causality of technological determinism...