May 20, 2019

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Faced With Drought, the Pharaohs Tried (and Failed) to Adapt

Faced With Drought, the Pharaohs Tried (and Failed) to Adapt
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“This collapse of the Late Bronze Age is not just a matter of ancient history that has no relevance to us,” said Eric H. Cline, a professor of classics and anthropology at George Washington University, who worked at the Megiddo site for two decades but was not involved in this latest study. Just as drought was among the “stressors” leading to famine and war during the Bronze Age, Dr. Cline said, today’s droughts could amplify existing problems.

“It’s a perfect storm: You’ve got not just drought and famine but there’s also earthquakes, there’s also invaders, and that’s what causes collapse,” he said, referring to a confluence of events which some think led to the end of the Bronze Age, which included powerful earthquakes in the region, and the invasion of the Levant by a group known as the Sea Peoples. The ancient world, like our own, was interdependent and suffered a “domino” fall, Dr. Cline added.

Gavin A. Schmidt, the director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA, said that in some ways, modern civilization had not advanced much in its coping mechanisms for climate crises. “If the sea is rising, you either get out of the way, or you get flooded; if there’s a drought, you either plant more drought-resistant crops, or you die,” he said. But, he added, modern humans possess much better predictive power and are therefore “the first generation who is able to take mitigation seriously.”

Yet many countries are still behind on goals set as part of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. “This is the tragedy,” said John F. Haldon, a historian at Princeton University who studies how ancient civilizations coped with climatic upheaval. “Everyone’s aware of the problem but there’s a massive stasis in the system.”

If a civilization’s leadership “has feet of clay and isn’t willing to take the challenge on in an innovative way,” Dr. Haldon said, “then often the challenge will overcome them.”

Present-day humanity may have the resources and tools to deal with climate change, Dr. Haldon said, but action is often stifled by those who have a vested interest in denying the reality of human-caused climate change. “We seem to have the idea that people in ancient times or people in the past generally weren’t quite as clever as we are, but Homo sapiens is Homo sapiens,” he said.

“If it’s something that we are creating — and we see what happened the last time — I think we’d be foolish not to take steps to stop it,” Dr. Cline said. “The problem is when we have deniers,” he added. “Then we’re no better off than the Hittites.”

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