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Saving civilization: a review of Smith’s Climate Change and Cultural Heritage

Book Review: Smith, Peter F. Climate Change and Cultural Heritage: A Race Against Time. London and New York: Routledge/ Earthscan, 2014. Print.

If we wish to save all that has been built up over the centuries, we’d better do something serious.

The book I’m reviewing today has a lot of science in it, but largely it’s a polemic about climate change, and a rather creative polemic at that. Peter F. Smith, listed here as an emeritus professor of architecture in England, thinks great things of our civilization (and indeed of past civilizations), but is still trying to wrap his head around the matter of why civilization hasn’t yet done what is necessary to deal with the problem of impending runaway climate change. So his book, Climate Change and Cultural Heritage, is part encomium of praise for human civilization, and part discussion of climate change, as a problem necessitating a solution. (The Amazon page lists this book at rather high prices; maybe you can get your local college library to purchase a copy. There’s a place where you can download this book online, but I’ve never succeeded in doing so.)

The fundamental idea behind “Climate Change and Cultural Heritage” is given at the end of the first chapter, as follows:

In today’s world ‘civilization’ is a multi-faceted phenomenon thanks to the success of one species. However, it is the scale of that success which now threatens the existence of civilization. There are those who consider that the year 2011 may prove to have been a tipping-point when global warming entered into a runaway mode. When it comes down to the ‘tooth and claw’ of survival, one of the casualties would most likely be the thousands of years of accumulated cultural heritage. (14)

So from there it’s easy to see Smith’s polemic aim in this book. At the beginning he tells an optimistic history of the universe, planet Earth, biological life, and human civilization using a narrative arc borrowed from Condorcet’s “Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind.” There are a couple of chapters in this book on the glories of civilization that draw upon history, upon the beauty of mathematics, and upon Smith’s background as an environmentally-conscious architect. Generally, though, he asks us in about three-quarters of this book if we don’t want to see it all crashing down in flames because we can’t get human-caused climate change under control.

Of course, the more critically-minded among Smith’s reading audience are going to ask why Smith trusts this particular civilization to do anything about climate change, or (more specifically) why Smith says stuff like “Only an international alliance between national governments and transnational corporations to first stabilise and then seriously cut greenhouse gas emissions will do it.” (5) Question: why should we trust transnational corporations to care about greenhouse gas emissions outside of any disingenuous public relations initiatives they may offer? Civilization may indeed save itself — but we don’t really have a compelling reason to believe that this particular civilization will save itself, so we might get to work trying to create another civilization that would succeed where our current one is about to fail.

There’s an emotional appeal in “Climate Change and Cultural Heritage” of course — if we wish to save all that has been built up over the centuries, we’d better do something serious. But the “celebration of civilization” narrative with which Smith begins has awkward spots: so for instance, in the narrative of “the evolution of civilization”:

Another anxiety can be added to the list that is even more threatening than the hordes of Huns that extinguished the flame of Roman civilisation: the relentless march of global warming and climate change. Its predicted impacts will depend on how quickly the world manages to halt the accumulation of greenhouse gases, most notably carbon dioxide. (15)

Well OK — we might alternately argue that just as climate change is evidence of our own civilization doing itself in, we can also say that in large part Roman civilization was responsible for its own self-destruction — when the time came for unity against the invaders, the Romans insisted on fighting civil wars instead, and in the end Rome was sacked and the empire dismantled because the Romans themselves could not settle things amicably with the Germanic tribes entering their living-space.

At any rate, Smith wants to identify civilization with “empathy, and the perception of beauty” — and that “the idea of civilization is the principle of harmony” — a Nietzschean he isn’t. At any rate, after the brief summary of time and existence so far, Smith abruptly shifts emphasis to a discussion of climate change: “there is no longer any doubt that we are beginning to pay the price for burning half a trillion tonnes of fossil fuels that enabled the developed world to power its way to prosperity,” we are told on page 25. The price, as we are told later in the book, includes the possibility that climate change might become runaway climate change, extinguishing the human species and for the most part life on Earth.

There are of course reasons for optimism about the human condition listed in this book. “Historically, the rate of technological breakthrough has been exponential rather than linear. If (the past) exponential rate of technological progress is sustained, this will raise hope that technical solutions will be found for energy supply, demand reduction and CO2 sequestration.” (97)

Of course, after a rundown of the various options, Smith douses cold water on all that: “The inescapable reality is that renewable technologies, as they stand, will merely scratch the surface of world energy demand as population increases.” (125) Here we must be careful readers, however, for “population” is typically used as a way of making capitalism seem natural. “Population” is a way of counting heads. In reality, half the world lives on less than $2.50/day, and the figure that matters is that of the relative few who can afford high-energy lifestyles. This group is where most of the “energy footprint” calculation is going to be made, and the total number isn’t going to change a lot merely because economic hard times have descended upon the worst-off of us, as Smith reports: “despite the worst economic recession for 80 years, that year (2010) saw the highest carbon output in history.” (133) As for carbon sequestration to deal with excess atmospheric CO2, Smith argues: “so far, nothing competes with the idea of global-scale re-forestation.” (134)

There is, of course, a chapter on the merits and drawbacks of nuclear power. Smith argues that nuclear power plants will have a tougher time staying cooled in conditions of global warming, but that there are advantages to thorium-using breeder reactors (which have been, curiously, so rarely exploited). There is a chapter on “essential services provided by nature,” in which Smith suggests that abrupt climate change will be accompanied by dramatic crop failures and geographically-based water shortages.

There is an excursus on China, and Smith concludes his book with a discussion of “the four degrees scenario,” which he thinks is likely with current trends in carbon combustion. At numerous points in the analysis Smith points to weasel-worded conclusions, voiced by numerous analysts, to the effect that there will be some sort of massive human dieoff due to global warming related disasters:

Another section of the same issue (17 November 2012) of New Scientist, discussing the health implications of worst-case temperature rise, states: ‘It looks like if we fully develop all the world’s coal, tar sands, shale and other fossil fuels we run a high risk of ending up in a few generations with a largely unlivable planet.’ (170)

The solution, then, as Smith recognizes (and as climate talks increasingly fail to accomplish anything serious), is to keep the grease in the ground.


Of the sciences that deal with the laws of social life, the first to work out exact formulae of the conditions of progress was political economy. -N. G. Chernyshevsky (1828-1889), Russian philosopher

One the one hand, I appreciate the revelations of impending disaster, and the competence with which Smith arranges them. There will, without doubt, be an attempt to deal with climate change by planting vast forests of genetically modified trees, as Smith suggests. And “alternative energy” will allow us to feel that we have done something, in the absence of a serious attempt to restrain the fossil fuel dealers as of yet.

Meanwhile, however, the attempt to recognize a social dynamic to our heedless restructuring of Earth’s atmosphere and climates slogs on, with Smith’s work another part-way contribution. Telling us, as Smith does, that “underpinning the idea of civilization is the principle of harmony” (16) may grant readers a greater appreciation of the importance of civilization, as well as of its dynamism, its fragility, and its limitations. It will motivate us to “safeguard the achievements of civilisation” (89). But such an appreciation cannot substitute for an understanding of how civilizations “do themselves in” not merely because of external circumstances or because they are based upon the wrong energy sources, but rather because the social order of any particular civilization is based on a misapprehension of the cultivation and value of human versatility. Instead of cultivating this versatility to its maximum extent, human societies have generally catered to tradition-based struggles for power, as students of political economy well know. Power will mean nothing when the planet is dead.

In the beginning were city-states and empires, which culminated in China, Persia, and a number of other kingdoms, but especially Rome. Throughout its long history, ancient Rome was based upon conquest, domestication, and status, and thus the Roman Empire eventually shrunk to a small portion of what it was, and destroyed itself through its own struggles for power, while competing groups of Germanic culture discovered that the only way they could achieve any sort of status for themselves was to dismantle the Roman Empire itself.

Later, feudal civilization made the multitude into peasants while an elite of nobles and clergy weighed down the productive power of the multitude with their demands. The ultimate flash-point of the feudal structure was the French Revolution, in which the principle of human equality was proclaimed.

After that, capitalist civilization exceeded all previous civilizations in its dynamism and in its harnessing of human versatility — and has come closest so far to breaking through to Smith’s values re: civilization — yet the multitude within its domain became a mass of mere workers/ consumers performing alienated labor and one-dimensional shopping. The creative dynamism of the capitalist system has tended to achieve success to the extent to which it can profit sufficiently off of its laboring/ consumer bases to stay in business.

What remains to be seen is if a better way can be found before it is too late.

(also to be found at

Image by UNDP, used under Creative Commons license

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Ph.D., Communication, The Ohio State University, 1998
M.A., English, Sonoma State University, 1992
B.A., Literature, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1984