739: John Brooke, part 1: Deep history and how our culture formed

December 23, 2023 by Joshua
in Podcast

Greenhouse gas and ocean plastic levels don’t rise on their own. The cause of our environmental problems is our behavior, which results from our culture. The world’s dominant culture pollutes, depletes, addicts, and imperially takes over other cultures. Yet each person wants clean air, land, water, and food.

How did humans create a culture that manifests the opposite of many of their values? Why do most people defend that culture, resist changing it, and promote it, even when faced with evidence that it’s sickening them, isolating them, killing them, and risking killing billions more within our lifetimes? If we can’t answer these questions, we’ll have a hard time changing our culture and therefore the disasters we’re sleepwalking into.

I’ve been trying to answer them. Learning about our ancestral past for 250,000 years before agriculture, why and how agriculture started, and what changes agriculture prompted tells us. John Brooke’s book, Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey, starts to answer these questions. It’s a book of deep history and environmental history—that is, going back hundreds of thousands and even millions of years, treating how environmental changes influenced human behavior.

John and I talk about the field of deep history, how we learn the incredible detailed and fascinating histories of how environments changed and people reacted over many time scales. I would find the scholarship fascinating on its own, and all the more because it’s relevant to our environmental situation today. Changes that started twelve thousand years ago started patterns that persist today. In fact, some of them are the dominant factors in how we interact with the environment, in particular how dominance hierarchies formed, what patterns they set into our culture, and how they persist.

I hadn’t heard of this field before his book. If you hadn’t either, you’ll love it.

(He also studies American history including slavery and abolitionism, another relevant part of history. We’ll cover them in our next conversation.)

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