Economic crises, land use vulnerabilities, climate variability, food security and population declines: will history repeat itself or will our society adapt to climate change?

Produced as part of the Adaptation to climate change and human development CCCEP research programme theme

Abstract of Working Paper 1

Although many of today’s ecological, climatic and socio-economic problems seem unprecedented, similar events have occurred in the past.

Western Europe’s ‘middle ages’ (circa 11 to 14th century) may be one such case.

By the 12th century, medieval Europe had shifted from the subsistence agrarian economy that emerged following the collapse of the Roman Empire to one where spatially dispersed trade in agricultural commodities helped support a complex society that devoted considerable resources to cultural works. This shift was facilitated by new institutional arrangements centred on monastic orders that provided access to both new agricultural and food processing technologies, as well as trade routes. This contributed to population growth and land clearing.

All of these factors increased the wealth of society but also concentrated wealth in a small number of communities that were dependent on an ever-increasing and exploited hinterland for resources. Ultimately, this created a tightly coupled continent-wide subsistence system that was vulnerable to the weather, economic and disease shocks of the 14th century when Europe’s population declined by perhaps 50 per cent.

In exploring this history, the goal of our paper is to draw on a diverse theoretical body of literature (that includes resiliency theory, landscape ecology, political science and ecological economics) to develop a series of hypotheses about how large-scale complex civilisations can become vulnerable to climate change, and apply these lessons to the present day.