“What led humans to the brink of a catastrophic climate crisis? A persistent drive for advancement and the energy to sustain it.”

Despite the extreme weather conditions of record-breaking temperatures, heavy rains, dry spells, and raging wildfires, officials are coming together for another meeting of the United Nations to discuss ways to reduce the long-standing issue of humans emitting increasing amounts of greenhouse gases into the air.

For centuries, humans have altered their surroundings to suit their needs: They have drained bodies of water to safeguard buildings, wealth, and populations. They have extracted massive amounts of coal, followed by oil and gas, to power their empires and economies. The temptation to exploit nature and rely on fossil fuels for economic growth has spread from country to country, each eager to secure their own energy sources.

According to historians, individuals who believed they had the ability to manipulate nature and its energy sources viewed the environment as a means for advancement. This mindset has spanned centuries and has ultimately altered the Earth’s climate, leading humanity to the edge of disaster.

Mexico City traces its roots to a settlement centuries ago on islands in the midst of Lake Texcoco. These days, most of the lake is gone, drained long ago to make room for the building and growth that today has more than 22 million people sprawling toward the edges of the Valley of Mexico.

Obtaining water in the dry valley, which has become increasingly challenging due to severe droughts, depends on extracting it from deep underground. The effects of centuries of this pumping can be observed in deteriorating curbs and tilting structures caused by subsidence, with some regions sinking at a rate of 30 centimeters (11.8 inches) per year. Additionally, due to climate change and the resulting heavy rainfall, there is a heightened risk of severe flooding in these neighborhoods, as the subsidence has made drainage systems less efficient.

Luis Zambrano, an ecology professor at the National University Autónoma of Mexico, stated that nature is not responsible for these major issues. He believes that we are exacerbating the problem by continuously extracting water from the aquifer, causing the city to sink and making ourselves more vulnerable.

Mexico City is just one example of people and empires altering their natural environments in ways they believe will benefit themselves and the land. Elsewhere, huge swathes of land have been deforested for agriculture or livestock grazing, or degraded and contaminated by quarrying and mining for metals and minerals. Tapping nature for its resources drove progress and productivity for some, but it’s also been a major driver of emissions and environmental degradation.

Anya Zilberstein, a climate science historian at Concordia University in Montreal, pointed to the colonization of the Americas by Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries as a precursor to current climate and environmental issues.

Zilberstein stated that their arrival brings the belief that conquering and cultivating landscapes, such as clearing trees and adopting European farming practices, will also alter the climate for the better.

The Aztecs constructed Tenochtitlán, now known as Mexico City, on islands and man-made fields called chinampas in the middle of a lake. After being conquered by Spain, the city was considered the most stunning gem in the Spanish empire, featuring lavish palaces and bustling commercial areas, according to Vera S. Candiani, a Latin American historian at Princeton.

In the 1500s, severe flooding prompted the Spanish to undertake drainage initiatives in order to maintain the city’s stability and economic success. These efforts lasted for 300 years, according to Candiani.

However, not all individuals received the same level of benefits.

According to Candiani, wealthy individuals who owned capital in colonial Mexico enlisted the help of skilled professionals to create a system that exploited resources and labor from rural areas for the benefit of the city and the home country. Unfortunately, despite their significant contributions through forced labor, rural populations did not reap any benefits from this project.

According to Jan Golinski, a history professor at the University of New Hampshire, people in Europe during that era believed that altering their environment by deforestation, draining swamps, and farming would also have a favorable impact on the climate, making it more similar to their native countries. He explained that they viewed these actions as beneficial engineering.

According to Golinski, they had confidence in their society’s advancement, with increased mastery over nature and a growing sense of civilization and improvement in their surroundings.

According to multiple historians, this belief stems from a sense of racial and cultural superiority.

Deborah Coen, a historian of science at Yale, stated that we are currently witnessing echoes of these themes. She also mentioned that populations of color are more susceptible to climate extremes, while white elites are prioritizing their own climate adaptation projects that harm communities of color. This can be seen in cases like residents in Maui being displaced due to increased prices in areas deemed safer after recent wildfires.

According to Zilberstein, the concepts of race during the early modern era continue to have a strong influence today and have also reinforced the belief that controlling the environment and promoting productivity and growth are beneficial, creating challenges in addressing the current climate crisis.

Many individuals acknowledge the existence of climate change and are willing to participate in a march, but they cannot support the idea of de-growth, according to her. She also understands why businesses and nations are hesitant to commit to it, as it conflicts with the widely held belief in progress.

Although Mexico City was constructed on top of water, Britain was situated on large reserves of coal that later contributed to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

For a long time, coal was the main fuel source for heating and cooking in homes on the island. Although other sources such as timber, water, and peat were also utilized, the popularity of coal rose significantly in the late 18th and early 19th centuries due to advancements in technology such as steam power, the creation of new transportation methods like canals and railroads, and a growing need for regulating energy consumption.

According to Andreas Malm, an associate professor at Lund University in Sweden, the introduction of steam-powered engines using coal revolutionized the economy. This allowed factory owners to exercise greater control over both labor and natural resources compared to an economy reliant on water power.

According to Malm, steam engines were portable and could be set up in any location, providing the advantage of being able to centralize steam factories in towns with affordable and organized labor. This also meant that steam power was not as susceptible to natural disasters such as droughts, floods, and storms, and could be used at any time of day regardless of external weather conditions.

Coal became the primary source of energy for British manufacturing and transportation.

According to Malm, Britain imposed this model and incorporated other nations like India, Egypt, and what later became Nigeria into an economy that relied heavily on fossil fuels.

During the 1800s, the use of steam power became widespread in industries such as manufacturing, cotton mills, steamships, and locomotives, leading to a global demand for coal.

Barak, a historian at Tel Aviv University and co-founder of the Laboratory for the History of Climate Change, compared the use of steam engines and coal to the British empire providing other states with coffee machines and capsules. This created a cycle where nations were constantly dependent on purchasing new capsules, or coal, to fuel their coffee machines, or steam engines, perpetuating their addiction.

“He stated that this initiated the exploration for fossil fuels in different regions of the Ottoman Empire, the Indian subcontinent, and other areas. Although it resulted in some findings, other empires and countries continued to rely on the more abundant British coal for energy.”

After many years, the United Kingdom has significantly reduced its reliance on coal, with extended periods of time where the national grid does not use coal for power. The U.K. has a goal to completely phase out coal usage for electricity production by the end of next year, although it is still utilized in industries such as steel-making. In fact, a new coal mine was recently approved in Cumbria with a projected start date of 2022.

However, the nation’s shift away from coal did not occur until after its reign had spread its dirty mark across the globe. Its impact can still be observed domestically, as the former thriving coal mining and port communities in northern England, Wales, and Scotland now struggle, with deserted mines and piles of refuse tarnishing the scenery.

In the past, conditions were established that led to climate change caused by human actions. However, in recent generations, this phenomenon has become a concrete reality. According to the Global Carbon Project, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by humans has significantly increased from around 9 billion tons in 1960 to over four times that amount in 2021.

The consumption of energy significantly increased due to the availability of cheaper cars, air travel, and technology in various North American and European nations. Meanwhile, countries like China, Japan, and India were developing their own energy systems that relied on fossil fuels. All of this occurred amidst a growing awareness and worry about emissions of heat-trapping gases.

According to historians, the use of oil increased in the late 19th century because it required less labor compared to coal. This was due to the rise of strong labor unions among coal workers in certain Western countries.

Oil, like coal, can be easily stored. It contains more energy than coal and has the advantage of being easier to transport. According to J.R. McNeill, a historian from Georgetown University, it can be transported through pipes as a liquid or by trucks, tankers, and railcars.

The rise of automobiles in the 1920s led the U.S. to build its energy system and much of its technology around internal combustion engines that still dominate cars, ships and planes. And as Europe and Japan followed suit, it made the global investment in an oil-dominated fossil fuel regime “gigantic and harder, but not impossible, to reverse or replace,” McNeill said.

On the other hand, coal maintained its position in the worldwide economy.

According to Harvard science historian Victor Seow, consumption growth in China and Japan served as a measure of economic progress in the early 20th century.

Following the Communist Revolution of 1949, the Chinese government gauged progress based on its output of various goods such as fabric, power, grain, iron, steel, and coal. Similarly, Japan examined Western mining techniques in order to cultivate its own coal reserves within its domestic territories and colonies.

China currently holds the title of being the top emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, but historically the United States has surpassed it.

According to Elizabeth Chatterjee, a historian at the University of Chicago, even in India, which was under British rule until 1947, coal played a significant role in driving the country’s progress and aiding state governments in garnering public approval.

In the early 21st century, India established government-run coal-powered facilities and initiated the process of providing electricity to its urban areas and larger agricultural lands. However, it took longer for electricity to reach many rural regions. Despite using coal, which poses environmental hazards, India was aware of the risks and still proceeded with electrification, according to the speaker.

According to Chatterjee, as early as 1981, Indira Gandhi acknowledged climate change as a threat and continued to use coal as a source of energy despite this. Chatterjee also notes that for a country with limited resources, there may not be many alternatives.

According to Joshua Howe, an environmental historian at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, the 1960s and ’70s marked the beginning of increased attention towards environmental concerns in the United States. The first Earth Day in 1970 served as a significant event in this movement. Howe also pointed to the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Endangered Species Act as significant legislative actions in response to the growing environmental awareness.

However, addressing the use of fossil fuels, which Howe described as the “core of the world’s economy,” proved to be more challenging.

Coen from Yale discussed the apprehension in America surrounding conversations about adjusting to extreme weather patterns triggered by climate change that were already inevitable in the late 20th century. According to her, addressing adaptation was viewed as a potential hindrance to the determination to reduce emissions.

Additionally, Howe observed a reluctance to participate in global climate agreements, such as the unanimous decision by the U.S. Senate in 1997 to not sign any treaties that would require reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

In my perspective, the vote marked a significant decline in hope for a nationwide effort towards addressing climate change, particularly through global agreements,” Howe expressed.

However, numerous historians concur that in the midst of growing worries about the climate and environment, significant departures from long-held notions of progress have the potential to create a brighter tomorrow.

According to Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, a history professor at the University of Chicago, if people reconsider the necessity of constant growth, communities can function within the confines of limited resources and environmental boundaries.

Jonsson explained that there are two types of limits that govern this economy. The first is the maximum limit set by the Earth’s resources and capacity, while the second is the minimum limit necessary to ensure basic social needs such as education, access to clean water, and a stable income.


Private foundations provide support for the Associated Press’s reporting on climate and environmental issues. Learn more about the AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all of its content.

Source: wral.com