College Quarterly
Spring 2008 - Volume 11 Number 2
Reviews Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos
William J. Burroughs
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Yes, I understand that climate change is an important issue. Al Gore told me so. And, although its numbers are small, a persistent group of “global warming deniers” or, at least, “human agency deniers” has captured some of the paranoid space on the right wing of the political spectrum with the allegation that the entire issue is a hoax dreamed up by a loose coalition of socialistic world government promoters who are dedicated to the destruction of modern capitalism as we know it. It does no good to tell these people that modern capitalism seems to be doing a pretty nice job of self-immolation. They will continue to insist that the global warming cabal is trading in junk science, and the global warming cabalists are getting very good at replying in kind.

Having published my own article on the subject over twenty years ago, I confess that I am getting a little weary of the acrimonious argumentation on all sides (there are more than two) of this issue. So, it was without enthusiasm that I opened the front page of William James Burroughs’ recent book. I quickly changed my mind.

Burroughs has produced a commendable work that is unencumbered by political bias and rhetorical flourishes of the sort that have reduced my attentiveness of late. Despite its undeniable relevance to the current debate, it saves its comments about current events until its concluding chapter and contains them in a mercifully slim nineteen pages. The first two hundred and eighty-four, however, are fascinating.

Elegantly presented and laced with displays of dry humour, Burroughs makes a comprehensive analysis of the effects of climate change, not on lower Manhattan or the polar ice caps of the twenty-first century, but on the global climate of the past one hundred thousand years. His focus throughout is how humanity, or parts of it, survived the Ice Age, what lessons are available about how climate created us as we are, and what we may expect in the future as we reflect on the past.

Burroughs is a finely skilled meteorologist whose expertise is deeply rooted in contemporary scientific research, but he is also acutely aware of new methods and new studies that smash disciplinary boundaries. Biological investigations into DNA, historical inquiries into the relationship between “extreme weather” and pandemics from the “Justinian plague” in the sixth century to the “Black Death” in the fourteenth, and recent “proxy data” from ice cores are knit together in a captivating tale that illuminates much of the life of our species in the millennia preceding our invention of the written word and our compulsive desire to jot down notes about our doings ever since.

Some experts such as Alain Gioda have disputed elements of Burroughs’ study. He questions some of the specifics of the book with respect to the demographic collapse that led to the extinction of our closest relatives Homo neanderthalensis, who have been somewhat rehabilitated by research into their communications skills and technological inventiveness. As well, there is some criticism available about Burroughs’ alleged climatic determinism and the accompanying neglect of the influence of culture in human social evolution. That is as may be. Generally, however, Climate Change in Prehistory presents a compelling case for an interpretation of the “descent of man” as being largely tied to the environment, including the climate.

Of overriding importance is the suggestion that, compared to other eras in geological time, we have been remarkably fortunate. The notion of a balance of nature that strives for equilibrium in matters animal, vegetable and mineral is seriously flawed. In fact, our species has benefited enormously from the rather gentle interglacial period that began approximately 10,000 years ago. By setting humanity’s genetic history in the context of “the relatively benign post-ice-age conditions” that have witnessed the emergence of Homo sapiens as the dominant species on Earth, Burroughs goes some considerable distance toward explaining how climate has influenced all aspects of our lives from our language and health to our domestic economies and our political economies, and how climatic chaos in prehistory made our invention of “history” possible.

As for the contemporary debate about climate change, Burroughs offers pithy advice, seen from the perspective of a physical scientist with connections to the social sciences of archaeology and anthropology. He sternly refutes the eminently modern notion that technological quick-fixes to larger ecological challenges are available. Extreme weather, if it returns, is essentially chaotic and therefore unpredictable and, by implication, unfixable.

So, while awaiting the verification of the global-warming hypothesis, Burroughs leaves us with the disconcerting prospect of the hazard of a supervolcano. Such natural phenomena seem to occur every 50,000 years. “The most widely publicized candidate for such an eruption within the foreseeable future,” he says, “is Yellowstone, in the northwestern United States. This supervolcano appears to erupt roughly 600 kyr (600 thousand years). It last blew its top around 600 kyr and in recent years has showed increased subterranean activity.” So, what is to be done? Well, purchasing a Prius or adequately funding public transportation are certainly tactics that might help; but, in the event that Yellowstone erupts and devastates global agriculture, we will still have to “pick up the pieces and start again.”

Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2008 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology