Recurring Dark Ages, Ecological Stress and System Transformation

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* Book: The Recurring Dark Ages: Ecological Stress, Climate Changes and System Transformation. By Sing C. Chew. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2006

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"In this modern era of global environmental crisis, Sing Chew provides a convincing analysis of the recurring human and environmental crises identified as Dark Ages. In this his second of a three-volume series concerning world ecological degradation, Chew reviews the past 5,000-year history of structural conditions and processes that define the relationship between nature and culture. He defines these specific conjunctures in world history, Dark Ages, as significant transitional phases, critical to the evolution of the world system. Chew reveals them to be periods of devolution of human communities, of socioeconomic and political decay and retrogression, at the same time as they are periods of the restoration of the landscape.

Chew's message about the coming Dark Ages, as human communities continue to reorganize to meet the contingencies of ecological scarcity and climate changes, is a must-read for those concerned with human interactions and environmental changes, including environmental anthropologists and historians, world historians, geographers, archaeologists, and environmental scientists."



Mats Widgren:

"In this book, which is a follow up of the authorʼs World Ecological Degradation, Sing Chew sets out to add an ecological dimension to previous studies of world systems and more specifically to study the role of ecology in explaining Dark Ages – periods of social, economic and demographic decline. The thesis is that ʻDark Ages occur as a consequence of ecological exhaustion and stress and exhibit losses in wealth, trade disruptions, and simplification of lifestyles and less hierarchization and more egalitarianism of the social structureʼ (p. 160). This argument, of a connection, or even a causative relation between over-utilisation of natural resources and social crisis is not new. New is perhaps the attempt to analyse Dark Ages through time, from the Bronze Age to the fall of the Roman Empire, and to put this in the context of the present global situation. Given the vast and fast growing body of literature on environmental history, based on scientific methods in archaeology, palaeoecology and palaeoclimatology, there is scope today for such a work aimed at a broad synthesis. Chewʼs material for the analysis of the ecological component in world systems history is a rather small selection of secondary literature, together with data from 40 pollen diagrams. These cover an area from Greenland in the northwest to Turkey in the southeast and a number of European countries in between. It is an innovative approach to make use of such a data set in order to illuminate the relations between economic/social expansion and regression, and the use of natural resources. Pollen diagrams do give a comparatively standardised picture of changes in the composition of vegetation. Moreover, for the periods and for most of the areas that Chew focuses on, human influence plays a central role in these changes. That type of data therefore represents an interesting contrast to what can be gathered from scant historical and archaeological sources for the same periods.