HIU34512 Global Crises: Environmental Disasters in World History
Module Organiser: Francis Ludlow
Duration: Michaelmas Term
Contact hours: 2 hours per week
Weighting: 10 ECTS
Assessment: 60% examination, 40% essay
This module will survey world history from the ancient era to the 21st Century to examine environmental crises and natural disasters. Our goal will be to understand how societies have been impacted by these events, and to understand the range and effectiveness of the strategies they adopted to cope with these impacts. To this end, we will study events including: the outbreak of a smallpox epidemic in 5th Century BCE Athens, revolt and environmentally destructive warfare in Ancient Egypt and the Near East, mass human and animal mortality associated with extreme weather in medieval Ireland, the Great European Famine of 1314-1315 and subsequent Black Death in Europe, the "collapse" of medieval Chinese dynasties following major climate-altering volcanic eruptions, instances in which harvest failures transitioned into famines in Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868), the responses of Native North Americans and Central American Mayan civilizations to demographic, environmental and military pressures in the first and second millennia CE, the experiences of European settlers in the new environment of North America (New England) during the 16th and 17th centuries, the contributions and consequences of the "forgotten" European subsistence crisis of 1740/1741, the 1930s US dustbowl, the 1986 Chernobyl and 2011 Fukushima nuclear disasters, and the 20th and 21st century shrinking of the Aral Sea (Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) and Lake Poopó (Bolivia). Key challenges such as avoiding overly simplistic (environmentally deterministic) interpretations of these events will be discussed, and we will identify both the unique and common features of each event, examining how societies often played their own part in creating apparently "natural" disasters, whether deliberately or inadvertently. Such understandings are critical at a time when human impacts on the environment (such as pollution, degradation of natural resources and human-driven global climate change) are becoming increasingly evident and projected to worsen in coming decades.