Secrets of Societal Resilience in Environmental Shocks

Amidst the challenging macroeconomic landscape in many countries and growing concerns about public debt sustainability, the progress in financing climate action in Asia and the Pacific continues to lag. This issue becomes increasingly critical as global emissions and energy demands rise. A new report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) sheds light on the pressing matter of sustainable finance in the region. It addresses the challenges and opportunities for policymakers, regulators, and private finance in bridging the financing gap.

In today’s world, we find ourselves in the midst of a global crisis convergence, where a multitude of threats intersect and challenge our collective resilience. From the pressing issues of climate change ( environmental shocks) and economic inequality to the divisive specter of political polarization, these challenges seem insurmountable. However, history shows that societies have faced and sometimes overcome such threats before. Today, we have a unique advantage: knowledge. This knowledge is not just a rehash of past events but is obtained through new methods and data.

Researchers Peter Turchin and Daniel Hoyer, in collaboration with colleagues from various fields, have pioneered innovative approaches to draw lessons from history. They’ve curated the Crisis Database (CrisisDB) as part of the Global History Databank Seshat, a treasure trove of over 150 past crises spanning different time periods and regions.


When natural disasters like earthquakes, droughts, or floods struck, some societies crumbled into social unrest, civil violence, or complete collapse. In contrast, others displayed resilience, maintaining crucial social functions or even achieving positive change through systemic reforms. The question that looms large is, “What makes the difference? What drives collapse versus positive change?”

To illustrate these divergent dynamics, let’s examine three examples. In ancient southern Mexico, Monte Albán, a significant settlement, faced extreme drought in the 9th century. Instead of collapsing, residents resettled in nearby communities, resulting in an ideological and socio-economic reorientation.

On the other hand, the wealthy Qing Dynasty in China weathered ecological challenges for centuries but succumbed to social pressures in the 19th century, leading to the devastating Taiping Rebellion and eventual collapse in 1912.

In between these extremes, the Ottoman Empire navigated recurrent droughts and the Little Ice Age during the 16th century. They faced social unrest and rebellions but managed to maintain their key structures and avoid collapse.


The researchers emphasize the importance of studying responses across multiple societies affected by similar climate challenges. Environmental forces undoubtedly play a crucial role, but they interact with cultural, political, and economic dynamics. Only by comprehending these interactions can we truly understand the outcomes.

One significant finding is that slowly evolving structural forces, such as escalating social inequality, can erode social resilience. As we face increasing ecological shocks, economic disruptions, inequality, and conflicts, the focus should be on reducing these structural pressures to build societal cohesion and resilience.

In this era of crisis convergence, understanding the dynamics of past societies can illuminate a path forward. It’s not just about surviving environmental shocks; it’s about thriving in the face of adversity.


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