The astrology of climate change
We've been here before... sort of
With destructive Pluto in airy Aquarius, we can expect the discourse on climate change to take on ever-more apocalyptic tones. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just released another sobering report on the subject, one that’s unlikely to allay the fears of the anxious. I won’t get into the details—the BBC has a summary here.
What I want to argue in this piece is that in a certain sense we’ve been here before. Climate change appears to be one of the challenges civilisations are forced to contend with during Ages of Air, periods when the conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn shift to air signs for periods of some 200 years. Among the others: the dissolution of rigid structures and hierarchies; the flow and fusion of ideas and information; transformative plagues; outstanding intellectual developments; mass migration and population movements.
An Age of Air need not entail all of these trends for a given civilisation, but they’re among the options from which the gods choose. For more on what I mean by an Age of Air, read my explainer or watch my video:
Interestingly, it’s easy to draw causal links between climate change, mass migration, disease and structural dissolution. Today, we fret that climate change will render parts of the world uninhabitable and engender forced migration on an enormous scale: a tragedy for those forced to move, and an enormous challenge for the societies that will need to absorb them.
As this Wired article, entitled Mass Climate Migration Is Coming, puts it:
Models show that for every degree of temperature rise, a billion people will be displaced. Over the coming decade, hundreds of millions of people will have to move—you will either be among them or receiving them.
Researchers also believe climate change is exacerbating the spread of disease, as this article explains:
In Southeast Asia, cases of dengue fever have soared as longer rainy seasons and more frequent and severe floods allow mosquitoes to thrive. Warming temperatures in North America are expanding the range of ticks that carry Lyme disease. They’re also providing better conditions for bats and other suspected hosts of Ebola in Central Africa. And in South America, there are concerns that increased variability in rainfall could drive more cases of rodent-borne hantavirus diseases.
Yet while the scale of the problem we face today may be new, its archetypal character is not. In this piece we’ll survey four previous Ages of Air. We’ll see how climate change may have been implicated in historically significant episodes of plague, structural dissolution and mass migration.
We’ll also see how nomadic peoples—the Sea Peoples, the Huns, the Mongols—play important roles during these periods. Nomadic peoples, it could be said, are inherently airy. In Ages of Air, changes to the climate may have driven them into conflict with settled peoples.
Let’s dive into the history.
Age of Air 1238-960 BCE
The Late Bronze Age Collapse
Around 1200BCE, soon after the beginning of an Age of Air, civilisations all across the Eastern Mediterranean region, including the Mycenaean Greeks, the Hittites and the Egyptians, collapsed around the same time, an event known as the Late Bronze Age Collapse. This sudden, violent event is attested by various kinds of evidence: abandoned settlements and ruined cities; destruction layers such as burned buildings and walls; written sources; and evidence of large patterns of migration.
The collapse of the major civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean region during this time led to a period of decentralization and fragmentation, as smaller states and kingdoms emerged to replace the earlier empires.
So far, so airy. But why did this happen? ChatGPT:
There is no clear consensus on the causes of the Bronze Age Collapse, but it is likely that a combination of factors played a role. These may have included natural disasters such as earthquakes, droughts, and famines, as well as invasions by groups such as the Sea Peoples, a confederation of seafaring raiders who are thought to have originated from the Aegean or eastern Mediterranean.
The Sea Peoples’ invasions have long been cited as a major cause of the collapse. They’re mentioned in textual and archeological evidence. And here, climate change rears its head. Some researchers believe a 300-year-long drought may have pushed the raiders to invade. Analysis of lake sediment in Cyprus suggests that around 1200BCE agriculture in the region came to a halt, only starting up again in 850 BCE. “This climate shift caused crop failures, dearth and famine, which precipitated or hastened socioeconomic crises and forced regional human migrations,” the researchers wrote.
Age of Air 463-165BCE
The Plague of Athens and the Iron Age Cold Epoch
This period covers much of Athens’s Golden Age and the era of intellectual giants like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It was a long Age of Air, with 60-year transitional periods at both the beginning and end. Within the first of those transitional periods, in 430BCE, during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, Athens was struck by plague. The still-unidentified epidemic was described graphically by the historian Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War. It is believed to have killed some 75,000-100,000 inhabitants of the city.
Sparta would emerge triumphant in the conflict. Yet soon enough, Aristotle’s own student, Alexander the Great, would emerge from Macedonia to conquer the weakened Greek city states. His own multi-ethnic empire became a driver of intellectual development. Indeed, it was in cultural melting pots like Alexandria in Egypt that Babylonian, Egyptian and Greek wisdom were fused to create Hellenistic astrology.
Evidence of climate change during this period isn’t well attested. That said, we do find this intriguing reference in the Wikipedia entry for the Iron Age Cold Epoch:
The Iron Age Cold Epoch (also referred to as Iron Age climate pessimum or Iron Age neoglaciation) was a period of unusually cold climate in the North Atlantic region, lasting from about 900 BC to about 300 BC, with an especially cold wave in 450 BC during the expansion of ancient Greece.
The cold wave mentioned in 450BCE would have happened in the 20-year period following the first conjunction in an Air sign of that Age of Air. It’s curious to note that the plague of Athens emerged fairly soon afterwards.
Age of Air 332-690
The Fall of Rome, the Huns and the Late Antique Ice Age
Dozens of factors have been given by historians to explain Rome’s famous collapse. But modern scholarship is converging on two as key: climate change and disease. The theory is laid out most prominently by the historian Kyle Harper in his book The Fate of Rome, subtitled Climate, Disease & the End of an Empire.
Harper notes that the Roman Empire flourished during a period of unusually warm weather between around 250BCE and 400CE. When that period ended in this Age of Air, the new climate brought reduced agricultural productivity, crop failures and food shortages that destabilised the empire.
In "The Fate of Rome," historian Kyle Harper argues that climate change, disease, and demographic collapse played a major role in the fall of the Roman Empire. He contends that the empire was more interconnected than previously thought, and that environmental factors such as drought and disease epidemics weakened the empire's social and economic structure, making it vulnerable to barbarian invasions.
In the late 4th century and 5th century Rome came under sustained attack from Germanic speaking tribes. As this article explains:
In 376 CE, the great European power of the time, the Roman Empire, suddenly faced incursions from various so-called barbarians peoples such as the Sarmatians, descendants of the Scythians; the Thervingi, a Gothic Germanic people; and the Goths. What caused all of these tribes to cross the Danube River into Roman territory? As it happens, they were probably driven westward by new arrivals from Central Asia—the Huns.
The Huns were a nomadic horse-riding people originally from what is now Mongolia. These fierce warriors stirred and began to push westward during this Age of Air. In turn, they pushed the Germanic tribes towards Rome, hastening its collapse. This dynamic is referred to as the “Migration Period” or “Migration Age” and dated by historians to roughly 300 to 700 CE. Note how closely this fits with our long Age of Air.
Eventually, under the leadership of their famous chieftain, Attila, the Huns themselves pushed into Europe. Genghis Khan’s Mongols would do exactly the same thing during the next Age of Air—and Genghis Khan himself claimed descent from the Huns.
But why did the Huns invade Europe? Well, at least one scholar has a theory that will interest us here. According to this article, Edward R. Cook, a climate research specialist at Columbia University, has proposed that they were driven by drought. By examining tree ring patterns going back 2,000 years, “Cook suggests that three megadroughts struck Central Asia between 360 and 550, the first of which was the worst drought in the history of the region in the last 2000 years”.
Cook said: “It’s conceivable that this period of intense aridity spurred the nomadic Huns to seek better living conditions westward of their home territory to as far as the eastern Roman Empire, with invasion and conquest a natural part of this migratory process.”
What’s more: from around 541 to 549CE, the Mediterranean region was hit by a devastating plague, known today as the Plague of Justinian, which is estimated to have killed between 15 and 100 million people. This was the first entrance of bubonic plague to the continent. By this time only the Eastern part of the Roman Empire remained. The plague weakened it severely and dealt a decisive blow to the ambitions of the Emperor Justinian to reconquer Rome. Interestingly, a number of researchers have hypothesised that changes in the climate drove the emergence of this plague.
Age of Air 1186-1425
The Little Ice Age, the Mongols and the Black Death
Between 830 and 1100CE, Europe experienced what has been called the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA), an unusually warm period caused by an increase in solar radiation and a reduction in volcanic activity. As explained here:
The generally warm weather during the MCA allowed farmers to plant crops on land that was otherwise unsuitable for farming. As a result, there was a crop surplus that supported a population explosion that tripled the number of people in Europe at the time.
Sometime between 1100-1300—scholars disagree precisely when—temperatures began to cool, and what became known as the Little Ice Age began. It brought cold weather and torrential rains to Europe, which damaged crops and caused disease in livestock. As with Rome’s decline, the land could no longer support the size of the population that had grown during the warm years. The result was what has been called the Great Famine of 1315-17. Between 5 and 12% of Northern Europe’s population died, and the region was wracked by class warfare and political strife.
But the famine had other, less obvious consequences. To feed the population, grain had to be imported from the Middle East by ships, which carried an unwanted cargo: rats. Around the middle of the 14th century, those vermin carried into Europe the bacterium Yersinia Pestis. And so began the episode we know today as the Black Death, a pandemic of bubonic plague. Between 1346 and 1353, some 75-200 million people died of the disease across Europe and North Africa. The return of bubonic plague is a striking echo with the Plague of Justinian during the previous Age of Air.
Historians commonly cite the Black Death as leading to the demise of feudalism, a socio-economic system in which Europeans were locked into a rigid pyramid-shaped hierarchy, from the king at the top, to the labouring serfs who were bonded to the land on the bottom. The plague killed so many people that it dramatically raised the bargaining power of working people, who were in more demand by landowners and gained more freedom to move around. If we were to try and read some kind of purpose in the plague, we might say that it broke the rigid earthy structure of European society, replacing it with one more fluid and airy. After the plague came the intellectual and artistic flowering of the Renaissance.
During the same Age of Air, at the other end of the Eurasian landmass, nomads were stirring once again. In 1206, in Mongolia, several nomadic horse-riding tribes were united into a confederation by one of their number, a man named Temujin, who adopted the name “Genghis Khan”, meaning “universal ruler”. The Mongols went on to build the largest contiguous land empire the world has ever seen, conquering China, much of the Middle East, and pushing into Eastern Europe before eventually being turned back. The Mongols followed in the footsteps of the people they claimed descent from, the Huns, in the previous Age of Air.
But what drove the invaders to leave their Mongolian pasturelands? Again, many theories have been proposed. Great historical changes are never monocausal, but rather result from the intersection of disparate factors. However, interesting for our purposes is that once again, climate change is one of the suspects in the mix.
As we’ve seen, this period saw the beginning of the Little Ice Age. David Putnam, an anthropology and archeology professor at the University of Maine, argues that the cooler weather drove the Mongols to build their empire:
That cooling period, according to Putnam, lowered the snow line in the mountains of Asia and created a colder and wetter climate. The Mongols were oasis farmers and herders of livestock. Their crop production depended completely on irrigation systems and the change to shorter and colder growing seasons did not bode well for them.
But, the wetter climate produced more grass where livestock could graze, particularly the Mongol’s prized horses, Putnam said. So while farming suffered, the livestock thrived, giving the Mongols a perfect storm for expanding the empire.
Putnam argues, “The bottom line: if they didn’t’ have fuel for horses, they couldn’t go” colonize anywhere else.
There seems to be a pattern afoot.
Age of Air 1980 - 2219
Climate change in an exponential age
We once again find ourselves in an Age of Air. It seems, then, that our destiny is once again to deal with the interlinked factors of climate change, disease and mass migration, among other challenges.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the current climatic situation we’re dealing with is mere “business as usual”. There’s an obvious way in which the current shifts are different to those we’ve weathered before: this time human activity is apparently contributing to them. Our activity during the preceding Age of Earth—an era of scientific progress, relative prosperity, and rampant materialism—has brought us to the place we find ourselves now.
What’s more, the rate of climate change appears higher than our recent ancestors had to contend with. According to the IPCC, the Earth is warmer than it’s been in 125,000 years. In an exponential age, perhaps the magnitude of the problems we’re asked to contend with increases exponentially too. But just as, this time, it’s human activity that has apparently caused climate change, there is a corollary: this time it’s up to us to employ our ingenuity to prevent the most apocalyptic scenarios from playing out.
We might speculate that AI, another airy phenomenon, just might help us find solutions to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and live more sustainably. Or are AIs the new marauding nomads? I hope it’s the former.
Return of the nomads
In another interesting historical echo, peoples of the steppe are once again pushing their way into Europe, although not because of climate change.
In this fascinating review of archaeologist Warwick Ball’s “The Eurasian Steppe”, Aris Roussinos connects the history of the steppe with what we’re seeing in the conflict unfolding in Ukraine. Moscow itself, Roussinos notes, was shaped by the legacy of the Mongols, who once ruled it:
As Ball observes: “The future of Russian greatness was both a response to and a legacy of the Mongols… Indeed, to a large extent Muscovite power was a creation of the Golden Horde: the khans required a stable central authority as a client state which could be relied upon to raise auxiliaries for the khan’s armies and to collect and deliver taxes and tribute. Moscow fitted the bill, so the Golden Horde deliberately strengthened it against the other Russian cities and appointed its prince as their chief tax collector.” Without the Mongol-enforced primacy of Muscovy, the land that is now Russia may well have remained a series of disunited kingdoms and city states, just like medieval Italy or Germany: “The Mongols, in other words, brought about the emergence of Russia.”
Not only that, but Moscow has deployed people of the steppe as fighters in the war in Ukraine: “On the Russian side, the war effort has been marked by the use of steppe peoples as infantry, with many of the heaviest casualties borne — and apparently some of the worst war crimes committed by — the Buryat Mongols of the Russian steppe…”
There is nothing new under the sun.
One last thing
I’ve presented an astrological perspective on climate change and the attendant historical trends. It is a cyclical perspective that connects climate to the 800-year elemental cycle derived from Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions: 200 years each of fire, earth, air and water epochs.
Of course, those sceptical of astrology will scoff at all this. But I would argue it’s far from irrational to think that there are cycles to history and to climate variation, and that the movement of the planets is connected to them.
Anthropogenic climate changes aside, hard scientists have observed cycles related to the earth’s climate, in turn related to sun spots and solar flares, as detailed in this Scientific American article. There are several of these cycles, spanning periods of 11 years, 88 years and 200 years. One of them is the Hallstatt Cycle, which lasts around 2,400 years. 2,400 years, you say? Why, that’s three of our 800-year elemental cycles.
And what causes the Hallstatt cycle? We don’t know—but there are theories. Such as the theory detailed in this paper, entitled: “On the astronomical origin of the Hallstatt oscillation found in radiocarbon and climate records throughout the Holocene”. From the abstract:
Herein we show strong evidences for an astronomical origin of this cycle. Namely, this oscillation is coherent to a repeating pattern in the periodic revolution of the planets around the Sun: the major stable resonance involving the four Jovian planets - Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune - which has a period of about p = 2318 years.