Kropotkin and Climate Change

Written by Mike Davis. Excerpts from Davis’ article The Coming Desert: Kropotkin, Mars and the Pulse of Asia (originally published in New Left Review 97, January-February 2016)

Anthropogenic climate change is usually portrayed as a recent discovery, with a genealogy that extends no further backwards than Charles Keeling sampling atmospheric gases from his station near the summit of Mauna Loa in the 1960s, or, at the very most, Svante Arrhenius’s legendary 1896 paper on carbon emissions and the planetary greenhouse. In fact, the deleterious climatic consequences of economic growth, especially the influence of deforestation and plantation agriculture on atmospheric moisture levels, were widely noted, and often exaggerated, from the Enlightenment until the late nineteenth century. The irony of Victorian science, however, was that while human influence on climate, whether as a result of land clearance or industrial pollution, was widely acknowledged, and sometimes envisioned as an approaching doomsday for the big cities (see John Ruskin’s hallucinatory rant, ‘The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century’), few if any major thinkers discerned a pattern of natural climate variability in ancient or modern history. The Lyellian world-view, canonized by Darwin in The Origin of Species, supplanted biblical catastrophism with a vision of slow geological and environmental evolution through deep time. Despite the discovery of the Ice Age(s) by the Swiss geologist Louis Agassiz in the late 1830s, the contemporary scientific bias was against environmental perturbations, whether periodic or progressive, on historical time-scales. Climate change, like evolution, was measured in eons, not centuries.

Oddly, it required the ‘discovery’ of a supposed dying civilization on Mars to finally ignite interest in the idea, first proposed by the anarchist geographer Kropotkin in the late 1870s, that the 14,000 years since the Glacial Maximum constituted an epoch of on-going and catastrophic desiccation of the continental interiors. This theory—we might call it the ‘old climatic interpretation of history’—was highly influential in the early twentieth century, but waned quickly with the advent of dynamic meteorology in the 1940s, with its emphasis on self-adjusting physical equilibrium. [1] What many fervently believed to be a key to world history was found and then lost, discrediting its discoverers almost as completely as the eminent astronomers who had seen (and in some cases, claimed to have photographed) canals on the Red Planet. Although the controversy primarily involved German and English-speaking geographers and orientalists, the original thesis—postglacial aridification as the driver of Eurasian history—was formulated inside Tsardom’s école des hautes études: St Petersburg’s notorious Peter-and-Paul Fortress where the young Prince Piotr Kropotkin, along with other celebrated Russian intellectuals, was held as a political prisoner.

Exploration of Siberia

The famed anarchist was also a first-rate natural scientist, physical geographer and explorer. In 1862, he voluntarily exiled himself to eastern Siberia in order to escape the suffocating life of a courtier in an increasingly reactionary court. Offered a commission by Alexander II in the regiment of his choice, he opted for a newly formed Cossack unit in remote Transbaikalia, where his education, pluck and endurance quickly recommended him to lead a series of expeditions—for the purposes of both science and imperial espionage—into a huge, unexplored tangle of mountain and taiga wildernesses recently annexed by the Empire. Whether measured by physical challenge or scientific achievement, Kropotkin’s explorations of the lower Amur valley and into the heart of Manchuria, followed by a singularly daring reconnaissance of the ‘vast and deserted mountain region between the Lena in northern Siberia and the higher reaches of the Amur near Chita’, [2] were comparable to the Great Northern Expeditions of Vitus Bering in the eighteenth century or the contemporary explorations of the Colorado Plateau by John Wesley Powell and Clarence King. After thousands of miles of travel, usually in extreme terrain, Kropotkin was able to show that the orography of northeast Asia was considerably different from that envisioned by Alexander von Humboldt and his followers. [3] He was also the first to demonstrate that the plateau was a ‘basic and independent type of the Earth’s relief’ with as wide ‘a distribution as mountain ranges’. [4]

Kropotkin also encountered a riddle in Siberia that he later tried to solve in Scandinavia. While on his epic trek across the mountainous terrain between the Lena and the upper Amur, his zoologist comrade Poliakov discovered ‘palaeolithic remains in the dried beds of shrunken lakes, and other similar observations gave evidence on the desiccation of Asia’. This accorded with the observations of other explorers in Central Asia—especially the Caspian steppe and Tarim basin—of ruined cities in deserts and dry lakes that had once filled great basins. [5] After his return from Siberia, Kropotkin took an assignment from the Russian Geographical Society to survey the glacial moraines and lakes of Sweden and Finland. Agassiz’s ice-age theories were under intense debate in Russian scientific circles, but the physics of ice was little understood. From detailed studies of striated rock surfaces, Kropotkin deduced that the sheer mass of continental ice sheets caused them to flow plastically, almost like a super-viscous fluid—his ‘most important scientific achievement’, according to one historian of science. [6] He also became convinced that Eurasian ice sheets had extended southward into the steppe as far as the 50th parallel. If this was indeed the case, it followed that with the recession of the ice, the northern steppe became a vast mosaic of lakes and marshes (he envisioned much of Eurasia once looking like the Pripet Marshes), then gradually dried into grasslands and finally began to turn into desert. Desiccation was a continuing process (causing, not caused by, diminishing rainfall) that Kropotkin believed was observable across the entire Northern Hemisphere.[7]

An outline of this bold theory was first presented to a meeting of the Geographical Society in March 1874. Shortly after the talk, he was arrested by the dreaded Third Section and charged with being ‘Borodin’, a member of an underground anti-tsarist group, the Circle of Tchaikovsky. Thanks to this ‘chance leisure bestowed on me’, and special permission given by the Tsar (Kropotkin, after all, was still a prince), he was enabled to obtain books and continue his scientific writing in prison, where he completed most of a planned two-volume exposition of his glacial and climatic theories. [8]

This was the first scientific attempt to make a comprehensive case for natural climate change as a prime-mover of the history of civilization. [9] As noted earlier, Enlightenment and early Victorian thought universally assumed that climate was historically stable, stationary in trend, with extreme events as simple outliers of a mean state. In contrast, the impact of human modification of the landscape upon the atmospheric water cycle had been debated since the Greeks. For instance, Theophrastus, Aristotle’s heir at the Lyceum, reportedly believed that the drainage of a lake near Larisa in Thessaly had reduced forest growth and made the climate colder. [10] Two thousand years later, the Comtes de Buffon and de Volney, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander von Humboldt, Jean-Baptiste Boussingault and Henri Becquerel (to give just a short list) were citing one example after another of how European colonialism was radically changing local climates through forest clearance and extensive agriculture. [11] (‘Buffon’, wrote Clarence Glacken, ‘concluded it was possible for man to regulate or to change the climate radically.’) [12] Lacking any longterm climate records that might reveal major natural variations in weather patterns, the philosophes were instead riveted by the innumerable circumstantial reports of declining rainfall in the wake of plantation agriculture on island colonies. In the same vein, Auguste Blanqui’s older brother, the political economist Jerome-Adolphe Blanqui, later cited Malta as an example of a man-made island desert and warned that the heavily logged foothills of the French Alps risked becoming an arid ‘Arabia Petraea’. [13] By the 1840s, according to Michael Williams, ‘deforestation and consequent aridity was one of the great “lessons of history” that every literate person knew about.’ [14]

Two of these literate people were Marx and Engels, both of whom were fascinated by the Bavarian botanist Karl Fraas’s cautionary account of the transformation of the eastern Mediterranean climate by land clearance and grazing. Fraas had been a member of the impressive scientific retinue that accompanied the Bavarian Prince Otto when he became King of Greece in 1832. [15] Writing to Engels in March 1868, Marx enthused about his book:

He maintains that as a result of cultivation and in proportion to its degree, the ‘damp’ so much beloved by the peasant is lost (hence too plants emigrate from south to north) and eventually the formation of steppes begins. The first effects of cultivation are useful, later devastating owing to deforestation, etc. This man is both a thoroughly learned philologist (he has written books in Greek) and a chemist, agricultural expert, etc. The whole conclusion is that cultivation when it progresses in a primitive way and is not consciously controlled (as a bourgeois of course he does not arrive at this), leaves deserts behind it, Persia, Mesopotamia, etc., Greece. Here again another unconscious socialist tendency! [16]

Similarly Engels, later referring to deforestation of the Mediterranean in The Dialectics of Nature, warned that after every human ‘victory’, ‘nature takes its revenge’: ‘Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first.’ [17] But if nature has teeth with which to bite back against human conquest, Engels saw no evidence of natural forces acting as independent agents of change within the span of historical time. As he emphasized in a description of the contemporary German landscape, culture is promethean while nature is at most reactive:

There is devilishly little left of ‘nature’ as it was in Germany at the time when the Germanic peoples immigrated into it. The earth’s surface, climate, vegetation, fauna, and the human beings themselves have infinitely changed, and all this owing to human activity, while the changes of nature in Germany which have occurred in this period of time without human interference are incalculably small. [18]

In contrast to the seventeenth century, when earthquakes, comets, plagues and arctic winters reinforced a cataclysmic view of nature amongst the great savants like Newton, Halley and Leibniz,[19] weather and geology in nineteenth-century Europe seemed as stable from decade to decade as the gold standard. For this reason, at least, Marx and Engels never speculated on the possibility that the natural conditions of production over the past two or three millennia might have been subject to directional evolution or epic fluctuation, or that climate therefore might have its own distinctive history, repeatedly intersecting and over-determining a succession of different social formations. Certainly they believed that nature had a history, but it was enacted on long evolutionary or geological time-scales. Like most scientifically literate people in mid-Victorian England, they accepted Sir Charles Lyell’s uniformitarian view of earth history, upon which Darwin had built his theory of natural selection, even while they satirized the reflection of English Liberal ideology in the concept of geological gradualism.

The long international controversy starting in the late 1830s over Agassiz’s ‘discovery’ of the Great Ice Age did not put this reigning anthropogenic model into question, since geologists were vexed for decades by the problem of Pleistocene chronology: unable to establish the order of succession amongst glacial drifts, or estimate the relative age of the ancient human and megafaunal remains whose discovery was a staple sensation of mid-Victorian times. [20] Although ‘glacial research prepared the way for insight into the reality of short-term changes in climate gauged against geological time’, there was no measure of the Ice Age’s temporal distance from modern climate.[21] Cleveland Abbe, the greatest American weather scientist of the late nineteenth century, expressed the consensus view of the ‘rational climatology’ school when he wrote in 1889 that ‘great changes have taken place during geological ages perhaps 50,000 years distant’ but ‘no important climatic change has yet been demonstrated since human history began.’ [22]

Desiccation of Asia

Kropotkin radically challenged this orthodoxy by asserting a continuity of global climatic dynamics between the end of the Ice Age and modern times; far from being stationary as early meteorologists believed, climate had been continuously changing in a unidirectional sense and without human help throughout history. In 1904, on the thirtieth anniversary of his original presentation to Russian geographers, and amidst much public interest in recent expeditions to inner Asia by the Swedish geographer Sven Hedin and the American geologist Raphael Pumpelly, the Royal Geographical Society invited Kropotkin to outline his current views.

In his article, he argued that recent explorations like Hedin’s had fully vindicated his theory of rapid desiccation in the post-glacial era, proving that ‘from year to year the limits of the deserts are extended’. Based on this inexorable trend from ice sheet to lake land and then from grassland to desert, he proposed a startlingly new theory of history. [23] East Turkestan and Central Mongolia, he claimed, were once well-watered and ‘advanced in civilization’:

All of this is gone now, and it must have been the rapid desiccation of this region which compelled its inhabitants to rush down to the Jungarian Gate, down to the lowlands of the Balkhash and Obi, and thence, pushing before them the former inhabitants of the lowlands, to produce those great migrations and invasions of Europe which took place during the first centuries of our era. [24]

Nor was this just a cyclical fluctuation: progressive desiccation, emphasized Kropotkin, ‘is a geological fact’, and the Lacustrine period (the Holocene) must be conceptualized as an epoch of expanding drought. As he had already written five years earlier: ‘And now we are fully in the period of a rapid desiccation, accompanied by the formation of dry prairies and steppes, and man has to find out the means to put a check to that desiccation to which Central Asia already has fallen a victim, and which menaces Southeastern Europe.’ [25] Only heroic and globally coordinated action—planting millions of trees and digging thousands of artesian wells—could arrest future desertification.[26]

Kropotkin’s hypothesis of natural, progressive climate change had a differential reception: greeted with more scepticism in continental Europe than in English-speaking countries or amongst scientists working in desert environments. In Russia, where his contributions to physical geography were well known, there had been intense interest, following the great famine of 1891–92, in understanding whether drought on the black-soil steppe, the new frontier of wheat production, was a result of cultivation or an omen of creeping desertification. In the event, the two internationally recognized authorities on the question, Aleksandr Voeikov—a pioneer of modern climatology, and an old colleague of Kropotkin’s from the Geographical Society in the early 1870s—and Vasili Dokuchaev—celebrated as ‘the father of soil science’—found little evidence of either process at work. In their view, the steppe climate had not changed in historical time, although the succession of wet and dry years might be cyclical in nature. Voeikov, like many other contemporary scientists in Europe, was intrigued if not convinced by the ideas about climate variability advanced by the brilliant German glaciologist Eduard Brückner. [27]


In fact, Kropotkin’s theory, based on landscape impressions and the hypothesis of a Eurasian ice sheet, was a speculative leap far ahead of any data about past climates or their causes. Indeed it was essentially untestable. Theoretical as contrasted to descriptive meteorology, for example, was still in its swaddling clothes. By coincidence, Kropotkin’s paper was published almost simultaneously with an obscure article by a Norwegian scientist named Jacob Bjerknes that laid down the first foundations for a physics of the atmosphere, in the form of a half dozen fundamental equations derived from fluid mechanics and thermodynamics. ‘He [Bjerknes] conceived the atmosphere’, observes a historian of geophysics, ‘from a purely mechanical and physical viewpoint, as an “air-mass circulation engine”, driven by solar radiation and deflected by rotation, expressed in local differences of velocity, density, air pressure, temperature and humidity.’ It would take more than half a century for these conceptual seeds to grow into modern dynamic meteorology; in the meantime, it was impossible to propose a climate model for Kropotkin’s theory. [28]

Since the late nineteenth century, however, the progressive warming of interior Asia has produced a net drying which the researchers warn may be a prelude to the future northward expansion of the deserts. Meanwhile, other climate scientists have expressed concern that precipitation regimes in western Asia may be radically changing as well. A research group based at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which has been studying contemporary and historical megadroughts, recently published a paper warning that the disastrous 2007–10 drought in Syria, the most severe in the instrumental record and a principal catalyst to social unrest, was likely part of ‘a longterm drying trend’ associated with rising greenhouse emissions. [29] This uncomfortably accords with an earlier study which predicted that the entire climatological Fertile Crescent, from the Jordan Valley to the Zagros foothills, might disappear by the end of the century: ‘Ancient rain-fed agriculture enabled the civilizations to thrive in the Fertile Crescent region, but this blessing is soon to disappear due to human-induced climate change.’ [30] The Anthropocene, it seems, may vindicate Kropotkin after all.


[1] ‘It was assumed that for all practical purposes and decisions, climate could be considered constant.’ Hubert Lamb, Climate, History and the Modern World, London 1995, p. 2. This essay will appear in a forthcoming book, edited by Cal Winslow, A Search for the Commons: Essays for Iain Boal, to be published by PM Press.

[2] George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic, The Anarchist Prince: The Biography of Prince Peter Kropotkin, London 1950, p. 71.

[3] Prince Kropotkin, ‘The Orography of Asia’, The Geographical Review, vol. 23, nos. 2 & 3, February–March 1904.

[4] Woodcock and Avakumovic, The Anarchist Prince, pp. 61–86. On his recognition of the plateau as a fundamental landform, see Alexander Vucinich, Science in Russian Culture: 1861–1917, Palo Alto 1970, p. 88.

[5] Woodcock and Avakumovic, The Anarchist Prince, p. 73. In later years, there would be fierce debate over historical fluctuations in the level and areal expanse of the Caspian, but the controversy, like so many others, was unresolvable in the absence of any technique for dating land features. From mid-century, however, the hypothesis of creeping desertification in Central Asia was familiar to the educated public: for an example, see Frederick Engels, The Dialectics of Nature [1883], New York 1940, p. 235.

[6] Tobias Kruger, Discovering the Ice Ages: International Reception and Consequences for a Historical Understanding of Climate, Leiden 2013, pp. 348–51.

[7] ‘The desiccation I speak of is not due to a diminishing rainfall. It is due to the thawing and disappearance of that immense stock of frozen water which had accumulated on the surface of our Eurasian continent during the tens of thousands of years that the glacial period had been lasting. Diminishing rainfall (where such a diminution took place) is thus a consequence, not a cause of that desiccation.’ Kropotkin, ‘On the Desiccation of Eurasia and Some General Aspects of Desiccation’, The Geographical Journal, vol. 43, no. 4, April 1914.

[8] His brother Alexander oversaw the publication of the first volume, 828 pages in length: Issledovanie o lednikovom periode [Researches on the Glacial Period], St Petersburg 1876. A short review appeared in Nature on 23 June 1877. An incomplete draft of the second volume was seized by the secret police and not published until 1998: Tatiana Ivanova and Vyacheslav Markin, ‘Piotr Alekseevich Kropotkin and his monograph Researches on the Glacial Period (1876)’, in Rodney Grapes, David Oldroyd and Algimantas Grigelis, eds, History of Geomorphology and Quaternary Geology, London 2008, p. 18.

[9] The famed California geologist Josiah Whitney (after whom the peak is named) had also been advocating a concept of progressive desiccation since at least the early 1870s. He dismissed the popular idea that deforestation was responsible for climate change, instead proposing that the Earth had been simultaneously drying and cooling for several million years. This theory put him in the odd position of arguing that the modern climate of the American West was colder than during the Ice Age; a contradiction he resolved by rejecting evidence for the existence of continental ice sheets. In his view, Agassiz and others had confused the strictly local phenomena of glacial advance with global refrigeration. See Whitney, The Climatic Changes of Later Geological Times: A Discussion Based on Observations Made in the Cordilleras of North America, Cambridge, MA 1882, p. 394.

[10] Theophrastus of Eresus, Sources for His Life, Writings, Thought and Influence: Commentary Vol. 3.1, Sources on Physics (Texts 137–233), Leiden 1998,p. 212.

[11] Already by the mid-eighteenth century, colonial officials were crusading for the establishment of forest reserves to prevent desiccation of the rich plantation islands of Tobago and Mauritius. Richard Grove, the historian who has done most to establish the colonial origins of environmentalism, cites the example of Pierre Poivre, commissaire-intendant of Mauritius. Poivre gave a major speech in Lyon in 1763 on the climatic dangers of deforestation. ‘This speech may go down in history as one of the first environmentalist texts to be based explicitly on a fear of widespread climate change’: Grove, ‘The Evolution of the Colonial Discourse on Deforestation and Climate Change, 1500–1940’, in Ecology, Climate and Empire, Cambridge 1997, p. 11. Seventy years later, July Monarchy propagandists invoked the desertification of North Africa by the Arabs as an excuse for conquest of Algeria. The French promised to change the climate and push back the desert by massive afforestation: Diana Davis, Resurrecting the Granary of Rome: Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa, Athens, OH 2007, pp. 4–5, 77.

[12] Buffon believed that land clearance changed temperature as well as rainfall. Since Paris and Quebec City were at the same latitude, he suggested that the most likely explanation for their different climates was the warming that resulted from draining the wetlands and cutting down the forests around Paris: Clarence Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian Shore, Berkeley 1976, p. 699.

[13] Jérôme-Adolphe Blanqui quoted in George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature [1864], Cambridge 1965, pp. 160 ff, 209–13.

[14] Michael Williams, Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis, Chicago 2003, p. 431.

[15] Karl Fraas, Klima und Pflanzenwelt in der Zeit: ein Beitrag zur Geschichte Beider [Climate and Plant World Over Time: A Contribution to History], Landshut 1847. Fraas was an important influence on Perkins Marsh and his famous thesis in Man and Nature that humanity was catastrophically reshaping nature on a global scale.

[16] Marx to Engels, 25 March 1868, in Collected Works, vol. 42, Moscow 1987, pp. 558–9.

[17] Engels, ‘The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man’, in The Dialectics of Nature, pp. 291–2. Even in the case of contemporary industrial civilization, he wrote, ‘we find that there still exists here a colossal disproportion between the proposed aims and the results arrived at, that unforeseen effects predominate, and that the uncontrolled forces are far more powerful than those set into motion according to plan’: p. 19.

[18] Collected Works, vol. 25, Moscow 1987, p. 511.

[19] Both Newton and Halley believed in ‘a succession of earths, a series of creations and purgations. Historical periods were punctuated by cometary catastropes, with comets serving as divine agents to reconstitute the entire solar system, to prepare sites for new creations and to usher in the millennium’: Sara Genuth, ‘The Teleological Role of Comets’, in Norman Thrower, ed., Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: A Longer View of Newton and Halley, Berkeley 1990, p. 302.

[20] Anne O’Connor, Finding Time for the Old Stone Age: A History of Palaeolithic Archaeology and Quaternary Geology in Britain, 1860–1960, Oxford 2007, pp. 28–30.

[21] Kruger, Discovering the Ice Ages, p. 475. In the early twentieth century, varve (annual lake-sediment layer) and tree-ring chronologies began to be used to calculate the age of deglaciation events, but it was not until the refinement of carbon-14 analysis in the postwar period that reliable dating became possible.

[22] James Fleming, Historical Perspectives on Climate Change, Oxford 1998, pp. 52–3.

[23] For an overview of the century-long controversy about desiccation in Central Asia, see David Moon, ‘The Debate over Climate Change in the Steppe Region in Nineteenth-Century Russia’, Russian Review, no. 69, 2010. Contemporary perspectives include François Herbette, ‘Le problème du dessèchement de l’Asie intérieure’, Annales de Geographie, vol. 23, no. 127, 1914; and John Gregory, ‘Is the Earth Drying Up?’, The Geographical Journal, vol. 43, no. 2, March 1914.

[24] Kropotkin, ‘The Desiccation of Eur-Asia’, The Geographical Journal, vol. 23, no. 6, June 1904.

[25] Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionist [1899], Boston 1930, p. 239.

[26] Kropotkin, ‘The Desiccation of Eur-Asia’. Desiccation, of course, is a geomorphological fact in many landscapes, but the impressionistic archaeology of European explorers neither proved causal relationships between ruins and desertification, nor established a comparative chronology. Petra, for instance, is an oft-cited example of catastrophic climate change, but the city-state’s decline was actually the result of changing trade routes and a 333 AD earthquake that destroyed its elaborate water-supply system.

[27] David Moon, The Plough that Broke the Steppes: Agriculture and Environment on Russia’s Grasslands, 1700–1914, Oxford 2013, pp. 91–2, 130–3.

[28] Gabriele Gramelsberger, ‘Conceiving Processes in Atmospheric Models’, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, vol. 41, no. 3, September 2010.

[29] Colin Kelley et al., ‘Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and Implications of the Recent Syrian Drought’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 112, no. 11, 17 March 2015.

[30] Akio Kitoh, Akiyo Yatagai and Pinhas Alpert, ‘First Super-High-Resolution Model Projection That the Ancient “Fertile Crescent” Will Disappear in This Century,’ Hydrological Research Letters 2, 2008.

January 4, 2018


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