Professor Explores Ecological Futures

Aug 22, 2008
New Book Looks At What History Can Teach Us About Our Future
When examining ideas like world ecological degradation and an impending dark age it’s comforting to know there’s still a flickering light of hope at the end of the tunnel.

Dr. Sing C. Chew, Ph.D., Humboldt State sociology professor and senior guest researcher at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, recently published the third volume in his world systems trilogy. _Ecological Futures: What History Can Teach Us_ completes his exploration of ecological degradation and what Chew calls the “recurring dark ages” that have prompted major structural change in the world system. And while Chew’s thesis sees the emergence of a new dark age for our times, he says his theory also offers hope.


“In some ways, dark ages might not be good for human civilizations, but they’re excellent for nature because when human civilizations collapse they tend to degrade less with lower economic activity,” Chew says. “You have to see the ying and the yang or the dialectics of it—good for one group, bad for the other.”

So, where exactly does the hope portion of the theory come in?

“Dark ages are periods of rejuvenation for nature,” Chew explains. “And with resource scarcity you have the emergence of bioregional communities and these are going to provide the new impetus. Dark ages have simplified living and force human communities to be more creative with resources. So, it provides the next round of dynamic technological advances.”

Focusing on long spans of time like the Bronze and Iron ages, Chew’s book asks what modern society can learn from previous dark ages. The most helpful comparison for our current crisis, he says, is that of the late Bronze Age (1200 B.C. to 700 B.C.). During the late Bronze Age crisis there was a replacement of the base material from bronze to iron and, Chew says, modern society is seeing a similar alteration with silicon-carbon replacing iron-steel as the primary base material. Where the late Bronze Age crisis saw a change in social relations due to the increased productivity of iron implements, the book claims our age is experiencing “an adoption of computer-based infrastructure and networks leading to expansion, global production and wider access.” Chew also sees our modern age transforming to sustainability-determined economic models and instituting more regionalized political structures.

“If you look at human civilization you have complex systems and when you go into dark ages you have very non-complex systems,” he says. “As soon as nature returns the complexity emerges. So, there is opportunity. The question is: will this coming dark age collapse lead to a structural transformation that will lead to a different type of world system that will be sustainable?”

Chew came to Humboldt State in 1990 during Redwood Summer, when activists from around the globe descended upon Northern California for a direct action campaign of civil disobedience to protest timber industry practices. He was inspired by the campaign and soon became involved in researching deforestation in Northern California, specifically focusing on coastal redwoods.

When not teaching at Humboldt State, Chew travels to Germany to work with students at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research and edits _Nature + Culture_, an academic journal examining human communities and their relationships with nature. He is currently at work on a new book, _Energy and Global Power: The Future Global Order_, which examines how the energy crisis will shape the next 50 to 100 years of world politics and economy. He expects it to be published within the next two years.

Chew’s newest book, as well as the two prior installations in the trilogy, can be ordered online from the publisher at