Society Freaks Out: 3 Things that Happen after a Volcano Erupts

Sociology (n): the academic study of the development, structure, and function of human society, social relations, and social institutions

As an academic field, sociology helps us understand what is going on in the world around.  Thus, taking on a sociological perspective – observing the world around us with an eye turned to how we interact with each other at macro- and micro-levels – helps us understand the world around us.  Using this perspective, we can analyze cultures and civilizations from the past and gather valuable information about how our human ancestors lived, how they interacted, and what they valued in order to acquire a better understanding of our modern world.  After all, the apple does not fall from the tree!

This sociological perspective is especially useful in analyzing how we, as humans, react to climate change.  Climate change is extremely relevant to modern society at both political and moral levels, so looking back at how we react to climate change in the past can help us cope and reveal a few surprisingly universal trends.  While not directly related to today’s hot topic of #globalwarming (it’s real Donald, don’t @ me), volcanic eruptions represent particularly useful case studies for analysis because they are discrete events, their effects are relatively finite and easy to calculate, and they significantly alter climate and the host of other variables associated with climate change (politics, economics, cultures, etc.).  Studying just one eruption is too small of a sample size to draw any meaningful conclusions, but studying three – Mt. Tambora (1815), Krakatoa (1883), and Eyjafjallajokull (2010) – just might do the trick.  Altogether, humans reacted to these three eruptions in a few surprising ways: 

1. Manufacture Understanding

These three volcanic eruptions devastated lives (well, Tambora and Krakatoa did – Eyjafjallajokull’s main victims were Icelandic sheep).  Tambora’s eruption annhilated the thriving cultures and economies living on its island home of Sumbawa, and Krakatoa inundated the Indonesian archipelago, South Africa, India, and Australia with devastating tidal waves.  In order to cope with their shattered lives and world views, people manufactured understanding of the climactic events through science and religion.  Indonesians often used religion to explain the events: local chieftains did something to offend and anger Allah, so he sent the eruption as punishment.  Spared from the immediate effects of the eruption, Europeans and Americans tended to use science to make sense of the events.  It is no coincidence that the field of volcanology took off in the mid-800s in the aftermath of the Tambora eruption, and scholars were surmising as to what triggered the eruption – hypothesizing that earthquakes or other, nearby eruptions might have contributed – as early as 1816.  This informs us of our ancestors culture by virtue of detailing their worldview.

2. Migrate

When faced with threat, humans have an innate fight-or-flight response.  Simply put, when s**t hits the fan, we either fight back or run away.  When a volcanic eruption (and climate change) is the threat, we flee.  Icelanders began to evacuate Eyjafjallajokull weeks before the eruption, the Dutch East India company practically pulled out of the South Pacific after Krakatoa, and Sumbawans literally sold themselves into slavery after Mt. Tambora erupted.  Makes sense – I think we’d all run if superheated lava rocks were being assaulting us from the sky – but this observation actually has extensive societal implications.  For one, it tells us that climate change has a massive impact on the very makeup of our world.  Climate change related migration has the power to re-draw borders, shift political power dynamics, and make or break economies.

3. Rebuild

The one thing that is universal to history – regardless of context, historical era, etc. – is that humans rebuild.  We are resilient, and no matter how hard we get hit we always get back up.   After the Mt. Tambora eruption, the few surviving Sumbawans emigrated to other cultures and eventually assimilated.  Crop prices in Europe and America regressed to the mean.  Icelandic farmers, disgruntled at being uprooted by a silly volcano, returned to their farms as soon as the volcano stopped visibly smoking – even before the government cleared them to do so.  We should be proud of this; we should know that this fighting spirit is encoded into our DNA and ingrained in the very fabric of humanity.

As the rate of climate change continues to accelerate, it is imperative that we take steps to address human-related climate change to avoid the disaster that plagued our ancestors.  Whereas Indonesians had the “luxury” of attributing their experiences to Allah, we do not.  Instead, we are faced with the grim reality that we are causing climate change, and thus we must act accordingly to preserve our cultural, political, and economic diversity.


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