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Philip Stott: Global Warming – A Mammoth Insult To Our Ancestors

One can only laugh uproariously as the latest research, carried out at Durham University by the excellent Professor Brian Huntley and his colleagues, indicates that the poor old woolly mammoth did not die out by flint and spear at the hands of us despicable humans, but because of natural global warming at the end of the last Ice Age, when, as a result of warmer, wetter conditions, and rising concentrations of carbon dioxide, trees and forests emerged at the expense of the grasslands and pastures to which the mammoths were so-well adapted.

Just think of the scenario; here we have a scientifically-attested warming with rising carbon dioxide which favoured the spread of trees, woods, and forests over grasslands. So why then do so many people think that planting trees and forests is the best way to halt global warming? Could we have some ecologic, please? Perhaps it is time to join up the dots a tad better. This is a prime example of highly-significant environmental change, only around 14,000 to 4,000 years ago, when the last mammoth found life too hairy to survive, but which did not result in the ‘End of the World’, nor of the human race, and which had nothing whatsoever to do with aeroplanes or SUVs.

The present funk over climate is a mammoth insult to the men and women – and indeed to the rest of living things – from the past. We commit the sin of presentism.

To understand the mega nature of this insult, I would ask you all, the next time you take the ‘Eurostar’ train to Paris or to Brussels from the splendid new Ebbsfleet International Station, to spend a few seconds viewing the beautifully-displayed exhibition there which chronicles the immensely-long history of human activity in that part of North Kent, a story largely uncovered during the construction of the High-Speed Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

Amazingly, Ebbsfleet is located on a tiny portion of the Earth with one of the longest archaeological records in the world, one exhibiting continuous climate change, human adaptation, and industrial development. The famous skull of ‘Swanscombe Man’ (it is actually the skull of a young woman), dating from 400,000 BC, was discovered in Thames gravels just four miles away, associated with working flint tools. Industry was with us then. At Baker’s Hole, some 2 miles away, there are the flint axes of ‘hunter-gatherers’ who inhabited the area around 180,000 – 200,000 BC. Other finds tell us of late-Palaeolithic and Mesolithic peoples (c.10,000 BC).

Then, from around 3,000 BC, we have the remains of a Neolithic agricultural settlement, which produced a distinctive decorated-pottery known as ‘Ebbsfleet Ware’. Bronze Age and Iron Age ditches and enclosures later give way to the remains of an important Roman religious settlement, Vagniacis [“A place of marshes”], which flourished at Springhead on the local river, the Ebbsfleet, between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD. The historical Watling Street passed through the site. Large burial grounds, many temples, mosaics, and a villa give testimony to the thriving economy of this Romano-British centre. Then, from Saxon times, there are the remains of a water mill, and so on, and so on.

There is even a rather special link with the New World, with North America, the high Algonquin princess, Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan of the Algonquin Nation, lying buried beneath the parish church of nearby Gravesend. And the eternal story progresses, with the exciting new High-Speed Rail Link itself, a proposed massive statue of a horse [to be the Southern equivalent of the ‘Angel of the North’], and a planned new town around the station.

Throughout this remarkable saga of human endeavour, climate and sea-levels have changed over and over again, sometimes slowly, sometimes dramatically, with sub-tropical interludes, ice ages, permafrost, temperate floods, and drought. Likewise, the vegetation has swung between forest and heath, open meadow, swampland and sea, between chilly tundra, boreal forests, mixed deciduous forests, and open grassland.

And, as with the woolly mammoth, so the animals have changed too. The Ebbsfleet International Station welcoming exhibition includes an impressive fossil skeleton of a straight-tusked elephant (Elephas antiquus, or Palaeoloxodon antiquus), an extinct species closely related to the extant Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus). This fine beast inhabited Europe during the Middle and Late Pleistocene (781,000 – 11,550 years before present). The 400,000-years old Ebbsfleet specimen, a huge, fully-grown male, weighing ten tones, twice the size of a modern elephant, was most likely brought down by spear-throwing hunters. The fossil was found lying by the edge of what could have been a small lake, with flint tools scattered around it, suggesting that this giant really was butchered by a tribe of early humans, related to Homo heidelbergensis.

Yet, despite all this often violent change, neither Ebbsfleet, nor the Planet, came to a crunching halt, while humans went on, adapting and altering their lives, growing stronger, healthier, and older throughout. Today, the people of North Kent live longer, and with less hardship, than any of these, our doughty ancestors.

This is why I find the current attitude to climate change pathetic. Indeed, I am ashamed when we and our media get into a funk over so little – currently, at most, 0.7 degrees Celsius over 150 years. It is nearly obscene, with all our resources, to think that we shall not be able to adapt once again – unless, that is, we have lost our evolutionary dynamism and drive! Going back in time has never been an option, nor part of our great story. And, just as ‘Swanscombe Woman’ could have no possible concept of the Roman wonder that was Vagniacis, neither have we about ‘Virtualia’, the Ebbsfleet Metropolis of the next 400,000 years.

‘Global warming’ is indeed a mammoth insult to all who have gone before. I raise a glass to the men and women of Ebbsfleet, who adapted to live; it is a pity that the woolly mammoths couldn’t quite make it too.

Emeritus Professor Philip Stott of the University of London is on the Academic Advisory Council of The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF).