Did you know that between 1600 and 1700, the globe experienced something historians have dubbed ‘the little ice age’? And that the results of 1.5C average cooling was a century of misery, wars, famines and the death of roughly one third of the global population? Neither did I, until I started reading the exhaustively researched tome, Global Crisis: war, climate change and catastrophe in the seventeenth century, by Professor Geoffrey Parker. Parker has made this calamitous century his speciality, and has published a number of other books and papers on it.
This latest book fairly bristles with examples and methodically looks at all the ways that humankind can be wrong, miserable and stupid, with a little help from a suddenly colder and much more extreme climate. Droughts, floods, extreme cold: it was all there and Parker wastes no time in asking, how did they cope? What did the governments of the day, and the aristocratic landowners and the ordinary people slaving away for them do when things got worse in every imaginable way? In a word; they went to war. In Europe, there were exactly 3 years of ‘peace’. The rest of the time, everyone merrily slaughtered everyone. The only country that mounted an effective system to deal with widespread famine and the danger of revolution, was Japan. They simply killed anyone caught hoarding or growing crops just for money. That worked quite well; everyone dutifully grew only crops to feed the starving population and handed over what they grew, to be redistributed. Obviously, only a totalitarian regime can do this, but since most of the governments of the day were undemocratic, it speaks to the foresight and prudence of what came to be the Tokugawa regime, which lasted for hundreds of years.
The cause of this 100 years of climate change was twofold. The sun was for reasons unknown in one of its periodic phases of almost no sun spots, read cooling, and the fall out from several large volcanic eruptions threw so much fine particulate matter into the air as to further weaken the sun’s warmth. A surprising amount of information about the climate, sun spots and volcanic activity was gathered during that century, and most of it is duly recorded and put into an historical context by Parker.
I’m still reading it; and trying to digest what I’m learning. One thing is certain: our dear leaders, when they’re not too busy fighting allegations of deep corruption, might want to make professor Parker’s book of catastrophe their bedtime reading. They might just learn something. I am, of course, an optimist. When did we ever look at our past and learn something from it? Something to ponder over the weekend, while we fall back into winter, darkness and cold.