April 26, 2013 6:22 pm

Droughts, deluges and raging debates

A magisterial book argues that 17th-century climate change led to social unrest – and offers a timely 21st-century warning

Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, by Geoffrey Parker, Yale, RRP£29.99/$40, 904 pages

 

In 1647, at the height of the English civil war, King Charles I fled to the Isle of Wight, where he established a court in exile. Among the local gentry who attended him was Sir John Oglander, local landowner and member of parliament for Yarmouth. The weather was terrible. Oglander wrote in his diary: “This summer of the King’s being here was a very strange year in all His Majesty’s three kingdoms, if we duly consider the heavens, men and earth. I conceive the heavens were offended with us for our offence committed to one another for, from Mayday till the 15th of September, we had scarce three dry days together. His Majesty asked me whether that weather was usual in our Island. I told him that in this 40 years I never knew the like before.”

Oglander was convinced that the relentless rain, and the damage it was causing in terms of failed harvest and widespread flooding, were a mark of God’s displeasure with Englishmen for acts committed against nature: insurrection against their king, and citizens turning against one another in civil war.

In his monumental new book, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, distinguished historian Geoffrey Parker also investigates the idea that there might be a close relationship between global unrest and unusually inclement weather. But he poses his question the other way round. Might it be, he asks, that it was the “Little Ice Age” experienced around the world between the 1610s and the late 1680s, causing death, disease and depopulation, that produced the social, economic and political upheavals of the same period? Data from both northern and southern hemispheres studied by climatologists confirms that there was a drop in global temperature of one or two degrees Celsius over this period. Could this be directly linked to wars, invasions and government collapses?

Parker’s approach is systematic and painstaking. Scouring and correlating first-hand testimony drawn from sources chronicling 17th-century affairs from London to Beijing, he pieces together a global tale of worsening weather conditions leading to hardship, administrative chaos, war and widespread inhumanity. These accounts give us a rich and emotionally intense sense of how it felt to live through chaotic times.

Alongside this testimony he sets current expert views: not just experts in politics and warfare, but in climatology, anthropology, agriculture, nutrition and economics. Narrated with an easy authority, Parker melds these together into a convincing account of how a small drop in the earth’s temperature – which may have been a consequence of a smaller than usual amount of sun-spot activity in the 17th century, mapped by the contemporary astronomer Johannes Hevelius – can be considered to have contributed significantly to the disorder and disaster experienced on every continent.

At the end of all this, Parker reaches the conclusion that what he dubs a “fatal synergy” between human behaviour and the weather did indeed lead directly to the “global crisis”, which marks a transition from early modern to modern ways of life, structures of government and patterns of thought.

This is a thesis that Parker has been developing ever since he became involved, in the 1970s, in an intense and occasionally acrimonious debate among historians as to what caused the political catastrophes of the 17th century – whether, indeed, anything one could call a “general crisis” had actually taken place. This increasingly polarised debate started with a two-part article published by the formidable Eric Hobsbawm in the 1950s (attributing the “crisis” to economic turbulence), which was challenged by Hugh Trevor-Roper (who put the turmoil down to conflict between society and the state), and which continued to run at conferences and in journals for decades.

The debate resurfaced in 2008, when Parker contributed an important article. By now the claims of historians such as Parker who supported the general crisis thesis had become stronger: the 17th century had witnessed a “global crisis” – one that had extended from England to China and from Russia to sub-Saharan Africa, not forgetting the Americas.

One might argue that general readers need hardly concern themselves with sectarian differences of opinion between academic historians. But I think it matters that the purpose of the almost overwhelming bulk of evidence that Parker has assembled in this impressive new book is designed to be the last word in the “general crisis” debate. Parker’s 2008 version of his argument ran to 24 pages. It now extends to 900 pages, including one of the most formidable bibliographies of works consulted I have ever encountered.

We also need to understand how heavily Parker is invested in the argument that he develops with such thoroughness in this book if we are to take seriously his urgently argued conclusion. This human “crisis and catastrophe” of 350 years ago can act, he believes, as a model and a timely warning for the vicissitudes we face today.

We too, he argues, are living through a period of global climate change. Regardless of its causes, the experience of the 17th century shows that long-term turbulence and unreliability of the weather inevitably produces calamitous outcomes for humanity. Whole ways of life will disappear. Climate-related catastrophes such as drought and flooding, harvest failure and enforced migration will produce civil unrest, conflict, disease and destruction. Apparently stable governments will fall and commerce will be fatally disrupted.

According to Parker, these are issues that governments – and we as individuals – need to confront. We have already, he points out, experienced local catastrophe in the shape of the damage caused by hurricane Katrina, the earthquake that struck New Zealand, and the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Instead of arguing over whether or not and to what extent our climate is changing, and who is to blame, we should now turn our attention to anticipating and developing remedies for what, on the evidence of the earlier, comparable climate change in the 17th century, are likely to be recurring calamities of this kind with grave long-term consequences.

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Lisa Jardine is professor of Renaissance Studies and director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in the Humanities at University College London

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