Sunday, May 18, 2014

Quickie Book Review, The Global Crisis

Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century by Parker, Geoffrey (2013)

The subtitle says it all:  This is not just a book about the Thirty Years War or the English Civil Wars,  the Seventeenth Century was a time of upheaval all over and all around the world, not just through civil and religious wars, not just due to conquest and colonization, but also due to natural disaster (plagues, volcanoes, earthquakes) and through global climate change -- global cooling, to be precise.  (This books was the source of my post Ancient Wisdom, Revolting Peasants Edition)

Amazon's Blurb:
Revolutions, droughts, famines, invasions, wars, regicides, government collapses—the calamities of the mid-seventeenth century were unprecedented in both frequency and extent. The effects of what historians call the "General Crisis" extended from England to Japan, from the Russian Empire to sub-Saharan Africa. The Americas, too, did not escape the turbulence of the time.
In this meticulously researched volume, master historian Geoffrey Parker presents the firsthand testimony of men and women who saw and suffered from the sequence of political, economic, and social crises between 1618 to the late 1680s. Parker also deploys the scientific evidence of climate change during this period. His discoveries revise entirely our understanding of the General Crisis: changes in prevailing weather patterns, especially longer winters and cooler and wetter summers, disrupted growing seasons and destroyed harvests. This in turn brought hunger, malnutrition, and disease; and as material conditions worsened, wars, rebellions, and revolutions rocked the world.
Parker's demonstration of the link between climate change, war, and catastrophe 350 years ago stands as an extraordinary historical achievement. And the implications of his study are equally important: are we adequately prepared—or even preparing—for the catastrophes that climate change brings?
This is a pretty thick tome, 697 pages of text, 871 including appendices, bibliography, and index.  I had to extend the loan on it from the library to be able to finish it. It was well worth the time spent.

One thing that was striking to me was that the standard response to crop failures due to wars, rumors of wars, and the Maunder Minimum and it's ensuing Little Ice Age was to raise taxes on everything.  The governments that handled the disruption the best were those that lowered taxes, and offered tax relief and food and other support to communities that had all they could do to survive.

Oddly, to a Westerner's eyes, this means Moghul India and Tokugawa Japan.

A cynic might point out that this actually meant more government control over the ordinary person's life; another sort of cynic would point out that this is a mater of degree, especially when discussing the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Parker does not just rely on documentary evidence -- memoirs, diaries, government records -- but also consults the "natural record", such as ice cores, tree ring counts, and so forth, to include climate evidence in areas where there is no reliable record of events or conditions.

One point that is often brought up is how a reduction of temperature of  just one degree Celsius can shorten the growing season by weeks. Even if weather conditions are perfect for the shortened growing season (and when are they ever?), this shortened season can lead to shortages, if not outright famine.

One of the most valuable aspects of the book, in fact, is that it can also be viewed as a survey of actual global history of the period, covering as it does every continent (albeit there is no documentary record for Australia or Oceania, so the natural records must suffice) and most, if not all, nations. I will say, however, that many of the charts he includes that show things like income, population, or climate, are not necessarily related well to the text.

All in all, this is a valuable book, bringing together both historical and natural records from a variety of sources, and also covering areas that are often ignored as being "outside the scope" of other studies.  As I said, I felt it was well worth the time to read it.


NotClauswitz said...

Very interesting in terms of Mogul India there was the "Zamindar System" in place to tax the peasants - but they also knew you couldn't get blood from a stone, so there was some flexibility in it too at the administrative level.
Also a government "tax-man" could ONLY live five years in a single place before he (and his family) had to move, to avoid developing undue local self-interests and increasing the general corruption

D.W. Drang said...

I'd forgotten you might have some info I didn't on that... ;-)

NotClauswitz said...

Nothing new under the sun really! The archaeology site where I learned excavation techniques had been abandoned 2,000 years ago because the rainfall which made planting easy and caused a northern expansion into the area, just tapered-off and quit.

Tam said...

I think I'll be reading this one. Thanks!