Global Crisis: war, climate change and catastrophe in the 17th century

My column in the latest issue of the Countryman is reprinted below.

I have been reading a fascinating book about climate change, one that should be of interest even to climate change sceptics.  Global Crisis by Geoffrey Parker is not another book about the threat of global warming, but an exhaustive account of the world’s last experience of catastrophic climate change, the little ice age of the seventeenth century.

The book’s thesis is that a sharp and severe drop in global temperature contributed more than historians have acknowledged to the ‘general crisis’ of that time: the Thirty Years War, the English revolution, the fall of the Ming Dynasty and other upheavals.

As a historian, Parker is tentative about drawing lessons for our own time.  But regardless of whether human activity now is making the world warmer and weather patterns more uncertain, he says no one should doubt that sudden climate change can occur.  ‘The critical issues are not whether climate change occurs, but when; and whether it makes better sense for states and societies to invest money now to prepare for natural disasters that are inevitable … or instead pay the far higher costs of inaction.’

Parker’s book shows how quickly civilisation can give way to savagery.  One chapter, on brute survival, is entitled, ‘A third of the world has died’, with sub-sections headed ‘suicide’ and ‘infanticide and abortion’.  It is not an easy read.

Tackling and preparing for climate change is expensive, but reading the grim catalogue of seventeenth century suffering I could not escape a fairly obvious thought: food, growing it and getting it to the people who need it, is fundamental to survival.

Our food system is highly internationalised, as the horse meat scandal has shown, but even when we eat ‘local’ food it can travel absurd distances via supermarket distribution units before reaching us.  There is little resilience in the system, little likelihood that it would withstand a severe shock.  ‘Leave it to Tesco’ is not a sustainable food policy.

The terrible history of the little ice age gives very little cause to be hopeful about the impact of climate change in our time, but there are some things we can do to prepare.  Among them are to stop building on good agricultural land and start to get serious about strengthening local food webs.  It is not a solution, but it is a start.

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