Book Review: Global Crisis

Global Crisis:global crisisWar, Climate Change & CatastropheIn the Seventeenth CenturyBy Geoffrey ParkerYale University Press, 2013Way back in the bad old days of American baseball, a notorious big league pitcher once drunkenly admitted,“I make a point of giving the first batter a profound curver. If I can get him swinging at pixies, get his own guys laughing at him, I can do anything I want to the rest of them.”It's perhaps in this spirit –playful, yes, but with an almost Amish sternness underneath – that historian Geoffrey Parker begins his latest tome, boringly titled Global Crisis:

Climate change has almost extinguished life on earth on three occasions. Some 250 million years ago, a series of massive volcanic eruptions in Siberia caused rapid changes in the earth's atmosphere that wiped out 90 per cent of its species. Next, 65 million years ago, an asteroid struck what is now Mexico and created another atmospheric catastrophe that eliminated 50 per cent of the earth's species (including the dinosaurs). Finally, some 73,000 years ago, the volcanic eruption of Mount Toba in Indonesia caused a “winter” that lasted several years and apparently killed off most of the human population.

Attentive readers will spot the curver right away. We're told that“climate change” almost extinguished all life on earth three separate times, which gets Parker's 21st century readers thinking about steadily-rising sea levels and soaring daytime temperatures, the enormous background disaster once predicted to strike the early 22nd century but now poised to crush the twenty-teens. But having raised those expectations, Parker then promptly starts talking about volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts – discreet catastrophes we hardly associate with climate change. And he starts off talking about “life on earth," then scales that back to the dinosaurs (fudging just a bit as he goes – the figure is 50 percent of earth's land species). And then he's talking about“the human population" – which is hardly the same thing as “life on earth,” unless you happen to be human.It's a bell rung to grab the attention, and it works, and there's an extent to which Parker means it. In this very long and prodigiously researched book (the end notes are printed in vanishingly small type and still run to 76 pages), he prods his readers to look at history anew, make some unorthodox connections, and re-think some of the sweeping historical givens that have dominated the discipline forever. The foremost of these givens is that environmental factors have little long-term or meaningful impact on human civilization. By drawing a series of straight-line connections between the so-called “General Crisis,” the series of 50 or so revolutions, uprisings, and regicides that gripped the world throughout the 17th century and the so-called “Little Ice Age,” which plunged much of the world into unprecedented cold at roughly the same time, Parker hopes to demonstrate a closer interdependence of environmental history and human history than was previously thought to exist. It's a tall order (not only is hard data for the former still relatively fragmentary, but the whole contention seems vaguely counter-intuitive - who can name a human civilization wiped out by a natural disaster? 'Seriously hurt,' yes, but 'wiped out' feels like the Planet Krypton), but Parker is a fearlessly original historical thinker, as was amply demonstrated by his 1998 masterpiece, The Grand Strategy of Philip II. If anybody can make this particular case, he can.He can't, not quite, but the attempt is nothing short of spectacular. This is a thousand-page study of one century, but it hardly has a boring or unfocused page in all that length.Parker repeatedly assures his readers that the 1640s saw "the virtual disappearance of sunspots, much more volcanic activity, and double the number of El Nino episodes" as the decades on either side, and he's combed through dozens of previously-uncombed parish registers and local log-books to back up his claim (non-specialists will have to assume that some astronomical equivalent of a parish register can determine what sunspot activity was like four hundred years ago, and non-specialists who are 100 percent certain it's impossible to determine that will have to decide whether or not they want to persevere)(Considering the riches on offer here, it should be an easy decision). He's also lined up an incredibly extensive array of contemporary commentary attesting to how fragile human society is in the face of natural catastrophes. He quotes Daniel Defoe, of all people, in his Compleat English Tradesman, reminding people that "heaven could, with one dry or wet summer, bring us to the necessity of drastically reducing consumption."Dry and wet summers punctuate these pages, as do failed harvests, torrential rains, drought, earthquake, and plague. In every chapter, we encounter nations and empires subjected to the physical and psychological strain of natural catastrophe, and although it works slightly counter to Parker's general gist, the most striking thing about these stricken nations tends to be their resilience. Safavid Iran is one such example (and a typical one in terms of how wide-ranging and scrupulous Parker's research has been; his book continuously reminds readers that the 17th century happened all over the world, not just in Europe); as we're told, "Iran regularly experiences drought, high winds, violent hailstorms and earthquakes; but the second half of the seventeenth century saw far more of these natural disasters than normal." Thus the natural crisis of the 17th century - a crisis this big book does a superb job of illustrating - struck Safavid Iran but did not topple it.Inevitably, Parker ends up talking about acts of man rather than acts of God when discussing his 'World Crisis.' Plunging temperatures lead to failed harvests, failed harvests lead to popular unrest (to say nothing of malnutrition and infant mortality), popular unrest leads to bombs in basements and barricades on promenades - but bombs and barricades happen for other reasons too, perhaps more often. Parker's narration of his chosen century is as authoritative as such a narrative can get, but we find his actors shrugging off even the worst that Nature throws at them and continuing to fight and kill each other as much for ideology-driven politics as weather-driven politics. World Crisis never flinches at that bleak reality:

Wars and revolutions killed, maimed and ruined large numbers of people, both directly through brutality and indirectly through forced migration and destruction of property. Deaths among young men rose with especial rapidity in western and central Europe during the Thirty Years War, in eastern Europe and Russia during the Thirteen Years War, and in China during the Ming-Qing transition. For many soldiers, as well as for thousands of civilians - Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, Jews an Poles in Ukraine, and Ming Clansmen in China – the World Crisis proved a terminal event. Taken together, these tragedies claimed the lives of so many millions, including so many members of the elite, that one might speak of a‘lost generation.’

The last third of Parker's book strengthens the impression that his aim is at least as much prognostic as diagnostic. The 17th century found itself caught between the pincers of natural disaster and popular unrest, both pitched to unprecedented levels - but eventually things returned to 'normal' and the 18th century dawned on a world that was in most ways physically and socially unchanged. At the dawn of the 21st century, things look different; sunspots or no sunspots, the natural world seems strained to the breaking point, and again, Parker has the dire economics at hand:

Although Katrina was the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, it was only one among 432 reported natural disasters of 2005 around the world, causing between them $176 billion in economic damage. That figure remained the record until 2011 when, although the total of reported national disasters fell to 302, the economic damage they caused exceeded $350 billion. This total included $2 billion caused by a tornado that struck Tuscaloosa, Alabama; $11 billion caused by the earthquake that struck Christchurch, New Zealand; $25 billion caused by the earthquake that hit Joplin, Missouri; and $210 billion caused by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Between them, those four natural disasters killed well over 20,000 men, women and children. In addition, in 2011, over 106 million people around the world were affected by floods; almost 60 million more by drought; and a further 40 million by storms.

The urgent question here is: if bad but ultimately self-correcting natural catastrophes could cause such social upheaval in the 17th century, what might worse and open-ended natural catastrophes do to the 21st? What new world crisis is even now boiling into being somewhere in the hurricane-beds of the South Pacific, or in the poultry markets of Northern China, or in a caldera underneath Yellowstone? In giving readers such a magisterial account of the last such crisis, Parker ends up looking to the future and wondering what increased preparation and quick response can do to mitigate disaster. "Shall we, shall any of us, survive?" asked a worried cleric 400 years ago. Putting down Parker's gloomy masterpiece, we might well ask the same.