Taking a lesson from climate history

Taking a lesson from climate history

Trevor Getz, OER Project Team

Picture this:

  • You’re a Viking, struggling to eke out a living on the shores of Greenland as a glacier slips closer to your house each year.
  • You’re an Italian musician, and you’re holding one of the finest violins that human hands will ever create.
  • You’re a Spanish sailor, traveling aboard one of history’s greatest naval ships, en route to victory over the hated English, when you see storm clouds on the horizon.
  • You’re a Chinese or French peasant living under the rule of kings, and you’re looking at your bare cupboards and sharp pitchforks, thinking… if I can’t use the pitchfork on my crops…
  • You’re an underwear merchant in London, and business is booming!

Can you guess what they all have in common?

What if I told you that all of these events happened during the same period?  And that they were each a result of a changing climate?

Climate Changes of the Past

We all know about climate change in the present. But what about the past? It’s easy to assume that the Earth’s biosphere for most of human history has been stable. But our environment has always changed—and changed us. The Earth’s climate is incredibly mercurial on both geologic and historical timescales. It has been humanity’s unhappy task for the last 250,000 years to find new ways to adapt to climactic curveballs in the many different environments in which we settled.

Humanity’s longstanding relationship with environmental change stretches back to our earliest hominid ancestors. As early humans migrated out of Africa about 70,000 years ago, they adapted to the new environments they encountered. Some scholars argue that a warming trend about 12,000 years ago provided the ideal climate for foragers to settle in areas of abundance and gradually make the shift to farming. Farming allowed humans to have more of an impact on their environment—planting crops they preferred, clearing forests for homes and farmland, and domesticating certain species of animals. Yet, climactic shifts often led to periods of crisis, resulting in poor harvests, famine, and violence. In our long history, environmental change has often prompted great suffering; however, at times it has ignited innovation and creativity.

While climate change has often caused crises—and sometimes opportunities—for human populations, it’s the choices people make that determine just how bad a climate crisis will be, or just how well a country or community will transcend it!

A great example of this thesis can be found in Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis.[1] This book is a history of the Little Ice Age, a period of cooling that lasted from 1300 to 1850. The crisis was came in three particularly extreme waves—the first around 1650, and then two others, one between the 1770s and 1780s and the other in the 1850s. The Earth cooled by as much as 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, which produced many unexpected changes. Life for many—such as one Norse colony in Greenland—got harder. However, the cold weather slowed the growth of trees, which made their wood denser, and it’s likely this allowed Italian violinmakers to produce unusually rich-sounding instruments. Architecture and fashions evolved everywhere to adapt to the colder climes. Just one example: Europeans started wearing more—and more robust—undergarments.

Beginning in the seventeenth century, a particularly frigid period of the Little Ice Age wrought disaster for many societies, covering whole communities in sheets of ice, bringing famine to farmers and foragers alike, raising storms that affected global trade (and wrecked the Spanish Armada), worsening the spread of disease, and forcing migration from colder to warmer areas of the world. The global cooling led to massive instability in most places and has been linked to the Thirty Years War, the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, and increased numbers of witchcraft trials. It’s quite possible that this climate crisis was also responsible for the collapse of the Ming Dynasty in China, which was under pressure from peasant rebellions sparked by poor harvests and incursions by pastoralists fleeing the freezing steppes of Asia. It may have been a key cause of revolts in Ukraine, Italy, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, Mexico, and India. And it might have helped launch the French Revolution. Some scholars, including Parker, have suggested that it contributed to the deaths of as much as one-third of the human population.

Manchu cavalry at the Battle of Sarhu, 1619. By the 1640s, the Manchu had conquered most of China. The Little Ice Age contributed to their success, both by pushing the Manchu and their allies down from the freezing steppes of Asia and by weakening the Ming Dynasty through a series of peasant revolts. Public domain.

However, there wasn’t always a straight line from a cold climate to societal collapse. Instead, what happened was that food shortages, disease, and other effects were exploited—usually by a rich or aristocratic minority or a small group of people who saw a way to personally profit. Then, starving or suffering people became radicalized, and pushed back through riots and uprisings. In the process, the bonds that tied people together began to break. Rather than concentrating on common welfare, the state had to deal with issues of division and security. 

Some of the evidence of this pattern can be found in the exceptions, the most significant of which was Tokugawa Japan. Japan suffered from the cold just as much as its Asian neighbors or European states. Here, however, the Shogunate quickly implemented policies to govern the distribution of food to peasants, outmaneuvering those merchants looking for quick profit. It directed the development of ecological practices like forestry management to ensure sustainable wood supplies and the use of fertilizer. Feeling more secure, farmers were able to adapt by diversifying their crops to survive temperature extremes. Better fed, people in cities didn’t become radicalized.

Dutch society became more egalitarian
as the Little Ice Age brought common challenges to everyone, and this “pulling together” may have helped the Netherlands thrive despite the cold. Events like this ice fair show people of all social classes mingling on a frozen river. “Enjoying the Ice Near a Town,” Hendrick Avercamp, 1620. Public domain.

Japan wasn’t the only society to innovate effectively. The Dutch Republic, for example, was able to maintain political stability partly through focusing on trade, partly through agricultural innovations like greenhouses and crop rotation, and partly through coming together to mutually manage infrastructure like windmills and dykes.  In fact, they used new types of engineering to pull huge areas of fertile farmland from the sea!  Parker suggests that this response was key to the rise of the Netherlands as a world power and, eventually, to scientific innovation in Europe (although we shouldn’t forget the role of the colonized people and settlers living under the Dutch Empire, who produced goods that financed the growing power of the Netherlands).

So, what lessons can we take from the events of the Little Ice Age? First, a warning: Climate change isn’t necessarily a sentence of doom, but it is certainly a threat. How societies and individuals choose to react to it will define the lives of generations to come, including our students. Societies seem to do better when they pull together. Forest management and dykes were far more effective strategies compared to anti-Semitism and witch trials. It’s important to stop the cycle of profiteering and radicalization. Stability promotes innovation—whether for conservation or to improve food production or health or, today, to produce clean energy to keep people warm, moving, and productive. All of this is possible, but only if we carefully choose the pathways that can benefit and safeguard all of us in the years to come.

[1] Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, Yale University Press, 2013.

About the author: Trevor Getz is Professor of African History at San Francisco State University. He has written eleven books on African and world history, including Abina and the Important Men. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

Cover image: The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565. Public domain.