Wednesday, July 17, 2013


The Crisis of the Twenty First Century

If you search the pages of John Froissart’s Chronicles of England, France, and Spain for any notice of the Black Death, you’ll be disappointed. Even though this contemporaneous account of the 14th Century includes many pages telling the story of Edward III’s famous victory at the Battle of Crecy in 1346, you won’t find even a sentence about the plague that arrived in Europe less than two years later. The battle resulted in several thousand deaths. The plague claimed millions and reduced the population of Europe by almost a half. There’s nothing particularly surprising in Froissart’s indifference to a happening of much larger moment than the squabbles of kings. In concentrating on the collision of dynasties and the pageant of wars, Froissart was, to use his own words, interested in “la noble matière du temps passé” just as Herodotus had written his history so that “the great and wonderful deeds of the Greeks and the Barbarians would not be forgotten.” For Froissart, as for so many others, history is about the alpha dogs, a properly mammalian affair. The doings of bacteria don’t count. A fortiori, less showy natural events are at most background for what men do even if they have more to do with the outcome of wars and revolutions than the vanity of princes or the syllogisms of ideologues.

There have certainly been historians who paid attention to natural occurrences like epidemics—Thucydides’ describes in some detail the plague that struck Athens in the early years of the Peloponnesian war and obviously takes it seriously as a causal factor in the decline of his city—but historians have trouble integrating natural occurrences into their narratives, especially when, unlike outbreaks of the plague, non-human inputs into the story occur gradually. The insidiousness of climate change makes it especially difficult for historians to deal with. Even those who take a sociological approach to history—Charles Tilly, Jack Goldstone, Ernst Gellner, Michael Mann*—don’t have much to say about major climate events such as the Little Ice Age though the timing of fits of extended bad weather matches quite well with eras of social upheaval and demographic stasis or collapse. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie wrote a book on the methodological and scientific problems inherent in integrating the natural history of the climate with human history (Times of Feast, Times of Famine). That was back in ’67, though, and its rather surprising that so few serious historians have returned to the theme. Mike Davis related shorter-term climate fluctuations like El Niño to some of the great droughts and famines of the 19th Century in his Late Victorian Holocausts, but Davis focuses in that book on the role of imperialism and free market capitalism in turning these natural events into human catastrophes.

All of this makes Geoffrey Parker’s treatment of climate change as an independent variable in early modern history extremely welcome. Global Crisis is a detailed and wide-ranging examination of the disasters that beset almost all the nations of the Northern Hemisphere between 1618 and 1700 and the famines, floods, and droughts that may account for their otherwise mysterious simultaneity. The English Civil War, the Thirty Years War in Germany, the Fronde in France, civil wars in Turkey, the collapse of Spanish power, the Russian Time of Troubles, the rapid decline of the Polish monarchy, the fall of the Ming dynasty, and the wars that led to the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate all took place within the same few decades. Why? Others have recognized that there was a general crisis, and people like Goldstone have looked for common causes for a worldwide epidemic of political instability. Parker makes the case that the great overarching fact of this unhappy century was the cooling of the climate by a couple of degrees Celsius. What makes this these thesis particularly significant is that the magnitude of the climate change we’re undergoing right now will almost surely be larger than 2°. Even ignoring the more dramatic effects, even mildly increased temperatures raise death rates and lower agricultural productivity.

Parker is a serious historian, well known for his work on the Dutch revolt, the vicissitudes of the Spanish empire, and the military revolution of the 17th Century. After traversing the 800 pages of Global Crisis, few readers will accuses him of oversimplifying anything. His point is not that everything that happened in the 17th Century is explicable in terms of the weather, but that colder weather interacted in specific ways with existing institutions and other forces to produce a spectrum of results, resulting, for example, in stronger central governments in some countries (France, England, Japan) and weakened or failed states in others (Spain, Poland, the Ottoman empire.)

Climatologists talk of anthropogenic CO2 as a forcing, i.e., an independent variable that impacts the climate as a whole. Parker treats climate change in an analogous way as if the effects of colder weather ramified through demographic, agricultural, economic, political, and eventually ideological subsystems of history in much the same way that pushing down the break pedal increases the hydraulic pressure even in distant lines. What’s fascinating about his book is the investigation of how the shorter growing seasons, larger floods, and longer droughts of the Little Ice Age promoted mass starvation, widespread plagues, and endless wars, a Malthusian crisis that lowered the population of many countries by one third in Germany, Poland, Russia, China, and the Ottoman empire. People were actually stunted by the stress as attested by the average height of recruits in the French army, which fell to a little more than 5 feet. The philosopher Hobbes, a child of this era, famously spoke of the life of man as naturally solitary, poor, brutish, and short; but perhaps he was just generalizing from what he could see around him in the stricken Europe of his times.    

Disaster movies predispose us to think of general catastrophe in terms of big, showy disasters; but slow works, too, and it compounds the problems it creates by making it harder for those subject to the crisis to understand and deal with what’s going on. The people of the 17th Century knew that things were much worse than usual; but they trotted out the traditional explanations, which generally involved human turpitude and divine anger. It never seemed to occur to them that it was illogical to blame something that does not change for something that does change. Our behavior is always deplorable, after all. Why did Jehovah pick 1618 to do something about it? To be fair, the historians often fall into the same fallacy, explaining specific regional events like the English Civil War, the fall of the Ming dynasty, or the Thirty Years War by pointing to factors like governmental incompetence as if the governments hadn’t been incompetent before. It’s not that the stupidity of princes or even the general shortcomings of human nature are irrelevant, however. What’s needed—and this is the great virtue of Parker’s book—is an explanation of why and how institutional weaknesses become fatal under novel pressure.

In most places, the ruling powers attempted to deal with the crisis of the 17th Century, which they experienced not as climate change but as endless riots and revolts, by asserting stronger control. The last half of the century was the time in which princes attempted, with variable success, to unify the patchwork of territories that constituted pre-modern kingdoms and also to assert their power at a finer grain. The attempt failed in Poland, Spain, and most of Germany; but it succeeded in France, England, China, and Japan, thus ushering in the Age of Absolutism. Incidentally, a significant feature of the revolution in governance was a great increase in data collection by central governments—Colbert, who is portrayed as the selfless, civil servant in Man in the Iron Mask movies, was actually the relentless, rather sinister master of the Ancien Regime’s version of the NSA. He ransacked the archives of the local French parliaments in order to assemble the immense repository of information needed to assert central control over a fractious society under perpetual pressure, much of it from climate.

It wasn’t just kings who had to adjust. The famines, floods, and droughts of this period caused riots and insurrections that made it difficult for local elites to maintain local dominance with their own resources. The magnates of the older feudal system resented central authority, but they couldn’t continue to extract surpluses from the population in the old feudal way. Where the state didn’t simply break down, a new solution emerged, not one in which privilege was in any sense diminished, but one in which the aristocrats gave over political power to the state in exchange for service in the military and civil service. In lieu of lords of the castle, the great ones became courtiers at Versailles or Edo. This transition did not occur easily or peacefully, but under the right circumstances it could work, in part because declines in population made it easier for the powers that be to deal with fresh climatic disasters. There were simply fewer people left to feed, and the improved efficiency of government led to better responses to emergencies.  

It may not be reasonable to draw a parallel between the emergence of Absolutism in the 17th Century and the growth of technocratic totalitarianism in our times, at least in point of what’s causing nations all around the world to screw the lid on as tightly as they can, imprison large portions of their citizenry, and put cameras on the street lamps. As I have suggested before, the increase in inequality and the loss of political freedom that goes with seems to be largely a consequence of the absence of any credible threat to power-holding groups in the wake of the collapse of the Left. Where people at large can be more effectively exploited, they will be, simply because they can be. Domination of the many by the few is the default case, at least since the Neolithic; and it is times and places where liberty is more general that call for special explanation.  

Unfortunately, the worst consequences of the current round of climate change lie ahead of us; and the concerted action required to deal with the consequences of climate change really will justify additional centralization and executive rule, especially if, as appears likely, the squabbling oligarchs and culture warriors will prevent responsible representative government from functioning effectively. There simply won’t be any alternative. It very much matters, however, who will be in charge and what they believe in. People are forever saying that the devil is in the details, but I’m inclined to embrace the slightly different cliché: God is in the particulars. The 17th Century shows that a range of responses are possible even under dire conditions. Thus while France opted for personal rule and the suspension of representation under Louis XIV and Japan opted for stasis and isolation under a rigid oligarchy, England kicked out its would-be Sun King, James II, in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and devised a workable constitutional monarchy that combined a stronger and more rational bureaucracy with a functioning parliament. Unfortunately, the political history of the era also provides plenty of precedents for mere collapse as a response to challenge. The key variable seems to have been whether the aristocrats could be conquered or bought off or if they preferred the destruction of their nations to losing some of their power as was the case, for example, in Poland where one of the great powers of Europe was paralyzed by the nobility’s reckless use of the veto to prevent effective responses to internal and external challenges.

As I freely admit, historical analogies are bunk. Our situation differs from the Global Crisis of the 17th Century in an enormous number of ways. Our technology is vastly beyond anything available or even imaginable in the past, for example. On the other hand, since a Malthusian crash has yet to occur, the governments of the 21st Century will have to deal with climate change at a time when populations are at an all time maximum and we’ve already availed ourselves of some of the technical options to avoid calamity this long—there is no guarantee that a second green revolution is practically possible. Even if you consult history merely as a stimulus to thought, however, it seems to me that what happened before in the earlier climate crisis does point to some of the dimensions of the problems we’re going to face.

Oddly, the climate denialists have more clarity about what’s going on than many others. When they aren’t just shilling for oil and coal companies, their opposition to the possibility of global warming is rooted in a fear of the increasing reach of central governments or international agencies. It isn’t so much that they think that global warming is unlikely as that they find the political consequences of dealing with it intolerable. The science is simply not the issue. Indeed, you sometimes encounter denialists who accept the possibility that something may have to be done after all, at which point they begin to dream about drastic, science fiction-style technical solutions. Filling the upper atmosphere with rocket-borne sulfur dioxide to block the sun or dumping tons of iron into the ocean to increase uptake of CO2 by bacteria strikes them as preferable to the horrors of more stringent fuel efficiency standards, subsidized photovoltaic power, or reminding people to turn off the lights.

Climate denialism is no more about atmospheric physics than creationism is about biology. What it is about is not mysterious. Especially in the U.S., denialism is largely about protecting the freedom of elites to control people locally and extract rents from them without paying too much of a cut to a central authority. The rules and regulations of central governments often protect and enlarge the rights of individuals; but they inevitably interfere with the prerogatives of bosses, clerics, and fathers. The liberties they swear to protect are their own, and in their usage “liberty” retains its ancient legal meaning, which was privilege as when you read in old books about the liberties of particular English cities or colleges at Oxford or Cambridge. In those days a liberty was a license to legally do things that other institutions or individuals could not. Dealing with climate change really does impinge on such liberties. Crucially, it limits the right of CO2-producing industries to avoid paying damages for the harm they do to every one. Meanwhile, it also irritates larger groups like car owners, who also think of their privileges as human rights; and this automotive Herrenvolk is far more numerous than the tiny group of oil and coal execs who are the only ones who substantially benefit from delaying action on climate.    

Unfortunately, while climate skepticism is about politics and therefore operates largely in the realm of the unreal, climate change is mere fact and will take place regardless of anybody’s ideological posturing. As it takes place, governments will have to deal with it and its consequences, though like the regimes of the 17th Century they may not recognize or admit the underlying cause of increasing social and economic disorder. This may be possible for a long time. Just as one cannot prove that any given heat wave, drought, or hurricane is a result of global warming, it will continue to be possible to deny that revolutions, civil wars, and economic stagnation are indirect effects of the same forcing. This second-order denialism may already be in play. How many accounts of the Syrian debacle point out that the drying out of the countryside is one of the reasons that Homs and Damascus are full of displaced, miserable peasants?  

As previously averred, I’m dubious about drawing any conclusions from historical parallels, though like Levi-Strauss, another skeptic about history, I also recognize that even if history takes the place of myth in our thinking, it is not really possible to dispense with it, if only as an inevitable rhetoric. Speaking of Levi-Strauss: back in 1962, in the last chapter of the Savage Mind, the anthropologist wrote a famous put-down of Jean Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reasoning for its privileging of history, especially a piece of history sacred to leftists of his era. “... the problem raised by the critique de la raison dialectique is reducible to the question: under what conditions is the myth of the French Revolution possible?” Levi-Strauss goes on to argue that the history that matters continually changes. “We are still ‘in focus’ so far as the French Revolution is concerned, but so we should have been in relation to the Fronde** had we lived earlier.” He goes on to claim and even demonstrate using the example of the Fronde that “thought is powerless to extract a scheme of interpretation from events long past.” An old pedant like me can’t resist noting the irony that books like Parker’s Global Crisis are showing that the Fronde may be coming back in focus after all. 

* Michael Mann the sociologist, not Michael Mann the climatologist.

** The Fronde was a series of revolts from 1648 to 1653 against the regency government of Cardinal Mazarin, who was ruling France in the name of the juvenile Louis XIV. The regional parliaments and many nobles objected to the taxes the regency imposed without the permission of the Estates General and had other grievances. Few of us remember this affair now—in many history books it’s represented as a rather ridiculous insurrection conducted by incompetent rebels. Louis XIV never forgot it.

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