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Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century

Penny Roberts applauds an account of how climate change shaped 17th-century life - and what we can learn today. 

Published: July 31, 2013 at 8:05 am
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Reviewed by: Penny Roberts
Author: Geoffrey Parker
Publisher: Yale Univeristy Press
Price (RRP): £29.99


The use of history to engage with current debates about the impact of climate change is not a task to be taken lightly; to give it a full scholarly treatment in a global context even more so. Non-specialists may well be unfamiliar with the long-established and intermittent debate about the phenomenon of a general crisis in 17th-century Europe and beyond, which is the focus of this monumental work by the distinguished historian Geoffrey Parker.

From early on the 'crisis' thesis encompassed the so-called 'Litte Ice Age', a period of prolonged climatic instability, with its 'tipping point' (as Parker describes it) in the 17th century. Parker's aim is to embed the importance of the topical subject of climate change more firmly within the established historical debate, while also seeking to make it relevant to our current global predicament. He succeeds in doing this by skilfully weaving the issue throughout the text, thus keeping it at the forefront of the reader's mind; an impressive acheivement in a text of this length.

An 800-page volume is necessarily comprehensive, but this is a formidable piece of scholarship that goes beyond its evident grand scale and ambition as a work of synthesis. It manages to successfully combine an in-depth treatment of its subject in the manner of an authoritative research monograph with a broad geographical coverage, encompassing China, Japan, Russia, the Ottoman empire, Mughal India, Africa and the Americas, signalling both similarities and contrasts in the regional experience of crisis.

Parker eases the reader in gently with a succinct prologue providing a clear, balanced and engaging overview of the historical and methodological context of the topic, while the introduction outlines in more detail the parameters of the 'crisis' thesis and the structure and approach and the rest of the book. Successive chapters on climate change, war and famine are followed by case studies of the political, social and economic upheavals resulting from the crisis, including revolts and rebellion.

Aside from the impact of crisis, Parker also surveys the cultural legacy and longer term results, again covering every facet of pre-modern existence in the process, sensitive to issues of gender as well as social status. The text is clearly signposted, allowing readers to dip in and out, with frequent subheadings and supported by graphs and tables to make its statistical and other evidence more comprehensible. 

Parker's own position is clear, but he chooses to persuade rather than to hector. After reading this book, few can doubt the impact in the 17th century of severe fluctuatons in climate and subsequent adverse weather conditions - characterised by a sustained fall in temperature and increased precipitation, restricted tree growth and fewer sunspots. The array of contemporary evidence that Parker provides - anecdotal and scientific, visual and extraordinary (as with the freezing of the Bosporus) - is overwhelming. At a time of universal dependence on agriculture (both for sustenance and livelihood) the results were disastrous with widespread crop failures, depresed yields and, inevitably, famine for peoples wholly sustained by staple crops. 

Vulnerability to disease and stunted growth compunded the difficulties - especially for the very young - leading to a major contraction if population after a period of steady growth. But "it required the misguided policies pursued by religious and political leaders to turn the crisis caused by sudden climate change into catastrophe". This need to consider not only the impact of fluctuations in meteorological conditions on the population, but the human response dominates Parker's argument and provides its focus.

This book is scholarly and readable, bursting with fully documented examples and authoritative covrage of a vast swathe of 17th-century history, written on a broad canvas but accessible and compelling. It represents a worthy distillation of several decades of Parker's scholarship, and should provide food for thought for academic historians and interested readers alike. This is especially so in view of our present preoccupations with global crisis and fierce divisions about the causes of contemporary climate change.

Above all, the book makes it clear that, whatever one's views on the man-made contribution to 'global warning', history can teach us that human action is still necessary to mitigate its effects. As Parker concludes: "Whether it is better to invest more resources in preparation today or live with the consequences of inaction tomorrow...unlike our ancestors...we possess both the resources and technology to make that choice."


Penny Roberts is associate professor in history at the University of Warwick and co-editor of History at the End of the World? History, Climate Change and the Possibility of Closure (Humanities-Ebooks, 2010)


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