Global Crisis – Geoffrey Parker
Wow – this is a big book, over 680 pages of text with almost as many pages of annotation. Fortunately, I read it in e-format so I didn’t risk injury to my back or wrists by lugging it around.
It is also big in its scope, tracking world history between 1618 and the 1680s, a period of significant turmoil – wars, civil strife, pestilence, fires, famine, floods, volcanic eruptions, cold summers, freezing winters and so on. Parker’s thesis is that the key to all this world-wide disruption is significant changes in the earth’s climatic conditions caused in part by absence of sun spot activity, causing a general reduction in temperatures here on earth. This in turn triggered an abnormal number of El Nino events and volcanic disturbances which in turn impacted the planet’s weather system. In turn this generated famines and civil unrest, fuelled further by the authorities’ ruthless attempts to drive up taxation to fund their wars. The number of kings and rulers being executed or murdered was phenomenally high during this era.
Parker is magisterial in his ability to condense a country or a region’s history into a few, elegantly crafted pages – thankfully, or else the book would be even bigger. I now know more about 17th century history in Japan and China than I ever thought I would know.
The death toll for the period is harrowing – the Thirty Years War in middle Europe cost those countries upwards of a third of their population (illuminatingly, Germans regard it as more devastating than the Second World War), the French civil war between 1649 and 1653 caused a million to lose their lives, the English Civil War accounted for 7% of the population (compared with 2% in the First World War) and 20% in Ireland, the upheavals in China following the collapse of the Ming dynasty led to a million casualties. This is all before the predations of famine and disease and the innate cruelty of the people of the time – in the cold winter of 1641 Irish Catholics stripped their Protestant neighbours naked and turned them out into the snow causing thousands to freeze to death. As Hobbes in Leviathan, written during the English Civil War, states, the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.
Parker handles his vast subject matter well and pleases me as a logophile by introducing me to a number of new words, such as peccatogenic (attributing disasters to human misconduct) and tanistry (a form of succession), to name just two. Parker develops his thesis by pointing out that we are going through a period of significant climatic change and there are lessons to be learned from the 17th century, particularly in understanding the implications of global change and not exacerbating its effect by poor policy decisions but, instead, trying to build in societal resilience, if we are not to face our own form of 17th century melt-down.
There are many interesting snippets of information – for exsmple women led many of the protests because as their legal status was that of chattels they could not be convicted of wrong-doing – and some good things came out of it – the rise of stimulants such as coffee, narcotics and tobacco as people tried to find their own form of escape from the unremitting gloom and the development of a property insurance system, fuelled by the proliferation of fires caused by the unduly hot and dry weather.
A marvellous book but steel your nerve before tackling it!