The Genesis of Global Crisis
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The Genesis of Global Crisis

Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (Yale University Press, 2013) is one of the most important history books of the last year. It has been widely heralded as an extraordinary scholarly achievement. Parker makes the case for a link between climate change and the worldwide catastrophe that occurred 350 years ago. We asked Parker to begin our forum with an account on the book’s long gestation. Then three prominent scholars, Kenneth Pomeranz, J.R. McNeill, and Jack Goldstone, comment on Global Crisis, followed by Parker’s rejoinder.

I remember as if it were yesterday the moment when I became interested in the Global Crisis. I had read while an undergraduate the articles on “The General Crisis” by Eric Hobsbawm and Hugh Trevor-Roper, as well as the papers critiquing their views, published in the journal Past & Present between 1954 and 1960.1 Although breathtakingly erudite, the limited scope of the debate surprised me: none of the authors strayed far beyond the conceptual and geographical framework stated in the title of Hobsbawm’s first article—“The General Crisis of the European Economy in the Seventeenth Century.” I knew that there was something missing, but I did not realize what it was until one evening in 1976 when I listened to an interview on BBC Radio with John A. Eddy, a solar physicist. Eddy had just published a paper in Science on the “Maunder Minimum”—the period between 1645 and 1705 when virtually no sunspots appeared—and he speculated that the prolonged “sunspot minimum” noted by contemporary astronomers during (ironically) the reign of the “Sun King,” Louis XIV, caused an episode of global cooling that earth scientists had christened the Little Ice Age. Eddy also hinted that the Little Ice Age might have contributed to the General Crisis, a suggestion that I found so plausible and exciting that my former doctoral advisee, Lesley M. Smith, and I decided to edit a collection of essays on the subject. We requested and received Jack’s permission to include his essay in our volume of essays, entitled The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, published in 1978.2

The debate first took a global turn in 1989 when William S. Atwell, a historian of Ming China, put together a panel on “The General Crisis in East Asia” at the annual meeting of the American Association for Asian Studies. The following year Modern Asian Studies published the contributions by John Richards, Anthony Reid, Niels Steensgaard, and William Atwell.3 In 1997 Lesley Smith and I included these essays in a new and expanded edition of The General Crisis, and a few months later I realized that I had identified my next research project.

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A late 17th-century English woodcut. From The two constant lovers . . . (London, 1695). Courtesy of the Beinecke Library, Yale University.

An email to a friend in February 1998 described what happened next:

Last night I awoke at 4 AM and realized that I wanted to write a book about the General Crisis of the seventeenth century—not a collection of essays (been there, done that) but an integrated narrative and analytical account of the first global crisis for which we possess adequate documentation for Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Europe. My account would adopt a Braudelian structure, examining long-term factors (climate above all), medium-run changes (economic fluctuations and so on) and “events” (from the English Civil War and the crisis in the French and Spanish Monarchies, through the murder of two Ottoman sultans, the civil wars in India and sub-Saharan Africa to the collapse of Ming China and the wars around the Great Lakes of North America). Besides examining each of the upheavals of the mid-century, the book would offer explanations of why such synchronic developments occur with so little warning and why they end. Although not the first “general crisis” known to historians, it is the first one for which adequate data exists worldwide. Since it addresses issues of concern today— the impact of global climatic change and sharp economic recession on government and...