- Weather, War, and Welfare:Persistence and Change in Geoffrey Parker’s 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.
Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis is a landmark book for environmental history and for world history. In part, this is because of the increasing maturity of both the science and the history on which it builds. We can now be sufficiently precise about at least some past weather events that we can tie them to the sorts of political and social events that unfold in months and years, not just the more diffuse patterns of decades or centuries. This allows us to write histories in which both relatively large patterns of climate and specific human decisions matter, in a way that was not possible when Annales historians pioneered discussions of climate and history more than thirty years ago.
We also now have strong enough monographic literatures on many parts of the world that no one scholar needs to have all the time and languages that would be required to read intensively in all the relevant sources; while the challenges remain formidable (and Parker’s bibliography is intimidating) we have come a long way. This book is still more about Europe than anyplace else—in part because of Parker’s own strengths and those of the literature, but also in part because it is focused on instances of state breakdown, and Europe simply had more states per population to break down than did Asia. (Sub-Saharan Africa and Australia, for which documentation is sparse, figure very little in this book, and the discussion of the Americas is, for similar reasons, mostly about the places with substantial European settlements.) But both ends of Eurasia have been taken seriously, in a way that reflects both Parker’s remarkable persistence and the useful labors of many others. Part of what is so impressive about this book is precisely the breadth and depth of reading behind it, and thus the nuance with which it is able to discuss its many far-flung case studies. But for current purposes, I will ignore those merits, focusing on the book as a synthesis of those cases, and the arguments it puts forward on a global level.
The book’s main global thesis is easy to state, though this does not make it any less bold or original—and I would further emphasize that Parker has much more to say than this summary captures. Unusually cool and otherwise troublesome weather for most of the period 1600-1710 resulted in numerous poor harvests; and in a world where many people lived close to subsistence—in part because the largely benign 16th-century climate had helped populations grow—this was a formula for trouble. But while the ideal government policies for these circumstances would have involved lighter taxes, the stockpiling of emergency provisions and other welfare measures, and, above all, refraining from war, almost all states did the opposite. (Japan, to which we will return, was the major exception.) The 17th century was exceptional in the frequency of wars, with many countries [End Page 30] experiencing only a few years at peace; the scale and destructiveness of warfare also increased, both due to secular tends (e.g., greater firepower) and more temporary ones (soldiers trying to live off the land when the land was not even yielding enough for the locals). Costs and thus taxes also rose sharply. One result was increased resistance to states from their own people, at all levels of society; while Parker begins his catalogue of 17th-century social ills with warfare between states (26),1 by the end of the book he is primarily...