- Maunder Minimum and Parker Maximum
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.
Of several remarkable things about Global Crisis, the first to note is its heft. The events it describes were weighty, and so is the book. At 3.2 lbs (1.4kg) and 845 pages, it is hard to pick up. For many historians, it will also be hard to put down.
Students are another matter. In an age when reading more than 140 characters at a time seems passé, few undergraduate students will agree to read a book of this length unless they regard it as the word of God. Parker writes with authority, but not quite that much. The book’s bulk means its audience will likely not extend much past the ranks of his fellow professional historians, despite his envoi that raises the alarm about today’s global warming. I hope I’m wrong here, because the book deserves readers.
But even those readers who do complete the marathon, and appreciate the journey, will feel as Samuel Johnson did about Milton’s Paradise Lost: “None ever wished it longer than it is.”
Parker wants readers to take seriously the proposition that the various economic and political crises of the 17th century were not isolated events but connected. The chief connection, he maintains, is that they all had a component of bad weather behind them. The Little Ice Age, which extended from about 1250 to about 1850, reached its nadir in the 17th century. That is explained partly by a spate of volcanic eruptions, the dust veils of which reduced the amount of sunshine reaching the Earth’s surface, and partly by a slump in the sun’s energy output called the Maunder Minimum. Colder weather, often dryer weather, and more frequent extreme weather became common in many if not all parts of the world. No one disputes this much, although there are debates about just how much colder it was, and how global it was.
Parker vigorously argues that this climate turn destabilized many societies, especially in Eurasia. The typical litany of misfortunes involved (in approximately this chronological order, but with overlaps and variations) harvest failures, soaring food prices, famine, demographic crisis, economic crisis, popular revolt, fiscal crisis, and war—war and more war, which often compounded famines and demographic, economic, and fiscal crises in a grim negative feedback loop. Sometimes extra doses of epidemic diseases added to the misery, although Parker does not often dwell on them.
His outlook receives support from number crunchers who have tried to tally up the amount of violence and plot it against periods of changing climate.1 They find that episodes of climate change, whether warming or cooling, raised the chances of violent conflict. Indeed, they find climate-changed-induced violence all over the human past. So does Liu Ts’ui-jung, in a recent review of China’s climate history. She finds several stretches of adverse climate change provoking political violence that, in terms of the proportion of the Chinese population lost, put the 17th century to shame.2 So she, following several scholars, finds the connections that Parker sees for the mid-17th century in China as a more general pattern, of which the harrowing years of the Ming-Qing transition were only one example, and far from the worst.
The frustrating aspect of this kind of argument is that one never knows how important the bad weather was in producing an unfortunate series of events. Parker is acutely aware of this problem, and confronts it at the end of the book (674-75). But neither he nor anyone else has a solution. Perhaps...