“It’s the Climate, Stupid”A review essay of Brooke, Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey; and Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century
Increase Mather had gout in his hands. It flared up in the cold. The 1690s must have been trying for him, because that decade, almost everywhere, was frigid. “It has been a severe pinching winter,” he complained in his diary in 1698. “The dumb creatures perish.” Not only was it deeply, bitterly cold; it was also dry. New England grew thirsty in the late 1690s during a “sore and Long continued drought,” “distresing in almost all places.” Crops came up short, and people went hungry. “Tis such a Time of scarcity as the like never was,” Mather wrote. Unfortunately for those living in the Northeast, this distress coincided with another calamity: war. In Europe men were fighting the War of the League of Augsburg (1688–97), which erupted in England’s North American colonies as King William’s War and inaugurated decades of violence between New England, New France, and Native allies. The weather worsened the war’s miseries. In some places, rotten corn was all that could be gotten. Men stole from the mills anyway. “Never did I heare such a cry for bread,” wrote Joanna Cotton in 1697. She feared French and Indian raids, but she also worried about hunger. In other letters and diaries, too, “wars & scarcity” appear together, as if moving hand in hand.1 [End Page 159]
The link has been less visible to historians. Much has been written about war in the colonies, but less about cold. Climate has not been a prominent theme in recent studies of early America. How did the vicissitudes of weather, as well as more long-term changes in climate, shape early American and Atlantic history? To date, it is hard to say. Scholars have long known that European expansion took place during the Little Ice Age, a global cooling period that lasted—arguably—from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century. No one is quite sure what caused this chilly trend, but thanks to emerging climate data we do know what years were chilliest. The 1690s were outstandingly cold years, possibly the coldest in centuries. It was a miserable decade across the Northern Hemisphere. Famine in Estonia killed tens of thousands. Scotland starved, during seven “ill years” of economic disaster and bad harvests. Is this the War of the League of Augsburg’s wider context? Did colonists suffer simply because the war “impoverish[ed] them”?2 Or did the biting weather contribute to the violence? Few have asked. Early America’s climate history is still considerably unexplored. But, backed by clues from stalactites, glacial ice cores, and the squiggly circles of tree rings, among other evidence touted as the “new climate science,” scholars are beginning to turn their attention to such stories. Two new global histories of climate, by John L. Brooke and Geoffrey Parker, offer glimpses of the way forward.
Brooke’s Climate Change and the Course of Global History is a big book. It covers the entire earth, through all of human history. Like other recent practitioners of “big” or “deep” history, he tells the human story on an evolutionary scale.3 While others have also crashed through the barriers of what was once called “prehistory” and have made grand global claims without relying primarily on written records, Brooke is the first to examine the twists and turns of the human experience using hard climate science. His object is to understand the role of nature—or, more precisely, climate—in human history. In Brooke’s view, it is a vital role. Climate, he argues, has driven the course of humanity’s fate, generally, including the “pattern and pace” (i) of human evolution, the emergence of agriculture and the state, and the dips and swells of demography and disease. None of this, says Brooke, has been slow or steady. Rather, it has been a [End Page 160] struggle. Abrupt climate change has punctuated human history, with “long periods of relative stability” (9) broken jarringly by “global climatic crises” (8) that were, in turn, accompanied by catastrophic disease and warfare. Such environmental crises, Brooke adds, were generally not caused by overpopulation. Only recently has that pattern become an “earth-systemic crisis” (9). In other words, Thomas Malthus was wrong: humans have not really overrun their environments, historically. Mostly, the environment has overrun them.
Nature is not always monstrous in Brooke’s book, but his humans are batted, buffeted, and pushed by climate forces throughout. We learn how a cooling earth turned apes into humans and perhaps even sparked an “abrupt shift” (103) from Neanderthals to modern humans in Europe, by spawning misery and mortality that allowed abandoned regions to be colonized by those left behind. Agriculture emerged from another climate reversal. Ten to fifteen thousand years ago, at the “sudden end” (121) of the Pleistocene, the cold, dry world turned into a warm, wet one, with a climate more conducive to cultivation. In the late Holocene, when that world was then rocked by cold, drought, and floods, Brooke explains that states, for the first time, arose out of the chaos in several places: Peru, and along the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, Indus, and Yellow Rivers. Natural catastrophe, in these cases, cratered kin-based village populations, and “from the flotsam of the shattered village traditions” (190) arose a new elite of leaders, priests, and warriors.
Despite the book’s sprawling scope, Brooke insists that important climatic shifts often occurred over relatively brief periods, not millennia; their effects can thus be treated as “specific events” unfolding “in real time” (36). The “immediate origins of the early state,” he writes, “lay in a sharp crisis that was probably measured in decades, perhaps a couple of centuries” (190). Brooke also weighs in on historiographical debates surrounding episodes that happened in decidedly historic, not geologic, time, such as the question of what caused the fall of Rome. (His answer: flooding and soil erosion certainly contributed.) At the end of the book, Brooke moves out of the medieval world and into the modern, a newly human-driven age dubbed the “Anthropocene.” The origins of human-produced warming, says Brooke, lie in the eighteenth century, when global populations swelled and agriculture spread suddenly. Human influence on climate then took off with the late nineteenth century’s industrialization, he argues, and became measurable in about the mid-twentieth century, as temperatures—boosted mainly by industrial emissions in the United States, Europe, the Soviet Bloc, and, later, China—climbed higher than what had been typical in the Holocene. Humans, for the first time, changed climate.
Although it covers a fraction of Brooke’s chronology, Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis is no less ambitious. The seventeenth century, as an era that witnessed the coldest depths of the Little Ice Age, is Parker’s [End Page 161] concern. If cold, it was also a time of “General Crisis” (xvii) and worldwide upheaval: rebellion in Russia, revolt in Ireland, and the crumbling of a dynasty in China, to name just a few of the period’s cataclysms. Parker aims to prove a link between global cooling and global catastrophe, which, surprisingly, historians generally have not done. Few have even “include[d] the weather in their analyses” (xv), he writes. (Others have denied climate’s importance altogether. “Short-term climatic crises,” the economic historian Jan de Vries once wrote dismissively, “stand in relation to economic history as bank robberies to the history of banking” [xv].) A few recent histories benefiting from new climatic data, such as Timothy Brook’s The Troubled Empire, on China, and Sam White’s The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire, Parker notes, have tied seventeenth-century crises to climate.4 But Parker is the first to do it globally. And he wants to connect climate change to war and revolution in ways that are more than accidental, to convince readers that the Little Ice Age did not merely happen to coincide with an “unparalleled spate of revolutions and state breakdowns around the world” (xvii). It helped cause them.
Parker creates a compelling portrait of a disordered world beset by environmental crises. Opening chapters survey the globe, finding patterns. He maps the Little Ice Age and its effects on global food supply. He outlines wrongheaded policies pursued by states, exacerbating the hardships of climate change. He then identifies areas especially vulnerable to these challenges. Composite states sometimes suffered, for instance, because rulers’ authority was often already shaky. Cities and marginal lands were strained because they relied more heavily on crops vulnerable to climatic stress, and cities, moreover, became targets during warfare. Finally, he moves into case studies that illustrate his theory. Chapter by chapter, east to west, the reader visits places that experienced such crises: China, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Germany and Scandinavia, the Iberian Peninsula, Great Britain and Ireland, and others.
In each case, Parker is careful to meld the story of climatic stressors with that of human ones. For instance, Charles I might have been a “problematic king” (354), irresolute, obsessive, and stunted by an “unhappy childhood” (356), but in the series of events leading to the English Civil War, some things “lay beyond [his] control” (328). Poor harvests, disease, and poverty, Parker notes, as well as the king’s disastrous policies, contributed to the parliamentary crisis of the 1620s. Richly detailed, Parker’s narrative incorporates the voices of those battered by [End Page 162] the century’s trials and uses primary testimony to humanize his argument. Specialists, in a few cases, may quibble with his choice of voices. (Governor William Berkeley of Virginia, for example, provides the commentary on King Philip’s War, while Adriaen van der Donck appears in a section on New France.) But those quirks do not detract from the book’s power. Global Crisis makes a persuasive case that the seventeenth century’s global calamities bloomed from a “fatal synergy” (xxii) between natural and human forces.
The book concludes by considering the aftermath of the “General Crisis,” with Parker noting that later in the century governments learned to avoid revolts by dealing more effectively with climatic pressures (choosing to put resources into welfare rather than warfare). Scholars familiar with the wars that marred the 1690s and beyond (the War of the League of Augsburg, the War of the Spanish Succession, Chinese conquests in Asia) may have difficulty accepting the notion that this later period was somehow less of a “crisis.” But Parker insists that people fared better in these years. He raises the theory of “creative destruction” (590): those who had survived the earlier disasters learned coping strategies. Diseases were contained through quarantine and inoculation, crops were better chosen to resist climate stress, and states intervened to prevent starvation (by creating public granaries, for example). Moreover, because far fewer people were alive by century’s end, food supplies were not so quickly outstripped by human appetites. Thus, while war and climatic distress returned in the 1690s, they were not “accompanied by similar social and political upheavals” (589). They did not spark revolutions.
In both books, the Americas appear only peripherally. Both authors cite the problematic lack of evidence from the Western Hemisphere. Parker argues that the Americas might not have been as adversely affected by the seventeenth-century cooldown, but, as he admits, the jury is still out. There is, however, plenty to interest scholars of the early modern Atlantic world. The Little Ice Age, according to Brooke, helped catapult Europe into modernity. While it “did not cause the rise of the early modern empires,” he writes, it “certainly shaped” (438) their global expansion. Severe drought clearly put “New World peoples at a disadvantage when they first encountered European explorers” (439). And if climate stacked the deck against Native peoples, their suffering was compounded by a toxic blend of cold, drought, and disease. One of the more astonishing possibilities raised by Brooke (though not originally his theory) is that New World epidemics might have contributed to—in some sense, even caused—the Little Ice Age. Such massive death rates, he writes, would have caused a “significant carbon drawdown” (441), dropping global temperatures, and in fact, climate data shows that global CO2 levels decreased sharply between 1550 and 1650, “exactly when the New World death tolls [End Page 163] were at their highest” (441).5 Cooling had other bleak consequences. The fickle climate of the Little Ice Age, Brooke writes, also “set the conditions” (443) for the Atlantic slave trade to emerge. Crop failures and resulting warfare wrought havoc with West African states, driving ever more people into slavery—just as Europeans began probing the coast.
Still, early America and Native America are mostly conspicuous by their absence. Much climatic evidence from the Americas may yet be pending, but early Americanists have not entirely ignored climate. Scholars know quite a bit, for instance, about what early modern Europeans thought about climate. Often, their ideas were misguided, and that made for some painful adjustments in the New World. The English assumed, based on ancient theories, that in a given latitude climates would be similar, but Newfoundland winters, it turned out, were not like London’s. Colonists nonetheless clung to their erroneous expectations, in some cases threatening the entire project of colonization. Promoters promised bumper crops of tropical plants that failed to thrive in cooler climates, and migrants came ill-prepared for their new environments. Some believed they could change the climate. As trees were cleared and land was cultivated, the New World was expected to become more hospitable and temperate—more like England or France. But Englishmen also feared that they might, in turn, be changed by the climate. Particular bodies were thought to match particular climates. African bodies, for example, were believed to be well-suited to hot climates and therefore good candidates to tend the exotic crops of the New World tropics. By contrast, the English worried about subjecting their own bodies to hot climates: would hotter climes turn them hot-tempered? Did heat cause disease? Did climate affect skin color, and would migration therefore turn Englishmen into Indians?6 [End Page 164]
Such colonial anxieties are well known. But the concrete effects of climate and climate change on early America and Atlantic expansion are less well gauged. Some of that story, happily, is emerging. Historians have long acknowledged that climate influenced colonization, driving some settlements toward the heat-fueled riches of staple crops and others toward the lesser returns of colder climes. Some of the earliest colonial projects, we now know, were dogged by acute environmental challenges. The Roanoke colony was planted during a severe drought, as was Jamestown. It is also becoming clear that climate often shaped Native-European encounters. Extreme cold, as Peter C. Mancall has written, forced European newcomers to work with Natives as they attempted to penetrate the Arctic. Violence in the Cheseapeake was predicated on food struggles, aggravated by drought and cold. In New England, a major hurricane helped spark the Pequot War. Climate forces contributed, too, to the rise and fall of Native American peoples in the era of contact. In the Plains, crippling droughts put pressure on bison populations and exacerbated the severity of epidemics. At the same time, the Illinois actively drew power from their seat at the juncture of two ecological zones (an “ecotone”).7
New stories about climate’s role in North American history, in other words, are beginning to appear. But much remains to be done. The field still lacks a broad, continental view of climate in early American history, as well as a more textured sense of how climate forces contributed to particular events and developments. Scholars remain blind to the climatic dimensions of some of the most foundational events in early American and Atlantic history. Is it well known, for instance, that the Great London Fire of 1666 struck after a dangerously dry summer? Or that it was one of many fires in Europe that year, all feeding on parched wood? To read Brooke’s and Parker’s work is to sense something rare: a great trove of new [End Page 165] source material looming. Only in very recent years has new technology made it possible to quarry the climate patterns of the past. Mostly, this “natural archive” (Parker, xvi) has been untapped by historians. But, in pondering the polar ice cores, the sediments settled into lakes and bogs, the pollen deposits, and the chemical signatures written into ancient corals and shells, among other evidence conjured by these books, one imagines the possibilities.
How did climate change shape, or skew, early American economies and markets? How did it influence what people ate, in different periods, and how often did it cause food shortages? What amount of early American violence is attributable to climatic effects? If read with climate data in mind, how many wars of conquest or rebellion and how many skirmishes in the backcountry would look different? To what extent did climatic ripples, as well as smaller-scale weather events, influence the many encounters between Native and European peoples as they met across the continent? Because climate forces do not respect national, political, or even regional boundaries, one great potential of climate history is that it offers opportunities to transcend the many regional and imperial bounds in early American historiography. One wonders: did climate forces similarly impact colonization in New France, in New England, in New Netherland, and in New Spain? And might various events that unfolded in those places be related in ways that historians have not yet realized? Climate study also promises continued insights into Native American history, both before and after colonization.8 It is an exciting moment for this field. Many answers, it seems, are forthcoming.
Brooke’s and Parker’s books are majestic. They are imposing and powerful. But it is worth filling in the blanks of environmental history on a less mammoth canvas. “Writing global history is not easy” (xxv), admits Parker. One problem with history on this scale, unhappily, is that it very often blunts human agency. Once upon a time, most historians who pondered nature were environmental determinists. Many, writing just as the profession took shape, pictured men and women at the mercy of their environments. New England’s rocky soils, gouged by glacial recession, wrote N. S. Shaler in 1896, pushed its inhabitants toward seafaring and manufacturing; its deeply pooled harbors—the very shape of the land—determined the region’s human history.9 Writing The Great Plains in the 1920s, Walter Prescott Webb asked: “What did the Great Plains do to men?” (Or, more pointedly: “What did the Great Plains do to our ‘insides’”?) Webb thought the 98th meridian, west of which scant rainfall turns the land [End Page 166] into a “timberless, and semi-arid” plain, a veritable fault. Almost everything that crossed it was “broken and remade.” Some of this remaking, for Webb, seems almost supernatural: “When people first crossed this line they did not immediately realize the imperceptible change that had taken place in their environment,” he writes, nor “did they foresee all the full consequences which that change was to bring in their own characters.”10
But is there such a direct line between climate and behavior? Or, in quite so many historical cases, between climate and catastrophe? Brooke, arguing forthrightly that climate change has long controlled the fate of humanity, knows that scholars will be uncomfortable with the notion that “natural forces in some way circumscribe human agency” (2). Agency, he admits, may be the “central problem” (3) of his book. “I have not come to this nature-driven argument easily” (8), he confesses. Parker, for his part, is more careful to cast the disasters of the seventeenth century as resulting from a combination of environmental and human factors—an “interplay” (xxvii) of forces, to use his word. Nonetheless, in reading such broad global analyses, one cannot help but feel pushed to conclude that the roots of most human catastrophes lie with nature. Or, as Parker titles his epilogue, “It’s the climate, stupid” (686).
Or is it? Until more work is done, we cannot be certain. These two books are deeply important, and they should prompt us to ask new questions of past environments. But as we turn our eyes toward the science of earth systems, we should not lose sight of Increase Mather’s gouty hands. [End Page 167]
1. Increase Mather diary, Feb. 26, 1697/8, Increase Mather Papers, microfilm, reel 16, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston (“severe pinching”); Increase Mather diary, Mar. 19, 1697/8, ibid. (“dumb creatures”); Increase Mather diary, Apr. 18, 1696, ibid. (“Tis such a Time”); Increase Mather diary, Feb. 22, 1695/6, ibid. (“wars & scarcity”); John Marshall diary, July 1697, Pre-Revolutionary Diaries Collection, microfilm, reel 6, Massachusetts Historical Society (“sore and Long continued”); Joanna Cotton to Increase Mather, Mar. 13, 1697, Emma L. Coleman transcription, Emma L. Coleman, Research Notes, 1920, Ms. N-1009, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston (“Never did”).
2. Joanna Cotton to Increase Mather, Mar. 13, 1697, Emma L. Coleman, Research Notes (“impoverish[ed] them”); Jean M. Grove, The Little Ice Age (London, 1988); Brian Fagan, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300–1850 (New York, 2000).
3. See, for example, Fred Spier, The Structure of Big History: From the Big Bang until Today (Amsterdam, 1996); David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley, Calif., 2004); Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York, 2005); Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain (Berkeley, Calif., 2008); Edmund Russell, Evolutionary History: Uniting History and Biology to Understand Life on Earth (New York, 2011).
4. Timothy Brook, The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (Cambridge, Mass., 2010); Sam White, The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire (New York, 2011).
5. The carbon “drawdown” theory was originally argued by William F. Ruddiman. It can be found in Ruddiman, “The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands of Years Ago,” Climatic Change 61, no. 3 (December 2003): 261–93; Ruddiman, Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate (Princeton, N.J., 2005), 119–46. The more recent debate is captured in Ruddiman, “The Early Anthropogenic Hypothesis: Challenges and Responses,” Reviews of Geophysics 45, no. 4 (December 2007): RG4001. To be precise, Brooke is pointing to the “sudden disappearance of at least three-quarters of the native peoples of the Americas during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (442). In some cases, climatic factors contributed to such high mortality rates. A sixteenth-century megadrought, Brooke explains, stoked disease in Mexico that killed millions. For recent research on such epidemics, accounting for social as well as environmental factors, see, for example, Paul Kelton, Epidemics and Enslavement: Biological Catastrophe in the Native Southeast, 1492–1715 (Lincoln, Neb., 2007); David S. Jones, “Virgin Soils Revisited,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 60, no. 4 (October 2003): 703–42.
6. Histories of science and medicine have produced some of the most important commentary on climate in early American history. See, for example, Gary Puckrein, “Climate, Health and Black Labor in the English Americas,” Journal of American Studies 13, no. 2 (August 1979): 179–93; Karen Ordahl Kupperman, “The Puzzle of the American Climate in the Early Colonial Period,” American Historical Review 87, no. 5 (December 1982): 1262–89; Kupperman, “Fear of Hot Climates in the Anglo-American Colonial Experience,” WMQ 41, no. 2 (April 1984): 213–40; Joyce E. Chaplin, Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500–1676 (Cambridge, Mass., 2001), esp. 151–54; Anya Zilberstein, A Temperate Empire: Making Climate Change in Early America (Oxford, forthcoming).
7. David W. Stahle et al., “The Lost Colony and Jamestown Droughts,” Science 280, no. 5363 (April 1998): 564–67; Karen Ordahl Kupperman, The Jamestown Project (Cambridge, Mass., 2007), esp. 158–82; Katherine A. Grandjean, “New World Tempests: Environment, Scarcity, and the Coming of the Pequot War,” WMQ 68, no. 1 (January 2011): 75–100; Adam R. Hodge, “‘In Want of Nourishment for to Keep Them Alive’: Climate Fluctuations, Bison Scarcity, and the Smallpox Epidemic of 1780–82 on the Northern Great Plains,” Environmental History 17, no. 2 (April 2012): 365–403; Peter C. Mancall, “The Raw and the Cold: Five English Sailors in Sixteenth-Century Nunavut,” WMQ 70, no. 1 (January 2013): 3–40; Thomas Wickman, “‘Winters Embittered with Hardships’: Severe Cold, Wabanaki Power, and English Adjustments, 1690–1710,” WMQ 72, no. 1 (January 2015): 57–98; Robert Michael Morrissey, “The Power of the Ecotone:Bison, Slaves, and the Rise and Fall of the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia,” Journal of American History (forthcoming).
8. On the state of this scholarship, see Thomas Wickman, “Climate and Indigenous Peoples in History,” in Palgrave Handbook of Climate History, ed. Christian Pfister, Sam White, and Franz Mauelshagen (New York, 2016).
9. N. S. Shaler, “Environment and Man in New England,” North American Review 162, no. 475 (June 1896): 726–39.
10. Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains (Boston, 1931), 486 (“do to men”), 8 (“broken”), 9 (“timberless,” “When people”).