- Global Crisis: War, Climatic Change, and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century by Geoffrey Parker
“Three things,” wrote Voltaire in the 1740s, “exercise a constant influence over the minds of men: climate, government and religion.” By “climate,” however, he did not mean (as Parker supposes) the weather. He meant what the Greeks understood by klima—“inclination” or “environment.” Ever since Aristotle, mankind has been in search of some secure means of explaining differences in human character and otherwise unpredictable consequences of human actions. Until the mid-nineteenth century, klima was one of the most pervasive. The problem was that the more extensive the data the less perfect the “fit” became between supposed causes and discernible outcomes. Similar difficulties have befallen other attempts to account for long-term historical trends in terms of nonhuman agents. Parker, although his subject is not climate—as klima—but the weather, has amassed a vast body of data from almost every corner of the planet. He has [End Page 515] demonstrated that, for Europe, the seventeenth century was indeed a period of crisis and that crises of one kind or another also occurred in most other places in the world—except, or with less intensity, in the new settler societies, in the Americas. Parker has also demonstrated that this was a period of unusual and violent changes, some of them prolonged, in the weather. What he has not demonstrated beyond contention was that the former was caused (or even precipitated) by the latter. One of the problems is that, as the critics of the “general crisis” thesis have always maintained, the revolts and revolutions of which the crisis were supposedly constituted were not always of the same kind. Some might plausibly be linked to, or exacerbated by, natural disasters; others much less so. The revolt in Naples of 1647, for instance, was initially a response to food shortages, which in turn could be attributed to climatic disruption. The “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, on the other hand, would seem to have had nothing whatsoever to do with climatic change. Climatic shifts may explain certain long-term historical trends. They probably explain what drove the proto–Indo-European peoples out of the Caucasus and the Germanic tribes down into Southern Europe. But, in the end, as Voltaire went on to say, the course of human history is more heavily indebted to “government” and “religion” than to “climate,” however understood.
Anthony Pagden, professor of history and political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, has also been University Reader in Intellectual History at Cambridge and Harry C. Black Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. He has published a dozen books, including Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Britain, France, and Spain; European Encounters with the New World from Renaissance to Romanticism; The Spanish Empire and the Political Imagination; and The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology, for which he received the Eugene Bolton Prize of the Conference on Latin American History.