- The Little Ice Age and the Demise of Rome:Lessons for the Anthropocene?
A major scientific achievement over the last generation is increased understanding of the impacts of Holocene climate fluctuations in human history. Increasingly sophisticated combinations of paleoclimate reconstructions, archaeology, and historical scholarship [End Page 225] are clarifying the effects of Holocene climate variations on past societies, implicating climate fluctuations in some major social and political transformations. Examples include the end of the Classic Maya, the Greek Dark Age, and the trajectory of the Mississippian society centered on Cahokia. The resulting understandings are usually not simple, deterministic models of climate variations driving major historic changes but rather of complex interactions between changing climate and contingent social and demographic features.
These books examine the impacts of climate variations during two reasonably well characterized periods of western history, the Little Ice Age (LIA)1 centered on the seventeenth century and the later Roman Empire. In addition to explicating the impacts of climate fluctuations, the authors of all these books are trying to draw some lessons for our societies, now clearly well into the beginning of the Anthropocene, a period of climate change greater than anything experienced by our species since the start of the Holocene.2 The LIA is defined by some as the relatively cool global period from the beginning of the thirteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century but more commonly as the particularly cold period from the mid-sixteenth century to the early eighteenth century. Nature's Mutiny, A Cold Welcome, and The Frigid Golden Age use the latter definition. The relatively cold climate and unpredictable weather, with consequent disruption of agriculture and trade, of the LIA is now generally accepted as a driving force of the "general crisis of the 17th century" which saw major political disruptions and massive demographic losses across Eurasia and likely other parts of the world.3 [End Page 226]
Philipp Blom's Nature's Mutiny is the most ambitious and the most disappointing of these books. Blom is a polymath writer and author of popular histories on aspects of European intellectual history. Aimed at a very broad audience, Nature's Mutiny is an effort to convey the impacts of the LIA in Europe and to explain a number of the major changes in European society that occurred during the LIA. The result is less an analysis of LIA impacts than a gallop through seventeenth century European history. The emergence of the Dutch Republic, the Military Revolution and increasing centralization of European states, mercantilist capitalism, witch persecution outbreaks, and major changes in European thought such as the beginnings of modern science and religious toleration are all covered briefly. There are thumbnail sketches of a variety of individuals, including well known figures such as Descartes and Spinoza, but also lesser but important figures such as Pierre Bayle. As Blom provides little context about prior trends, the implication, not drawn out very well, is that the LIA was directly responsible for a rapid and wholesale transformation of European society. Blom particularly emphasizes capitalism and the scientific worldview as products of the LIA. In his brief account, the LIA fractured the foundations of feudalism and Christianity in Europe, initiating the birth of the modern world. In addition to the misleading overall impression of LIA impacts, Nature's Mutiny contains a number of factual errors and over-simplifications. Europe was not the home of "a social and economic system that had been working relatively well for almost a millennium...