The First Cold War

The Environmental Lessons of the Little Ice Age

A fisherman near Shitoukoumen Reservoir in Changchun, Jilin province, December 23, 2012.
A fisherman near Shitoukoumen Reservoir in Changchun, Jilin province, December 23, 2012. (Courtesy Reuters)

Global Crisis: War, Climate Change, and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century. By Geoffrey Parker. Yale University Press, 2013, 904 pp. $40.00.

Reflecting on the “misery and misfortune” he had witnessed during the Thirty Years’ War, Caspar Preis, a German farmer, was sure that “no one living in a better age would believe it.” From 1618 to 1648, the population of Germany fell by as much as 40 percent. Roughly four million people were killed in the wars between Catholic and Protestant princes; many others died of starvation or disease; still others fled their homes in search of safety. The misery was worst in the 1640s, when summer frosts and storms wiped out crops and soldiers nearly froze to death. Towns were ruined, currencies depreciated, and people made meals of grass. As Denmark, Sweden, and France were drawn into the conflict, it looked as if all of Europe had fallen into civil war. Indeed, wars and revolutions were spreading chaos well beyond the view of a German peasant, throughout the British Isles and Russia, even in faraway China and the lands of the Ottoman Empire.

Historians have long debated whether these widespread upheavals were simply what passed for normal life in the premodern world or in fact constituted a decisive historical turning point: a “general crisis” that swept away an older order and cleared the ground for the emergence of modern states, economies, and systems of thought. From the start of this debate in the 1930s, scholars kept one eye on the present, using their research to reflect on the geopolitical and economic crises of the twentieth century. Now, the military historian Geoffrey Parker brings this history to bear on the environmental crisis of the twenty-first century.

(Ib Ohlsson)

In Global Crisis: War, Climate Change, and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, Parker uncovers the environmental factors behind the seventeenth century’s earthshaking events, from the English Civil Wars, to the collapse of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, to the Manchu conquest of China. The immediate cause of state breakdown in each case was often an impulsive decision by a shortsighted prince. But that, in Parker’s terms, was merely the “tipping point.” What brought each state to the brink of catastrophe, he argues, was instead a global environmental phenomenon: the Little Ice Age.

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