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

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.

A wealth of scientific evidence shows that the seventeenth century was one of the more extreme periods in an era of global cooling that stretched from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century. Thanks to the telescopes that came into use around 1600, sunspot records indicate a low point in solar activity in the latter half of the seventeenth century. Following relatively mild conditions in the 1500s, the chill took seventeenth-century observers by surprise. “It is horribly cold,” wrote the Marquise de Sévigné to her daughter in Provence in the summer of 1675. “We have the fires lit, just like you, which is very remarkable.” She and her daughter agreed that “the behavior of the sun and of the seasons has changed.”

Rivers that were usually navigable in winter froze solid, and the long winters were immortalized in the landscape paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. Seventeenth-century accounts of droughts, floods, insect infestations, famines, and epidemics trace the far-reaching effects of climate change. These scourges struck repeatedly and across vast regions, contributing to an estimated loss of one-third of the world’s population.

Parker’s book captures this century of upheaval in a political, economic, and cultural history of dozens of early modern states. Parker combed archives in six European countries, as well as India. His bibliographical essay modestly attests to a feat of research that would seem to call for an army of historians. Out of the details he uncovered, Parker weaves a gripping story that includes witch-hunts, palace intrigues (such as the travails of Osman II, the first Ottoman sultan ever to be killed by his subjects), and new distractions to cope with the misery: tobacco, coffee, tea, and chocolate. Parker has reconstructed the seventeenth-century crisis in a masterpiece of narrative history, which falters only when it turns to the present-day implications of climate change. By refusing to address the link between industrialization and global warming, Parker ultimately gives a skewed picture of the resolution of the crisis and a blinkered view of its implications for environmental policy today.


The first section of Parker’s book refutes the claim that the violence and instability of the seventeenth century were nothing new. Examining each revolutionary state, from Ming China to Stuart England, Parker concludes that “the 1640s saw more rebellions and revolutions than any comparable period in world history.” Nowhere does he claim that the collapse or near collapse of an early modern state was the direct result of climate change. He is no environmental determinist, but he does insist that many conflicts were fundamentally competitions over dwindling natural resources. Thus, he takes issue with the economist Amartya Sen, who has attributed famines not to food shortages in and of themselves but to flaws in the distribution of food. Parker suggests that Sen’s argument has drawn the attention of historians and policymakers away from the environmental determinants of food crises.

Parker complements his narrative of the century’s turmoil with an analysis of the strategies of those states that were able to stave off revolution and regime change. India, Japan, and Persia all avoided breakdown; Spain and the Italian lands restored order quickly; and the Americas, Australia, and sub-Saharan Africa saw little sign of crisis at all. All these countries and regions, Parker argues, entered the seventeenth century with relatively low population densities. Elsewhere, the warmer weather of the sixteenth century had led to overpopulation, with disastrous consequences once cooling set in. Among the most effective coping strategies during the crisis, Parker finds, were birth control and abortion, which reduced populations to more sustainable levels.

Japan under the Tokugawa shogun­ate emerges as the foremost success story. Parker attributes its stability in part to a centralized power structure that facilitated disaster preparedness, as well as to the avoidance of “foreign entanglements.” But Japan also owed its stability to what the shogunate did not do: namely, raise taxes, punish the underreporting of harvests, or promote new ideas. Unlike the Stuarts in England and Scotland or the Habsburgs in Spain, Japan’s leaders avoided imposing what Parker calls “burdens” and “innovations” on their subjects in the midst of an ecological crisis. But Japan’s success had a high price, politically and environmentally: the repeal of vassals’ rights, the exploitation of farmers and craftsmen, the destruction of forests, and the depletion of soils. Inertia paid off only in the short term.

Ib Ohlsson


Parker draws a fascinating conclusion from the fact that the political upheavals generally ended in the late seventeenth century while the global cooling did not. Stability, he claims, was achieved largely through two widespread innovations. In response to the crisis, every government hoped to regain some meas­ure of control over its population and natural resources and to provide collective insurance against future threats. Particularly in China, England, France, and the Netherlands, the governments’ efforts brought innovations such as statistical surveys, systems of quarantine, and granary maintenance. As Parker argues, the crisis brought “welfare states” into existence.

Just as important to economic recovery around the globe, Parker argues, were intellectual developments that resulted in new ways of thinking about the natural world. Parker compares the emphasis placed on observational and experimental methods in seventeenth-century Europe -- what historians call “the scientific revolution” -- with contemporaneous intellectual trends in China, India, and Japan. In many parts of Asia, as in much of Europe, the crisis prompted a turn to what Parker calls “practical” reasoning. But only in western Europe did governments encourage and incorporate this style of thought. Only there did monarchs sponsor scientific academies that allowed one discovery to build on another, ultimately generating the knowledge that fueled industrialization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Parker thus contends that the end of the general crisis laid the intellectual foundations for what the political scientist Samuel Huntington has called “the Great Divergence,” the economic acceleration of Europe relative to the rest of the world.

Here, Parker overplays his hand. The first problem is his assumption that seventeenth-century science was a precondition for industrialization. Decades of research on the history of technology have shown that technological innovations tend to depend more on the skills and experience of technicians than on scientific theories. Moreover, as the historian Prasannan Parthasarathi argues in Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not, the most important factors propelling British industrialization -- the timber shortage, which drove the country’s shift to coal, and the competition from Indian textiles, which inspired the mechanization of spinning -- had little to do with science.

A second problem is Parker’s characterization of the new currents in European thought as uniformly “practical,” in the sense of being an aid to economic recovery and thus a source of social stability. After all, the idea that the seventeenth century was a time of general crisis originally referred to the critical, even radical thrust of the period’s natural and moral philosophy. In The Crisis of the European Mind, published in 1935, the French historian Paul Hazard argued that this intellectual ferment was responsible for the political instability that culminated in the French Revolution of 1789. “Reason was no longer a well-balanced wisdom,” he wrote “but a critical audacity.”

More recent historians have distinguished between critical and conciliatory strains of the new science, but Parker ignores such distinctions. Disregarding the differences among Francis Bacon’s empiricism, René Descartes’ rationalism, and Galileo’s heretical search for universal laws, Parker instead lumps all these thinkers together with the fictional Robinson Crusoe as proponents of a stolid “practical learning.” But such a generalization ignores the fact that there is no evidence that philosophers such as Descartes and Galileo had anything to do with Europe’s economic recovery. Their appeals to the authority of reason potentially threatened all elements of the existing order.

Ib Ohlsson


A more fundamental problem with the book’s argument emerges in the epilogue, where Parker considers the present-day implications of this history. The principal lesson he draws concerns the need for disaster preparedness at the national level -- on the model of the construction of the Thames Barrier, downstream from central London, in the 1970s and 1980s. Wealthy nations, Parker implies, should follow the example of Tokugawa Japan and “avoid foreign entanglements.” But here, the seventeenth-century example loses relevance. Unlike in the seventeenth century, the causes of climate change are clear today, and there is also a clear collective global responsibility to reverse it.

Concerted international efforts, rather than isolation, are needed today to avoid or minimize catastrophes of the kind that Parker so skillfully portrays. Yet Parker insists on separating the question of the cause of global warming from the question of how to respond to it. He urges the use of technical ingenuity to protect against disasters but says nothing of alternative energy technologies that could help limit the greenhouse effect. He would have readers believe that climate change today is fundamentally the same phenomenon it was in the seventeenth century: a natural and inevitable check on population growth.

But this history looks different when viewed squarely through the lens of the most recent climate science. Scientists have come to see the last 250 years as a distinct geological epoch, called the Anthropocene, that is marked by the transformative effects of human activities on the very conditions of life on earth. From this perspective, the dawn of the industrial age in eighteenth-century Europe no longer looks like a happy ending to the general crisis but rather like the onset of a new and unprecedented crisis. The recognition of the unintended consequences of industrial development throws the very meaning of “practical” knowledge into question, since practicality must be judged by long-term costs, not only short-term benefits.

Discussing the impact of the Little Ice Age in Australia, Parker likens the adaptive behavior of seventeenth-century aboriginal people to the resilience of their continent’s plants and animals. But historians in the Anthropocene should be wary of assuming that Englishmen learned more from the unusually cruel weather of the seventeenth century than Australians did. For a better example of truly practical lessons learned from the crisis, consider the German foresters who, faced with timber shortages in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War, first articulated the idea of sustainable development. Or consider the explorers who left a cold and hungry Europe in search of tropical riches, only to realize that their own rapacity could quickly exhaust the bounty of an island paradise. Despite the breadth and force of Global Crisis, the story of the lessons learned from the Little Ice Age calls for one more chapter: on the dawning of an ecological consciousness.

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  • DEBORAH R. COEN is Associate Professor of History at Barnard College, Columbia University, and the author of The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science From Lisbon to Richter.
  • More By Deborah R. Coen