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What the 17th century’s “Little Ice Age” teaches us about climate change (Quartz)

23 February 2019


“Once upon a time in Europe, the winters got very very cold and the summers got unbearably hot. “The spring of this year was like winter, cold and wet, the wine blossom terrible, and the harvest bad,” wrote the Swiss theologian Heinrich Bullinger in 1570.

Initially, this seemed like a temporary problem, just one bad year. So across the continent, cultivators shrugged off their poor harvests, and vintners sold wine made of sour grapes which consumers drank angrily as they contemplated rising grain prices.

But the extreme weather continued, season after season after season, until abnormal became the new normal. As William Shakespeare put it in the 1593 play Richard III, “Now is the winter of our discontent.”

In his book Nature’s Mutiny, to be published in March by WW Norton & Company, German journalist Philipp Blom posits that Shakespeare wrote those words as a literal description of the string of difficult winters he’d just endured. This period of extreme weather, which would continue for more than 100 years, is now known as the “Little Ice Age,” and Blom argues that if we look back at its effects in Europe—where they were best documented—we’ll better understand how we got to where we are today and anticipate what’s ahead as climate change increasingly affects our lives.

God has abandoned us

In Shakespeare’s time, religious authorities posited that God was punishing humans for their poor behavior with the bad weather, and they called for more piety to appease the disappointed deity. That thinking inspired European witch hunts—the idea being that burning women at the stake would somehow thaw the frozen winter earth, make the rain fall gently on the crops in spring, and cool the scorching summer sun. But the persecution didn’t succeed in changing the extreme weather, obviously, and so, very slowly, people’s ideas about how to address the crisis transformed instead.

Over the next 100 years, during the 17th century, a new metaphor for the world starts to take hold. Instead of God watching over us, the planet—and all of nature—is treated as a kind of clockwork, a mechanism that follows natural laws, which we humans can discern through observation and experimentation. Scientists get serious about exchanging information. Botanists send plants across continents, and Europe—struggling to grow grain—adopts new growths, like tulips and potatoes, which prove to be the basis for new markets and gastronomies. Economies transform. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and a tiny middle class is born.

By the time the weather becomes more temperate again, around 1700, many of the ideas that shape the world we live in today have come into being—including notions of a free market with its own logic. And, of course, the market’s “forces” are what incentivized the behavior that led to the widespread exploitation of natural resources contributing to the current climate crisis, Blom notes.

So, the snake eats its tail. The new approach to growing food and wealth prompted by the Little Ice Age has led us to where we are today, with our melting ice sheets and rising sea levels.

The more things change

The Little Ice Age was not thought to be caused by humans, though upcoming research in thejournal Quaternary Science Reviews disputes this, concluding that war and disease in North America led to the cooling. Some hypothesize that it was the result of increased volcanic activity that influenced ocean salinity which changed deep-sea water pressures and, as a result, the world’s weather. Others argue that the increased volcanic activity is the result, and not the cause, of the extreme climate.

Whatever the cause, Blom contends that we can better understand the future by examining the past. History shows us how we got to where we are, as well as the difficulties that lie ahead.

If he is right, there’s reason to be both fearful and hopeful. The Little Ice Age was a time of crisis in Europe. But necessity proved to be the mother of invention. The troubles also prompted innovation and exploration, laying the foundations for a whole new way of life.

For example, when the extreme weather first set in, Amsterdam was essentially an unimpressive village in the Netherlands. Within a century, it became a bustling port city and a sophisticated metropolis, a place where intellectuals of all creeds and beliefs exchanged radical, new ideas, where the markets, arts, and publishing houses all thrived. Trading with Baltic seaports in places where grain was cultivated by serfs whose work was essentially unpaid helped Amsterdam to evolve.

The positive transformation was forced by difficult circumstances. So in the best-case scenario, we too will have our own kind of Enlightenment period to look forward to in the future. But based on history, before things get better, they will get worse, Blom predicts.

Take only what you need

His review of the Little Ice Age as it affected Europe painstakingly documents the struggles of an evolving continent. To manage under new circumstances and to feed starving populations at home, Europeans relied on mass international exploitation—slavery and colonization—growing large amounts of wealth that led to the continent’s ascent.

Wealthy Europeans squeezed the poor for profit on their own turf as well. Landowners across the continent eliminated public commons that once served as places where anyone in a village could let their animals graze or grow some grain. Farming was once done on a small scale to feed individual families but it became a big business exporting food on a grand scale from the country to growing cities, and this incentivized landowners to reclaim all their terrains. Blom explains:

The social and economic system of European feudal societies rested on land ownership and local grain production. This was its central pillar as well as its main vulnerability. When temperatures declined enough to disturb grain production and therefore undermine this pillar, the entire social model fell into decline. Europeans were forced to think of alternative ways of organizing themselves and their economic life.

This elimination of the commons drove landless villagers to the growing cities where they worked for a pittance to buy grain they once grew themselves. Meanwhile, the wealthy boosted their fortunes with speculation in markets that now offered investment in new commodities.

The fairest onion

Tulips, for example, prompted the first documented stock market bubble. A merchant from Constantinople in the Ottoman Empire sent the flower bulbs to a Dutchman in the late 1500s. The recipient gave the bulbs to his cook, thinking they were onions. He in turn threw them in a garbage heap when he realized that they weren’t edible.

But in the spring when the trash heap blossomed, the merchant sent this foreign specimen to the foremost botanist of the time, Charles de l’Ecluse, in Leiden. They survived the extremely harsh winter of 1593 and the botanist, delighted, sent the new-to-Europe flowers to his friends, naming them after the word “turban” in Turkish.

The blooms became such a sensation that entrepreneurs stole bulbs from the botanist and began cultivating tulips for sale. By 1630, the price of a single varietal of tulip bulb could equal as much as “a well-appointed country house,” as Blom puts it. A bouquet of tulips became the must-have accessory for any fine home in the Netherlands and beyond, inspiring “breathless buying and selling” by investors.

The tulip bubble burst suddenly and inexplicably in February 1637, leaving many investors destitute and driving some to suicide. The bulbs were deemed practically worthless again, tossed aside as they had been by the first cook who mistook them for inedible onions.


Blom argues that just as extreme weather of the past created new pressures that prompted novel economic models which brought unexpected riches and risks, and created unquantifiable human suffering due to exploitation, so too will the transforming weather of the future. “Then, as now, there is pressure from climate change on economic and social structures, on natural resources and social cohesion… Then as now a shift in weather patterns causes natural disasters, upending societies and creating fear, as well as exacerbating the need for change,” he writes.

Taking a historian’s view of our current situation, Blom predicts that we are in a similar position today to that of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in the late 1500s, on the verge of a revolution driven by pressures extreme weather creates. In other words, the winter of our discontent has begun, only this time it’s likely to be a blistering summer as global temperatures rise, wreak havoc, and lead to extreme temperatures.

Rather than despair, however, Blom urges us to see the possibilities. Yes, there is trouble ahead. But there is also the chance that climate change will drive the next great evolution of ideas—new metaphors and new understandings of the planet—just as it did in the past, transforming Europe from a religious to a rational society. Blom says we cannot wait any longer, writing, “Twenty-first century climate change makes it a matter of urgency to rethink once more our cultural metaphors, as well as humanity’s place within the great scheme of things.” ”



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