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Citing 17th-century culture shifts, an author implicates climate in human destiny

Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present

Philipp Blom
Liveright
2019
332 pp.
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We tend to talk about climate change in terms of its tangible effects—for example, about how too much CO2 in the atmosphere is fueling wildfires and accelerating sea rise. And although we note how it is beginning to cause migrations of people around the globe, we have yet to truly grapple with how it is influencing our cultures at large. In Nature’s Mutiny, journalist Philipp Blom examines another period in human history characterized by unusual climate activity, offering a lens through which we might contemplate our future.

For reasons not well understood, global temperatures dropped approximately 1°C around the year 1400. By the 1500s, the temperature drop had reached 2°C, resulting in extreme weather events. England’s historically temperate Thames River froze over five times between 1400 and 1550, and between 1551 and 1700 it was covered in thick ice 12 times. A freezing winter followed by a dry spring and hot summer desiccated the largely wooden structures of London in 1666, resulting in the Great Fire, in which 80,000 city dwellers lost their homes.

Harvests failed during this period, and for a social world largely centered on grain production, this was a disaster. Peasants starved and could no longer pay their masters. Various “messiahs, seers, occultists, witches, magicians, and charlatans” proffered explanations of nature’s nervous breakdown, and a frenzy of finger-pointing led to rampant torture and burning of scapegoats.

Blom suggests that the crisis in agriculture led to a vast reorganization of land use and land ownership, which changed social structures and power relationships. Farms and estates that once operated in a self-enclosed system began to produce more efficiently and to look to long-distance trade. To facilitate the new system of production and far-flung markets, regulatory bodies were established, and roads were built. European powers looking outward identified whole continents full of natural resources that they enthusiastically plundered, ushering in the age of colonialism.

Blom summarizes: “The medieval acceptance of human economic life as cyclical and stable was rejected in favor of the idea of continuing economic growth based on exploitation…built on relentless imperial and industrial expansion….” He notes that contemporary economies operate largely on the same model. But because natural resources once thought to be infinite are now known to be exhaustible, and because the engines of our expansion produce atmosphere-altering CO2, we are no longer expanding human potential but vastly curtailing it.

Beyond asserting that our gradual adaptation to colder weather included fundamental social changes, most of Nature’s Mutiny is not concerned with how the empiricism and humanism that characterized the Enlightenment blossomed from medieval root stock. Instead, Blom populates his book with profiles of representative individuals, the brilliant and the bestial. These include historically obscure characters such as John Dee, who coined the term “the British Empire” and led seances for monarchs eager for advice from the beyond about how to deal with convulsive weather. More well-known figures include Michel de Montaigne, who looked around at a changing world and decided that the only plausible way to understand it was to examine “himself and his own thoughts, without pressing them into a fixed system….” Thus, was the essay invented.

Blom does not candycoat the wresting of power around the world by Europeans, recounting the story, for example, of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, a junior merchant of the Dutch East India Company, who revenged himself upon island nutmeg traders in Indonesia who dared also sell to the English and the Portuguese. Coen publicly executed the local traders and then drove the remaining population into their own mountains, where 15,000 villagers starved to death. Survivors were sold into slavery. In perhaps a parallel development of command and control (minus the cruelty), Renee Descartes made a “heroic attempt to put all human knowledge and all thought on a compelling, logical basis….”

Trade in cities such as Amsterdam, London, and Naples, Blum argues, facilitated social mobility “and a market-based pragmatic tolerance and a broadening of intellectual horizons that was frequently associated with immigrants and minorities.” This, he asserts, “was the soil in which a largely secular, emphatically rational, and universalist philosophy could grow.”

Nature’s Mutiny is not a history. It finds a correlation between climate change and social change, but it does not document causality. It is worth reading because it ventures into a territory many more writers and thinkers will have to grapple with: a world in which the physical workings of nature are profoundly intertwined with human destiny.

About the author

The reviewer is the author of Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction (The Experiment, 2016).