When we were in San Francisco last Christmas we stopped at City Lights Books.
Really, what else would you expect? The place is kind of a shrine, as bookstores go. It’s cramped and twisty and overstuffed, exactly as a bookstore ought to be. It has a history that includes any number of former customers who were famous for certain values of famous, at least among those who actually read books, a group which includes me so it’s all good. And it’s in San Francisco, which is as pleasant a place to hang out as you will find in the continental United States. So of course we went to City Lights.
I found a book I wanted to buy. Naturally I did. You may not think a book entitled Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, by Geoffrey Parker, is the sort of thing you’d like to read for fun, but to me it looked like precisely the kind of big synthetic history that I tend to enjoy – the kind that weaves together a great many strands in ways that connect vastly disparate things into an overarching story. I’ve read a lot of books like that this year, actually. This was indeed a book I felt I ought to have.
Except that it is a brick of a book – well over 700 pages of what might as well be etched granite – and a rather daunting thing to schlep halfway across the country in this era of exorbitant “excess weight” fees on airline baggage.
I considered this for a while, there among all the shelves at City Lights. Eventually I decided that I did indeed want this book enough to overcome that objection and therefore I had no real option other than to figure out a way to make it work without having to sign over any internal organs to the airline taking me home. I think I ended up taking it in my carry-on bag, which for some reason they don’t weigh. You could have lead ingots in there, but as long as you can walk erect with it and fit your bag into the little template sitting there by the gate, you’re good. And it did feel that way after a while – we didn’t get home until nearly 2:30am, as I recall, and it’s amazing how much heavier a bag gets as a long day of travel goes on. But the book was mine.
It was a good call.
I started reading it a couple of weeks ago and finally finished it recently. It was not a fast read, being both long and rather densely written, but it was utterly fascinating. And not a little depressing.
The message of the book is threefold:
First, that good times come to an end good and hard, often for quite a long time.
The sixteenth century was apparently a pretty happy one in most places on the globe, at least if you were not a Native American. There was good weather, abundant crops, and no more than the usual level of warfare and violence. None of that applied to the seventeenth century, which was nearly the full hundred years’ worth of pure distilled misery. Parker’s chapters jump around from China and India to various places in Europe (there are separate chapters on Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Russia/Poland/Lithuania, and, because it is so unusually well-documented, two chapters just on Britain, which gave me a rather different perspective on colonial American history than I’d had before), to colonial North America, and Japan while he makes his case. He doesn’t spend much time on Australia or Africa – documentation in those places being sparse – but he does bring them up to point out that what documentation that does exist tends to reinforce his overall argument, which is pretty simple: the seventeenth century was just every kind of awful mixed together into a bucket.
Good times come to an end, and they can do so with a jarring suddenness and a sickening finality. This can be very hard to foresee. And the bad times can last for longer than people think possible. There is very little that can be done when that happens except try to ride out the storm and hope there will still be some of your descendents around to enjoy whatever good times may eventually come after. Apparently the population of the world dropped by about a third in that century, with only Japan and colonial New England bucking that trend, so even that may not be a feasible goal.
Second, that when the climate turns against you there isn’t much you can do to make it better.
Many of the problems that arose in that deeply calamitous century had as one of their basic causes the climate shift known as The Little Ice Age, which had the drastic effect of shortening growing seasons, drowning crops in rainfall or blasting them with drought, often in successive seasons, plunging much of the earth into extended and historically bitter winters, and generally wreaking havoc on the settled patterns of civilization.
In many places there was no food. None. People sold their children for handfuls of rice, when rice was available. There was often little fuel to burn to survive some of the coldest winters ever recorded in human history. It is not an accident that so many people died – that so many lives were blighted, shortened, erased. You can’t fight the climate.
And third, there is no crisis that cannot be made worse by human activity.
Maybe you can’t fight the climate, but you can certainly make its effects worse. The seventeenth century was a time of incessant warfare almost everywhere on the planet, most of it for little or no purpose and few beneficial results. Rulers insisted on waging wars that were increasingly counterproductive and refused in many cases to end them when they had the chance. Even in the best of times and with the best of reasons, wars are destructive and expensive, and these were not the best of times nor were the reasons generally sound. Hard times – often starvation – coupled with increasing state demands for taxes to fund ever-increasing warfare destabilized much of the world, and this left few unaffected, even those who themselves managed to have enough to get by.
When the poor have nothing left to eat, they will eat the rich. This is something that we forget at our peril. This is something we may be about to learn again.
Because the modern era is not special, really. Oh, we think we are. We look back on the people of past eras and centuries and feel smug about what we know that they didn’t know. We congratulate ourselves on our achievements, and to be fair we have many things that previous generations did not have.
But we don’t really use them well.
We have technology and science, which we often insist on using in counterproductive ways and which a large and increasingly vocal percentage of our population regards as witchcraft and magic to be either avoided or embraced in turn but not understood or furthered. We have raised the Malthusian limits on population, but we haven’t eliminated them. We have increased our understanding of climate change, but half of the most powerful nation on earth stubbornly refuses to believe it and likely won’t be convinced until they die of it, if then. We have a far greater understanding of genetics and evolution, certainly enough to let us know how similar human beings are across almost any division you care to name, and yet we live in a world saturated by racism and on constantly on the brink of war. We can make those wars far more devastating, in fact, thanks to all that technology and science.
We are still human beings, in other words, prone to doing the worst things possible in any given situation until enough of us die off that the few that are left are pretty much forced to do something right. We always have, at least, since otherwise the species would have gone extinct. That’s not a guarantee of future performance, though, just a historical note.
If there is any lesson to be drawn from this for the modern reader, it is the simple fact that civilization is a fragile and widespread net, one that can be unraveled at a moment’s notice by things that have little or nothing to do with the people who will be harmed by that unraveling, and in all likelihood human action will make the situation worse before it will make it better.
We live in a world whose fragility we seem incapable of comprehending. Our civilizations are interconnected in ways that most people cannot even grasp. Problems in one corner of the globe often distort life in other corners of the globe that may or may not have even heard of the first corner. It’s a constant battle to keep it all tied together.
The things is, though, that we have kept it together for the most part, for much of the recent past. There is cause for optimism in there. Global life has gotten better in the last half century or so for most people in most places. Lifespans have improved. Material standards have risen. Fewer people live in abject poverty. Famine is now rare and remarked upon rather than accepted as a normal part of life. Education is fairly widespread. In many societies women are no longer treated as a particularly expendable form of property. Violence, for all of the headlines it grabs, is less common now than it has been in almost any other period of recorded history.
Oh, there are still problems, don’t get me wrong. Things have been improved, not perfected. There are exceptions to every improvement I just mentioned. Every single one. Often big exceptions. We notice them a lot now, in part because they stand out against the general run of things.
It can all come crashing down in a heartbeat. We can make it crash, simply by caving in to our worst instincts, by waging endless stupid wars, by ignoring the climate, by forgetting the simple truths of what happens when enough people suffer enough deprivation to make them not care what happens next so long as they survive to see the sun rise tomorrow, even if what happens next guarantees that they and most of the world don’t get to see the sun rise the day after tomorrow. Indeed, sometimes it seems as if there are vast numbers of people whose only purpose in life is to guarantee that this will in fact be our future. They wear nice clothes and travel in respectable circles and speak in reassuring platitudes about traditional values and in strident tones of national pride and their impact will be no less catastrophic than the brigands and bloodthirsty hordes of old because we forget that what humans have traditionally valued includes some pretty squalid things. We are a predatory species, really.
We live in a world of unimaginable plenty and prosperity, especially people here in the United States. A lot of people have worked long and hard to make it that way. Generations have labored to build a stable and relatively affluent society, one where food is taken for granted, material wealth is readily available, and public safety is assumed to the point where it surprises most people to find where it doesn’t apply.
It doesn’t have to be that way. And if we keep going the way we’re going, it won’t.
That’s a hard lesson.