Turn on the news, open your laptop: A resounding sense of calamity and crisis — foreboding headlines of climate change, terrorism and that fear-mongering favorite, Ebola — will greet you like a swift slap to the face.
And yet against this backdrop of increasingly global, ever-urgent crises, Ohio State professor and acclaimed historian Noel Geoffrey Parker looks to the past — to eerily similar parallels in history. His most recent work, “The Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century,” was recently awarded the British Academy Medal, an annual recognition of “landmark academic achievement” by the British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences.
The book, which was one of three honored Nov. 25, reveals a link between prevailing weather patterns of the 1640s-50s and the global revolutions, droughts, famines, and wars that spanned the century. And while Parker himself was “incredulous” upon hearing of the award, others at OSU, including military history graduate student Sarah Douglas, were less than surprised.
“Few academics can produce the amount of quality research that Geoffrey can,” Douglas said. “(He) once told me that ‘Global Crisis’ was a labor of love that took over a decade to complete. When anyone reads the book, it is entirely clear why that is … Geoffrey has managed to analyze something as complex and controversial as climate change and its consequences with ease…”
His argument — that rapid climate change was the critical factor that turned crisis into catastrophe — is the product of years and years of research; and yet, it began with a simple, albeit enlightened, spark: a 1976 radio interview with solar physicist Jack Eddy. Unbeknownst to Parker, the broadcast would sow the first seeds of his work.
“(Eddy) had … (shown) that between the 1640s and the 1720s, fewer sunspots appeared than appeared in a single year of the 20th century,” Parker said. “I immediately thought ‘Wow,’ but then I also thought ‘the absence of sunspots, the cooler weather, might also explain the unusual number of bad harvests and bread riots in the mid-17th century, and perhaps also the unusual number of rebellions and revolutions throughout the northern hemisphere.’”
This idea latent in his mind, Parker sustained interest in this period through both coursework and a number of related projects, including a 1978 collection of essays on 17th century upheaval. But it wasn’t until 1998 that Parker resolved to begin the project. In researching, he traveled to the regions that suffered most from environmental issues, both to meet local scholars and read local sources — sources, he noted, that were particularly abundant in the 17th century due to greater literacy than centuries past. Thousands of eyewitnesses from England to China described what they had themselves seen and heard, bound by the common thread of suffering.
“Of those who left personal testimony,” Parker said, “The most shocking to me were the compositions of Chinese women who had been abducted and raped during the civil wars of the 1640s, recorded just before they committed suicide. It was a new genre of literature: tibishi, or ‘poems inscribed on walls’.”
These personal testimonies work alongside the broader study of climate, creating a multi-dimensional, cross-disciplinary quality— a quality that resonates with students like Wyatt West. A second-year in history, West notes the surprising ubiquity of environment in his coursework.
“I’ve taken two classes on China, ranging from 1400 to 1950, and it astounded me how fragile the balance was between the environment and society,” West said, citing the particular case of the Yangtze River. “Whenever (it) flooded — which was a lot — peasants rose against the government. Famine and drought account for a large number of political upheavals and changes in society, not even just in China.”
Parker notes that while the book is certainly limited — both due to the 350-year time gap and its focus on global cooling — it bears one obvious take-away: It is always better (and cheaper) to prepare than to repair.
“Preparation — above all, creating public granaries (to prevent) starvation — would have been expensive, but failing to create granaries proved to be far more expensive,” he said. “A fatal synergy between climate change and human stupidity caused the premature death of perhaps one-third of the human population – millions of the world’s people.”
Rapid climate change today could cause the premature death of billions of people.”
This sentiment resonates with many, echoing across disciplines among students like Emily Evans, a second year studying environment, economy, development and sustainability.
“(In our curriculum), we constantly engage in this debate — should we prepare for climate change, should we mitigate with the technology that we have,” she said. “(But) we have to understand what has happened in the past, and what is happening, to get a sense of what will happen in the future.”
That said, the role of history in today’s political, social and scientific realms is relatively lacking — not a single historian on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Parker maintains that while historians offer little with respect to causation, they can nevertheless illuminate the consequences of climate change. They can expose and explain what he calls the “forms of human stupidity” — the passive denial, the aggressive wars during periods of scarcity — that can turn crisis into catastrophe.
History, as that old saying goes, repeats itself — a notion that “Global Crisis” undoubtedly calls to mind. By unveiling the unyielding hand of climate on human systems, it at once dissolves the 350-year gap between then and now, and as Douglas remarks, asserts its position on the scholarly shelves.
“If a historian makes him or herself necessary reading for generations of historians in a single field, that is an accomplishment,” Douglas said. “Geoffrey has managed to do that in several fields, which sets him far apart from the rest.”