Lessons from the Little Ice Age

Climate change will challenge our ability to survive and our world view. Business as usual will not be an option.

Image: National Post

Our survival skills are already being tested in Europe. In 2003, heat killed at least 30,000 people and caused 13 billion Euros in financial damages -the hottest summer since the 16th century.

We inherited our current world view from the seventeenth century. Climate change had a profound effect on European agriculture, philosophy and religion during the Little Ice Age from 1570 to 1684, argues Phillip Blom in his book Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present as reviewed by Nathaniel Rich.

During the Little Ice Age, Europe was two degrees Celsius colder than historical averages. It doesn’t seem like much until you consider the effect.

The sun dimmed. Birds fell from the sky, frozen midflight. Wine growing regions moved 400 kilometres south. Seas were packed with so much ice that ships couldn’t enter or leave London. Imperial armies marched across the frozen Danube. Forty sperm whales died on the Dutch coast.

The Thames hasn’t been hasn’t been frozen for two hundred years but during the Little Ice Age the river froze so thick that merchants set up huts on its surface. Taverns, brothels, open fires were built on the ice. Whole oxen roast on spits.

It might sound like a winter carnival but the effect on humanity was devastating. “Every moment,” observed John Evelyn back then, “was full of disastrous accidents.” The poet Henry Purcell wrote “I can scarcely move or draw my breath/Let me, let me freeze again to death.”

The Little Ice Age pushed Europeans to change the way they produced food. Faced with declining harvests, farmers experimented with growing potatoes, tomatoes and corn. They consumed more beef and milk as sources of calories.

Feeding people affected commerce. Nations relied more on foreign trade which, in turn, gave rise to a merchant class requiring expertise in finance. The need for expertise created a demand for education. The rise in the merchant class propelled growth in the middle class. Now a substantial sector of the population could afford to send their children to school.

Religion was affected. Before the Little Ice Age, the Church was the pillar of philosophical thought and education. The notion of rational thought and scientific investigation was heresy. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for speaking of parallel worlds and an infinite universe.

The power of an educated merchant class began to rival the religious hierarchy. The ability to feed the minds and bodies of the populace had shifted. The new religion was the marketplace.

Even now, we are not surprised to hear the new religion described in mysterious ways as when Adam Smith referred to the “invisible hand” of the marketplace.

Climate change will challenge the way we move through the world and the way we think about it. The faith in globalization is already being tested by the 99 per cent who see the injustice of a rigged system.

Who knows what the new world order will rise from the ashes of a heated, chaotic planet?

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