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?

Re-humanizing work

Machines do many things better than humans –except at being human.

image: This Caring Home

Advances in technology have always generated anxiety. Workers during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century thought they would go “the way of the horse.” Steam-powered tractors had replaced horses and they feared, with spinning frames and power looms, that they were next.

The fear of job-loss due to automation is unavoidable. However, humans are better at “empathy jobs” and that’s where the future of work is heading.

A recent report from Canada’s Brookfield Institute studied Canada’s labour market and found that 42 per cent of Canadian occupations are at high risk of automation in the next 10 to 20 years (Working Without a Net: Rethinking Canada’s Social Policy in the New Age of Work from the Mowat Centre.)

The jobs most at risk are in the trades, transportation, equipment operation, natural resources, agriculture, sales and service, manufacturing, utilities, administration, and office support.

Some of these jobs in the trades, often done by men, are mind-numbing and dangerous –in locations isolated from families that lead to alcoholism, self-medication of drugs, and death from drug overdoses (the trades are over-represented in  fentanyl deaths in B.C.). Other than good wages, these are jobs that won’t be missed.

Jobs at the least risk are in arts, culture, recreation, sports, management; professional positions in law, education, health and nursing. We won’t see robots playing hockey or robot actors on the stage any time soon. Humans are still the best at jobs where the human touch is necessary like health care, child care, and care for the growing number of seniors.

However, not all empathy jobs pay equally. While some jobs are well-paid because they are unionized -such as teachers and health care workers- others like private child-care facilities are not. Some work, usually done by women, such as a daughter caring for her aging parents or a grandmother caring for grandchildren, is not paid at all.

Another source of job-growth is the hybridization of machines and humans. In the gig economy of piecemeal work, technology directs workers. Some workers like these hybrid jobs because they offer flexibility. Employers like them because workers are “contractors” not employees. As such, companies don’t have to pay benefits.

Britain is making changes to the working conditions of workers in the gig economy by ensuring that “vulnerable workers,” as defined by low wages, have access to basic holiday and sick pay.

Workers in low-paid empathy jobs and workers in the gig economy are in the same predicament –low wages with few benefits. That’s where the Canadian government could help with programs like employment insurance, sick leave and universal Pharmacare.

Investments in childcare and home care for seniors would not only employ more empathy workers but improve the conditions of all low-wage workers including those in the gig economy.

Governments stepped in during the Industrial Revolution to implement labour laws. Governments must step in now to strengthen programs to ease the transition into the digital economy.

Surely the things we value, like human interaction, can pay as well dangerous works like resource extraction. Surely workers the gig economy can have both flexibility and security.