Once upon a time, Brian Fagan became curious about how history has been shaped by climate. He did a remarkable amount of research, and then delivered a fascinating and very readable book, The Little Ice Age. Mainstream history tends to focus on rulers, empires, wars, and technology, providing us with a pinhole perspective on ages past. Fagan used a wide angle lens, and revealed how the miserable peasantry of Europe struggled to survive in a world of daffy rulers, steamroller epidemics, wildly erratic weather, and the ever-present threat of famine — a highly insecure existence in a world with no safety nets, and brief life expectancy.
Most of our detailed, regularly recorded weather data is less than 200 years old. Older writings made note of climate conditions, times of prosperity, famines, plagues, and natural disasters. More recently, we’ve discovered that tree rings and ice cores can provide climate information going back thousands of years. The annual rings in tree trunks are thicker in ideal weather and thinner in lean years. The annual layers of ice in glaciers are thicker in cold years, and thinner in warm ones. In this way, climate leaves a fingerprint pattern that we can decode. Ice also preserves ash residue, marking volcanic activity, which can have significant effects on weather.
While climate can vary from year to year, and day to day, modern climate science has discovered broader trends in weather patterns. Fagan examined three trends: the Medieval Warm Period (900-1200), the Little Ice Age (1300-1850), and the warming trend of the fossil-fuelled industrial era.
In northern Europe, the years between 800 and 1200 were the warmest period in the last 8,000 years. There were vineyards in England. Generous grain harvests fed a population explosion, which naturally triggered a rash of bloody conflicts. Because of the warm weather, sea levels rose between 1000 and 1200, creating challenges for the lowlanders. “At least 100,000 people died along the Dutch and German coasts in four fierce storm surges in about 1200, 1212-1219, 1287, and 1362.”
The kickoff for the Little Ice Age came in 1315, when it rained almost continuously from May to August. Fields became lakes or knee-deep mud. Floods erased entire villages. Wars had to be cancelled. The population, which had exploded between 1100 and 1300, now had to share a puny harvest, if any.
The survivors eagerly awaited a return to normal weather in 1316, but rains resumed in the spring. Livestock diminished, crops failed, prices rose, and the roads were jammed with wandering beggars. Many villages were abandoned. People dined on pigeon dung, dogs, cats, and the corpses of diseased cattle (rumors of cannibalism). By the spring of 1317, they had eaten their seeds, and had few oxen to plow with. The rains returned. There were seven years of bad harvests, creating steady employment for gravediggers.
For the next 550 years, the weather got colder, and there were more storms. Frigid spells might last a season or a decade. Cold weather was extreme from 1680 to 1700. London trees froze and split open, and the Thames was covered with thick ice. Chilly summers led to poor harvests from 1687 to 1692. You could walk across the ice from Denmark to Sweden in the winter of 1708-09. The All Saints Flood of November 1570 submerged the Dutch lowlands, drowning 100,000.
This book is jammed with stories of weather-related problems — floods, droughts, crop failures, epidemics, famines, and food riots. Most people struggled to survive via subsistence farming, using primitive technology. Most didn’t have enough land for livestock, which meant little manure for fertilizer. Under ideal conditions on prime land, planting a bushel of wheat would produce just four or five bushels at harvest time. Because of this low productivity, feeding society required the labor of nine out of ten people. Famine was common, and food relief was rare. “Even in the best of times, rural life was unrelentingly harsh.” “Farm laborers lived in extraordinary squalor….”
Fagan’s tales reinforced my dislike of agriculture. It fuels overpopulation, converts healthy wild ecosystems into wreckage, enslaves plants and animals, and requires inequality and brutality. It is proprietary — all the big juicy melons in that field belong to my group, and our field is strictly off-limits to any other creature. This is the opposite of nature’s way, in which a big juicy melon is fair game for one and all, finders keepers.
Private property turns humans and societies into obnoxious two-year olds — “that’s MY melon!” Possessions become objects of wealth, power, and status. If I steal your horse, then its power becomes mine. In the insatiable pursuit of wealth, people will lie to your face, snatch your purse, cut your throat, bomb cities into ashtrays, and destroy entire planets. You can’t farm without warriors to protect the real estate, livestock, and granaries, and you can’t control warriors without hard-fisted leaders.
The legions of hungry dirty peasants who produced the wealth were expendable, and lived in a manner that none of us would tolerate — while the lords gaily feasted. “Excavations of medieval cemeteries paint a horrifying picture of health problems resulting from brutal work regimes. Spinal deformations from the hard labor of plowing, hefting heavy grain bags, and scything the harvest are commonplace. Arthritis affected nearly all adults. Most adult fisherfolk suffered agonizing osteoarthritis of the spine from years of heavy boatwork and hard work ashore.”
Today, our lives are unnaturally soft and cozy. We exist in a “luxurious” unhealthy cocoon created by a temporary bubble of abundant energy. The shelves at the store are always full, a wonderland of easy calories. We have no memories of the hellish life of muscle-powered organic agriculture. We have forgotten how recently our ancestors died from famines and pestilence. As the cost and scarcity of energy increases, our bubble will surely pop.
Fagan gives us an eye-opening preview of what life is likely to look like when the fossil fuel bubble becomes the subject of scary old fairy tales (The Big Bad Consumer). As our miraculous machines run out of fuel, we will have no choice but to slip and slide into a muscle-powered future, which will be anything but unnaturally soft and cozy.
He also warns us that climate change is often not smooth and gentle. History is full of sudden catastrophic shifts. Despite our whiz-bang technology, and hordes of scientists, climate shifts remain beyond our control. We will experience whatever nature decides to serve us — even if we exercised our famous big brains, and permanently stopped every machine today. Climate was a persistent threat to agriculture-based societies long before coal mining was invented, because agriculture had far more defects than benefits.
This book provides vital information for those struggling to envision a sustainable future based on organic agriculture. Ideally, enlightened humans will deliberately keep the transition to muscle-powered organic agriculture as brief as possible, whilst devoting immense wisdom to the essential goals of full-speed population reduction and rewilding. There is nothing finer than a sustainable way of life. All other paths lead to oblivion.
Fagan,Brian, The Little Ice Age — How Climate Made History 1300-1850, Basic Books, New York, 2000.