The historian Geoffrey Parker, in his recent book, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, describes the truly awful time humanity had of it the world over in the sixteen hundreds. “The Little Ice Age” spawned extreme weather events and severely destabilized agricultural output. Wars over natural resources were vicious and protracted. Communicable diseases ran rampant. The estimate that one third of humanity perished doesn’t seem to be out of line.
In the midst of this prolonged hardship, many authorities came to realize that the scale and duration of these phenomena were unprecedented. Explanations for their occurrence were mainly theodical, that is, based on the assumption that one or another god was punishing people for doing evil.
It’s an illuminating exercise to compare the world today with that of three hundred fifty years ago. Are we in the midst of a catastrophe, too? Will we see billions fewer people on the planet a century from now? Even as I ask these questions, knowing that neither I nor anyone knows the answers, we are witness to events whose causes and effects are not impossible to comprehend, when it comes down to it. Our more materialistic explanations have replaced religious ones, even among prominent figures such as Pope Francis, Patriarch Bartholomew I, and the imams behind the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change. Causes of current events are, ironically, harder to imagine.
There are approximately sixty million forcibly displaced people at present. I know this figure, I see the images of refugees, I watch video of sprawling camps. How do I imagine their lives ought to look instead? Certainly not like much of the twentieth century, when 160 million people were casualties of war alone. The carbon dioxide humanity has been pumping into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution is changing the planet’s climate. What do I image the world should look like at pre-industrial levels of 270 ppm of CO2? Surely not like the seventeenth.
Parker closes his study with a call for governments around the world to put more resources into measures that would prevent another period as calamitous as the seventeenth century. I’d like that too. I’ll even pay more taxes for it. Plus give up meat, drive a car much less, and stop buying so much stuff. But I’m suspicious of my own ability to imagine a globe that isn’t in crisis. What if my imagination is conjuring up an even worse world?
Let me be clear: I am not saying we humans are not in multiple-crisis mode. I am saying that any “crisis” is a decision to make a “cut” from the whole and foreground something. All crises, like all decisions, forget (sometimes temporarily, sometimes for longer) their context. Perhaps we can start calling that context what it is – an ecology. Whereas we can get by in the current mode of operation, lurching from crisis to crisis, we probably can’t keep getting by forever without thinking and acting (same diff) ecologically. Being ecological isn’t replacing a shallow, contingent, temporary reality with something larger, deeper, and contextual. Real human beings are suffering at the border of Croatia today. Real sequoias are being consumed by fire in California. And real contexts are likewise under threat.
Global crisis? When not, back then? Where not, nowadays? In the future? Of course, everywhere. So let’s not wait for an historian to tell us what we should have done, three centuries from now.