Colin Greenwood

‘God has abandoned us’

Decades of failed harvests during the Little Ice Age encouraged global trade, imperialism and the establishment of new European entrepôts

At a dinner recently I was told the story of a Canadian billionaire (now defined in banking circles as someone withmore than $500 million in liquid assets) who is building an escape destination from the oncoming climate apocalypse: an ersatz Versailles, with two runways, deep in the thawing Canadian tundra.

Four hundred years earlier, the world faced a different meteorological crisis. Temperatures plummeted by around 2° C, and summers zig-zagged between floods and droughts, possibly due to variations in solar and geothermal activity. Harvests were cut short, rivers and seas froze over as the climate changed with a biblical ferocity. Birds, frozen on the wing, were said to have plummeted from the sky.

Fish shoals and whales migrated south to escape the Arctic waters, the whales beaching themselves on the shallow Flemish coasts. Philipp Blom claims that Spain’s Armada was eviscerated by unnatural storms as it limped home. In North America, the 1607 settlement of Jamestown was fatally undermined by the driest summer in nearly 800 years. Illness and cannibalism followed, leaving less than half the settlers alive by the year’s end.

Vineyards in Europe failed and glaciers crept up on villages in Switzerland, ‘devouring summer meadows and farmsteads and, to the horror of local churchmen, even small chapels’. Before the Little Ice Age, famines and epidemics had struck every decade or so: now, they nearly tripled.

It wasn’t just the climate that changed. In the two main strands of Nature’s Mutiny, Blom argues that this ‘Little Ice Age kick-started the mercantile capitalism of today’, and also forced Europeans to confront the world and nature in a new, functional way, rather than as an instrument of divine displeasure or witches’ curses. These two shifts combined to give us today’s economic exploitation of the planet.

At first, the long, cold winters were seen as divine justice for our sins.

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