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Safe from harm: How much should we spend protecting ourselves from natural disasters?

Taking global history as his matrix, Geoffrey Parker demonstrates the link between the Little Ice Age of the early modern period and the widespread political instability seen in the mid-17th century. In doing so, he offers a work that is Braudelian in its ambition and approach, but that does not fully escape the pitfalls of Fernand Braudel's method. Parker also seeks to demonstrate relevance to today's world by arguing that there is a need to choose between investing more resources in preparing for natural disasters or accepting the consequences of inaction. The stronger state is presented as the remedy, with the "welfare state" seen as the answer and particular ire is visited on those in the US who resist this conclusion.

That the book has a strong presentist character does not diminish the power of the historical imagination at work. Parker has a fine grasp of developments across the early modern world and is highly skilful in probing parallels and finding links. Much of human history in the 17th century is here, and the cast is impressive. The Ming are overthrown in China, where "many contemporary writers commented on the link between the rise of the ‘roving bandits' and the weather", while Charles I is executed in Britain. The bleakness and uncertainty of life in Europe depicted by Henry Kamen in his Iron Century (1971) is driven home and presented as worldwide.

As a work of history this is impressive, although, as with Braudel, whose structure Parker acknowledges, there is a certain tendency to downplay the autonomy of human developments. When J.H. Plumb, Parker's mentor, suggested that Braudel should have a Nobel prize, Maurice Cowling wrote critically of Braudel as a determinist. Parker is more subtle, but he does tend to fit the complexity of life and the unpredictabilities of development to his model. This is a natural tendency of scholarship, as the past is shaped for the purposes of depiction and analysis, but it can also be misleading. And it is the case that climate change, while occurring now, as in the 17th century, is difficult to explain.

The link between the two periods is that of serious disruption and resulting instability, because the Little Ice Age scarcely prefigured the modern trend toward a warmer planet. Indeed, the end of the Little Ice Age in the 18th century had helpful consequences. Warmer and drier summers improved crop yields and may in part have been responsible for a decline in deaths due to bacillary dysentery.

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