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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.

Parker's remedy, stronger government and a more committed public, is readily appealing, not least because of the problems posed, in both past and present, by the limited capacity of communal action. Yet, as Parker, an expert on military history, is well aware, the state is easily able to use its power and resources for other purposes. Moreover, a focus on the state as the remedy can lead to an underrating of the dynamic capacity of entrepreneurial capitalism. In the 17th century, there were relatively few improved crop strains. Today, multinationals are playing an active role in developing strains that both require less water and are more disease resistant. Moreover, there have been major improvements in the technology of irrigation systems.

These developments are necessary because a more immediate issue than that posed by climate change is created by the rapid and unprecedented rise in the world's population. The ability to feed these numbers is both helped and hindered by the consequences of higher temperatures. Again, the parallels with the 17th century are problematic as that was not a period of major population increase. There had been a significant rise in the population of Eurasia in the 16th century, but not at the rate or on the scale of modern developments.

These points raise the question of the applicability of historical episodes and arguments. Both Parker and his publisher understandably emphasise this point. The press release, a key document as it often guides reviewers who lack necessary knowledge and independence, stresses "lessons for our own time", notably the difficulty of taking appropriate and speedy action: "Are we adequately prepared — or even preparing — for the challenges the new global climate change will bring? How would we cope with a worldwide catastrophe like that of the 1640s?"

This is dramatic, but we could ask whether what might be presented today as symptoms and consequences of environmental crisis, for example arms races and conflict, do not more readily rest with autonomous aspects of political culture and public policy. Ideological or cultural commitments and drives, notably those linked to religious identity and conviction, are not adequately explained by environmental explanations.

In the face of the catastrophism at issue in this most important and scholarly book, this argument may seem a case of academic nitpicking. However, the argument of necessity is still the creed of tyranny, even if the cause is a welcome one. Clearly, protecting ourselves and fellow humanity from natural calamities is valuable, but by extension, Parker's dirigiste approach, if adopted for the population issue, is one that would be uncomfortable in its consequences for liberals and conservatives alike. 

Looked at differently, Parker is trying to respond to the combination of the deficiencies of 20th-century political ideologies and government practices and a series of fresh crises but, like others, does not really have a new solution. A powerful state is no substitute for a civil society strong in its awareness of the value of inconvenient liberties and difficult freedoms, and able to work toward solutions that will be conceived accordingly.

Global Crisis is a masterpiece, a major work of scholarship by any standard and a credit to Yale University Press, the most impressive of publishers; but not the guide for the present that is suggested by its publisher. 

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