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How climate change led to capitalism

13 April 2019

9:00 AM

13 April 2019

9:00 AM

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. ‘God has abandoned us,’ wrote the Dutch monk Wouter Jacobszoon in his diary, describing a woman found frozen to death, still clutching her keening child. To remedy this, witches were burnt and religious processions and expiations were made. All fruitless. In Prussia, Pastor David Schaller wrote: ‘There is no true and lasting sunshine, no steady winter and summer fruits, and things growing from the earth no longer ripen as well.’

As crops withered, people experimented with different farming methods. Common land was enclosed and merged into estates, overseen by a new manager class. Wheat, grown by serfs in the Baltic and Ukraine, was shipped to supplement failing harvests across Europe. In the Netherlands, land was reclaimed from the sea for crops, and farmers diversified from arables to livestock and New World crops, such as potatoes and maize. To beat starvation, Italian states sent delegates to Danzig and Amsterdam to bid for grain. In time, more than 200,000 tonnes of Baltic grain were sold to northern Italy every year.

Grain had became a commodity, to be traded through new financial capitals. Amsterdam offered intellectual and religious freedom to writers and thinkers fleeing religious oppression and imperial dominion. Peasants, too, thrown off consolidated common land, migrated to these teeming urban centres in search of work and a better life — from the feudal castles and churches to modernity’s cities and markets.

Finance was crucial to fund these sea-based capitals in their ruthless exploitation of the New World trade, and for warring monarchs to supply and equip their forces. Blom describes the Thirty Years’ War of 1618–48 and numerous other conflicts as engines of both destruction and growth. Populations were halved, and much of central Europe was laid waste. Military technology, such as trajectory mathematics for artillery, created new cadres, and soldiers were drilled and professionalised. As costs soared, trade and consumption became imperative to fund war. Blom quotes the French historian Marc Bloch: ‘A crisis of income of the ruling class ends the Middle Ages and opens the modern period.’

Local taxation was becoming too onerous, and so colonial trade, ‘selling more to strangers yearly than we consume of theirs in value’, was imperative, argued Thomas Mun, director of the London East India Company from 1615. Mun’s ideal society was, says Blom, ‘a virtuously poor and industrious population ruled by an elite celebrating “bounty and pomp”’. Goods produced cheaply in colonies by slave labour boosted consumption at home. It’s a fair description of today’s globalised economy, distracted by social media and shiny brands, where just 100 companies are responsible for more than 60 per cent of all carbon emissions.

As well as these early transnational CEOs, Blom describes a rich Enlightenment ensemble of sages, philosophers, clerics and proto-scientists. Many reached back to classical times, and helped shape our understanding of nature today. Empirical observation of the colder world and its phenomena had become unshackled from the Bible, as explanations were sought and shared in material reality. Blom argues that we may have picked the wrong thinkers to shape our world, or rather that we have lost sight of those Enlightenment philosophers who equated the natural world with the divine. Like the billionaire in his escape palace, Voltaire wrote from his Swiss chateau:

It is impossible on our poor globe not to have all people living in societies divided into two classes: one of the rich, which commands, and the other of the poor, which serves.

Free markets and plundering the globe may have raised billions out of poverty, but wealth has become concentrated in fewer hands. This neo-liberalism from the Netherlands could now condemn us all to a pre-revolutionary world of extremes of rich and poor, mass migration, resource exhaustion and climate jeopardy.

Blom finds some hope and a call to arms in the writings of the Jewish Portuguese exile and optical lens grinder, Baruch Spinoza, who saw nature as God manifest, and placed his ethics and human morality at the heart of it. A richer, more powerful Enlightenment exists that takes account of our stake-holding in the natural world. The false gods of economic growth that supplanted the Bible from the 17th century are no longer sustainable. Instead of getting and spending, we must focus on sufficiency and survival, and listen to today’s scientists, as our children march, not to appease a capricious God, but to demand a safer future.

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