Monday, 16 June 2014

A century uplifted, a century crushed in The Third Horseman

From the week of June 9th, 2014

Finding truth in history is a difficult and often treacherous pursuit. Empowered by our hunger to understand our ancestors, and to learn from the mistakes they made, we read into the bits and pieces we are able to unearth about them narratives which are invariably distorted by our own values, our own biases. We savage the Catholic church for its backwards treatment of Galileo; we cringe at the murderous zeal of Henry VIII; we sadly shake our heads over the unimaginable loss of life during its wars and famines. And for most of us, this is done without context, without comprehending the deeply entrenched customs that motivated actions that, to us, range from abhorrent to bewildering.

This is why history cannot be reduced to narratives. It is the gestalt of countless lives, across countless generations, making contributions to countless cultural constructs. History is like the weather. It is not moved or shaken by any one disturbance. It is a complex system whose constant shifts require constant re-evaluation. And it is an acknowledgement of this underlying reality that makes this micro-history from William Rosen so captivating.

Popularized by opponents of Climate Change, who deploy it as ammunition against acknowledgement of the Anthropocene, the Medieval Warming Period was a roughly 400-year warming of the European climate that began in the tenth century and ended dramatically in the early years of the 14th. Between, Europe and the British Isles, experienced a significant increase in temperatures which not only expanded the total acreage of cultivatable land, but allowed for the existence of crops in areas that formerly could not support them. Northern England, for instance, possessed fruitful vineyards during this uptick. And as has been true since the dawn of civilization, more available food allows the population to expand, in this case, by tens of millions.

This expanse in the Carrying Capacity of Europe would come to have dire consequences in the 1300s when, with the end of the Medieval Warming Period, widespread flooding in the 1320s destroyed much of the continental harvests. The shrinking of the food supply led to starvation, famine and death. With scientific thought in its infancy, and the ruling powers too preoccupied with their own disputes to engineer solutions, these crippling conditions killed many, in peace and in war and authored more than a century of anguish highlighted by plague and darkness.

A history of both the climate and the people who endured it, The Third Horseman is a gripping examination of the Medieval Warming Period, the systemic forces that likely caused it and the human events that characterized it. From the Norman Invasion of England to the Scottish wars of Independence, from the floods in western Europe to the barley crops in Norway, Mr. Rosen gathers together the disparate, dangling threads of this consequential time and weaves them into an entertaining tapestry that is as enlightening as it is terrifying.

From the perch of modernity, where we possess technologies to literally remake the face of our planet, we rarely think about fundamental elements like food that are necessary for not only human survival but the continuance of human civilization. Today, food is not only bountiful, it is ubiquitous, so much so that some have fetishized its consumption while the rest take its presence for granted. Not so in Medieval Europe where food's cultivation was a difficult and arduous process, requiring a significant percentage of the available human capital to actualize, leaving margins for error razor thin.

But while, thanks to advancements in farming technology in specific and science in general, we have more margin for error, it is swiftly shrinking. Seven-billion humans now walk our planet, a many-fold increase over Medieval Europe. Should harvests fail thanks to our reckless distortion of the climate system, untold millions will die and plunge our civilization into the greatest famine we've ever known. And given that the failure of past civilizations is often caused by the social upheavals that result from the scarcity of basic necessities like food and water, it is not difficult to imagine that such a disruption would be the end of us too.

Mr. Rosen, however, is neither a nag nor a pessimist. The Third Horseman is not a polemic against human wastefulness, nor climate skeptics. It is, rather, the study of the disruption of life during consequential changes in those fundamental things we take for granted. It does not prod us to change our ways, nor does it seek to blame us for our faults. It merely invites us to remember how, despite our science and our liberation, despite our triumphs and our beliefs, we are still, in totality, reliant upon Earth and its climate to sustain us, systems of which our knowledge is laughably incomplete. Whatever step we take as a result of this key insight is ours to execute on our own.

A review of this fine work would be incomplete if it glossed over the author's treatment of the Scottish wars which have a ringing relevance for 2014, the year in which Scotland again faces the prospect of becoming sovereign. Famous historical figures like Robert the Bruce, William Wallace and the Englishmen they faced to gain their freedom are given fine, if unspectacular biographies. The passion, and indeed the enlightenment, comes in how these men were affected by the broader, global systems that they gave not even a passing thought.

An excellent micro-history that leaves no doubt of just how perilous our perch is on our little blue dot... (4/5 Stars)

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