Thursday, March 30, 2017


Beast of the Apocalypse
Yesterday I journeyed by Long Island Railroad to Queens. I wanted to travel on the 1:46 p.m. train, so I left my apartment on the Upper West Side at 1, knowing that the subway runs regularly at that hour and would get me to Penn Station in plenty of time to buy a ticket and a sandwich to eat on the train. I was in no doubt that the train would leave at 1:46, which it did. I could plan my return trip to Manhattan similarly.

Yet, amid all this regularity, this rationalization of everyday structures of life, why were several people sitting on the dirty floors of the subway begging? Why indeed were the floors of the subway littered with newspapers? Why, with all the public money that is spent on welfare, on helping people to get enough to eat and to have a place to live, why, indeed, do so many people live so “unrationalized”?

Bloody signs in the sky, 1531
I ask these questions as a way of winding up these posts on climate hysteria. Back in the so-called Little Ice Age, heavy snowfall, avalanches, flooding, not to forget harvest failure, price increases, disease, and infertility were seen as signs from God foretelling either the end of the world or divine retribution for sin. After 1560 every kind of disaster was laid at the door of witches. The impetus for the persecution of witches came not from the institutions, but from “below.”

I started these posts on climate hysteria during the Little Ice Age as a way of situating our current apocalyptic thinking about climate change. According to Wolfgang Behringer, whom I have often cited in these posts, the 17th-century hysteria about climate cooling began to wane with the age of reason. Make that the Enlightenment. It began to be understood that the catastrophes resulting from the adverse weather conditions were a consequence of what we would now call “underdevelopment” and of ineffective — make that corrupt — political and social institutions that are still the norm for much of the world. “The public was no longer prepared to accept sermons about divine retribution, but pointed to the structural deficits and political omissions that hindered relief operations after crop failures. Why were the roads so bad that bread cereals could not be expeditiously imported? Why were the warehouses too small to supply the poor? … Why had royal officials not made adequate provision?”

The authorities were forced to act, and did so. In Holland, for instance, there was an agrarian revolution beginning in the late 16th century. With the introduction of dyke-based land reclamation, crop rotation, irrigation, sowing of new varieties of seeds, famine became a rarer occurrence. This happened after 1709 “in the space of a single generation.” In Holland, of course, witch hunting had long been abandoned: “even heretics and Jews had the possibility of a relatively good life.”

Also occurring in Europe was an artisanal revolution. Among the many instruments produced and sold in large quantities were barometers, thermometers, pumps, and prisms. Newspapers took to recording daily atmospheric pressure readings.
Ice skating in Weimar

The dark winter landscapes of Pieter Bruegel gave way to friendlier winter depictions, and winter sports became popular, e.g., ice skating, of which Goethe was so fond. Of course, the rigors of nature were not over, and, as I mentioned in an earlier post, Goethe sought to avoid visits to the court in Gotha during the winter. Versailles must have been a fearfully cold place, despite all the glitter and glamour, but there arose the “Sun King” construct, promising a better future. Not only Louis XIV but also HRE Leopold I stylized themselves as “heat-providing central stars.”

Of course, the rise in bureaucratic structures that facilitated improvements in land use and in recovery from catastrophe was accompanied by a growth in populations, which in turn has put pressure on the earth and its resources, as have the industries that keep people employed, diverted, entertained, comforted, and so on. These developments, in my opinion, are serious for our fellow non-human creatures, but I do not believe that they cause the earth to become warmer or colder. That is a function of processes beyond our planet. We are simply not that powerful, although the ideology of progress suggests that we should be able to contain these processes.

Nowadays, apocalyptic visions come from “above,” from the intellectual classes.  Thus, the concept of “eco-sin,” so redolent of the 16th and 17th centuries. As Behringer writes, in earlier times, a sin was an offense against God’s command that deserved to be punished, and it was the task of priests to point out violations of divine law.

Goethe Girl is really sticking her neck out here by quoting Behringer to the effect that civilization was a product of climate warming: “The Neolithic Revolution and the rise of ancient civilizations became possible in periods when it was somewhat warmer than it is today.” If the IPCC’s latest predictions are accurate, those levels will be reached again at some point in the twenty-first century. “Then the Alpine glaciers will melt, but not those of the Antarctic. We will save on heating costs and use less fossil energy. What will become of the deserts? Will they really spread? During the Atlantic period, more water circulated in the atmosphere and the Sahara was fertile.”

So, if the earth is becoming warmer, we must take measures to contain and reduce its effects, just as in the Enlightenment people began to apply “reason” to counteract the effects of extreme cold. It is not a time to reprise the role of Nostradamus.

Picture credit: Martin Joppen

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