LESSONS LEARNED #6: “No one bitched about global warming when it ended the ice ages.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 25th, 2010

JUST AS FOOD surpluses gave life famine took it away.  Famine.  Few today can know the horror of the word.  In the U.S. obesity is epidemic.  Even among the poor.  Especially among the poor.  Quite a change from the days of feudalism.  In those days, the poor were never fat.  Only the wealthy had that luxury.

Famine exists today.  However, it is now the exception, not the rule.  Developed, capitalist countries don’t suffer famine.  (They have high farm yields.  And they are wealthy enough to import food when they need to.)  Under developed countries do.  And when they do, the developed countries send their food surpluses to them.  There were times, though, when suffering famine was far more commonplace and universal than a full stomach. 

There are many causes of famine.  War.  Pestilence.  And, of course, weather.  Cold weather.

THE GREAT FAMINE of 1315–1317 cut a swath of destruction through northern Europe from Great Britain to Poland.  The summer growing season was wet and cold.  Too wet.  Too cold.  Crops failed.  The once fertile but now soggy farmland simply could not bring grain to harvest.  And the rains kept coming.

Starve-crazed people did anything they could to eat.  They ate bark and roots and other things that did grow.  They stole food.  They murdered.  Seeing children as competition for the limited food supply, parents abandoned children.  Some quit eating and died so the children could eat.  There may have been cannibalism.  Many got sick.  And many died.  There were population reductions that would take centuries to recover.

The church couldn’t help.  Neither could government.  So people turned on both.  And on each other.  Civilization broke down.  Starved people resorted to animal behavior.   If you ever tried to take food away from a hungry dog, you get the picture.  These were very dangerous times.  And bleak.  There were many ways to die (hunger, disease, murder).  Nothing to look forward to.  Except for the return of warm, dry weather.

And that was just in the summer months.  The winters were colder.  There was hypothermia.  And death by cold weather.  Again, cold kills.

The weather did warm again.  Eventually.  And when the famine finally ended a weakened and stressed people could look forward to the future.  Unfortunately for them that future included the plague.  The Black Death.  It truly sucked to be them.  Thankfully, though, they persevered.  And, generations later, here we are.  No one today knows what suffering really is.  Not like they knew. 

THE LITTLE ICE AGE wasn’t an ice age.  It was a period of unusually cold weather.  Like a ‘little’ ice age.  Hence the name.  Some say the Great Famine of 1315-1317 was included in the Little Ice Age.  Some don’t.  Some say it ran from sometime in the 1500s to sometime in the 1800s.  Semantics.  You say tomato; I say tomato.  (That sounds better spoken than read.)  Maybe the Little Ice Age included the Great Famine.  Maybe it didn’t.  They were both cold, though.  And that’s the point.

There were three really, really cold periods during the Little Ice Age.  About midway through each of the centuries (1550ish, 1650ish and 1750ish).  It was like the Great Famine of 1315-1317 Lite.  Not as widespread or as devastating but there was famine.  And population decreases.  Mostly confined to colder climes (northern and mountain countries).

How cold was it?  To give you an idea, here are some well known bodies of water that aren’t known for freezing over that froze over in winter:  the Thames River, the Baltic Sea and New York Harbor.  You could walk from Sweden to Denmark (and Gustav’s armies did).  With the Dutch fleet frozen in ice, the French marched across ice to take the Netherlands.  Lake Superior still had ice in summer.  In a word the winters were cold.

FOR YOU BACKYARD gardeners, you have seen the affects of cooling.  A mild summer is enjoyable.  You can sleep without air conditioning.  You can open the windows for fresh air.  You can sit outside without sweating profusely in the heat and humidity.  Some enjoy that.  But maybe not the gardeners.  Why?  Well, speaking from personal experience, my garden just doesn’t grow in those mild summers.

I can fertilize.  I can water.  I can weed.  I can mulch.  But I can’t make it warmer.  And if the growing season isn’t long enough, if it isn’t warm enough, you’re just not going to get a whole lot of green peppers.

HISTORY IS FULL of famine and loss of life.  There are lots of reasons.  But this we know.  A warm and long growing season grows food.  The longer the growing season the greater the food surpluses.  Those areas hit by famine can be aided by the countries with the surpluses. 

If it’s cold, though, you have shorter growing seasons.  Shorter growing seasons produce smaller food surpluses.   If any.  There is less food to go around.  The less food there is the greater the chance that people will go hungry.  The shorter the growing season is, then, the greater the chance for famine.

So which is a greater risk to civilization as we know it?  Well, history has shown global cooling to kill more than global warming.  So I have to put my money on global cooling.  If I were a betting man.  Betting on the end of civilization as we know it.

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