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.
Nature’s Mutiny works on a very broad canvas, suggesting that the hardships of the “peak cold” of the Little Ice Age, roughly centred on the era 1580–1680, led via a stimulus response mechanism to the painful birth of modernity itself. As the summers drew in and the climatic regime deteriorated, so the people of Europe fled to cities, the synergies of their forced migration and aggregation leading to innovations that fuelled powerful social, scientific, intellectual and economic developments in the space of a mere three generations. At times, Blom offers some detail about this process, as in his treatment of the privatization of the commons as an outcome of climatically driven declines in agricultural productivity, but all too often the book feels in need of some historical Polyfilla to cover the causal cracks between climatic change on the one hand and purported socio-economic responses on the other. Blom’s book is elegantly crafted, but long sections read like a rehearsal of old framings of a scientific revolution and a seventeenth-century “birth of the modern”,
Although Blom’s thesis might make for an entertaining Sunday supplement essay or a YouTube talk, it is completely unconvincing. To explain the rise of the market economy or the modern city would take a book in itself. To attribute them simply to climate change is laughable. But Blom never bothers to develop his argument properly. Instead he lurches, apparently at random, from one subject to the next, occasionally throwing in details about the weather to justify their inclusion.
Philipp Blom’s new book, Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age Transformed the West and Shaped the Present, approaches climate change from an important angle: the past... I like much about Blom’s book, but while I think it is a useful contribution to the subject of climate change and an engaging read, it is also a missed opportunity... Nevertheless, Blom’s book is worthwhile. Its central thesis is provocative, but it’s also compelling. We need hard analysis of the past in order to help us wrestle with the challenges of the future. But lively and intelligent conjecture has a place too.