MIT faculty, students, and alumni in the humanistic fields have research-informed perspectives that can help the world address the myriad social and ecological impacts of climate change. The following Q&A is the first in a new series of publications that highlight these insights.
Anne McCants, an MIT professor of history, is a Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow, director of the MIT Concourse Program, and president of the International Economic History Association. Her research interests lie in the economic and social history of the Middle Ages and early modern Europe, as well as in the application of social science research methods across the disciplines. Here she describes what we can learn from human societies that found ways to manage, and even to thrive, in difficult climate conditions of the preindustrial past.
Q: There are many sensible approaches and ideas for addressing the climate crisis. Increasingly, it looks as if we’ll need all of them! What perspectives from economic history are significant for addressing climate change and its myriad social and ecological impacts?
A: The present state of the climate suggests alarming prospects for the future, which is why it is reasonable to focus on mitigation strategies; we all naturally wish to ward off calamity.
Fortunately, the capacity for anticipation and planning are hallmarks of our success as a species. In essence, this capacity is the ability to learn from past experience. So, while human-induced climate change is not a challenge we have had to confront before, history can still offer us guidance. The prevailing climate has changed before, so we can consider those earlier impacts, both benevolent and dire. In the preindustrial past, warming generally brought benefits, and colder periods, hardship. Always, greater variability challenged human systems.
To take but one example from the last millennium, favorable global medieval climatic conditions deteriorated at the end of the 13th century, ushering in a long period of colder and more variable conditions (for both temperature and precipitation) that culminated in the so-called Little Ice Age. This lasted from the 16th century to the middle of the 19th century.
Historians have argued persuasively that such climate changes played an important role in many of the ecological and social disasters that punctuated this long period. That climate matters to human flourishing is without doubt; that the zone of beneficence is relatively narrow seems also to be the case. (Our present worry is for heat, but cold is no picnic either for a population reliant on agriculture to feed itself.) Appreciating our sensitivity to even narrow climate fluctuations is crucial, but it is only a first step.
Q. The Little Ice Age was a challenging time, with advancing glaciers, crop failures, and famine. But from your work, we understand that the Dutch fared much better than many other European societies during these centuries. Can you explain the reasons for their success?
A. History shows that not everywhere fares equally poorly when faced with climatic stresses. Open-access societies — ones that tolerate a diversity of views and do not restrict agency to a preordained elite — have generally proved more innovative and resilient than less-open ones.
The hardships of the 17th century at the nadir of the Little Ice Age were real enough, but while a wide range of social indicators stagnated or declined elsewhere, the Dutch Republic grew and prospered — resulting in the Dutch Golden Age. In 1673 the English ambassador to the Dutch Republic, Sir William Temple, noted that "Holland is a country where profit [is] more in request than honor."
And by profit, he did not mean avarice or greed, for he also recognized that "Charity seems to be very National among them." What he observed, as notably distinct from the aristocratic Europe of his birth, was a society that cared about people in need (funding orphanages, old-age homes, hospitals, and almshouses in abundance).
Nor did they find it shameful to achieve financial, and thereby social, success through hard work (profit) and ingenuity (science). And, importantly, everyone was entitled to have a go: immigrants, sons of laborers, and remarkably even women, to a greater extent than anywhere else at the time.
Q: When you confront an issue as global and formidable as contemporary climate change, what gives you hope?
A: I find hope in the knowledge that when cooperation and openness have the edge over conflict and parochialism, formidable challenges can be met. History is no stranger to conflict, but as we move forward to address the risk now facing humanity, I hope we remember that cooperative and open-minded examples are also available, ripe for the learning.
Series prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Series Editor/Designer: Emily Hiestand
Co-Editor: Kathryn O'Neill