What really triggers a resource crisis?
By Dennis T. Avery
During a symposium held recently at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yale historian Tim Snyder told the attendees: "Climate change acts as a "multiplier of other resource crises leading to "the ecological panic that I'm afraid will lead to mass killings in the decades come." In his attempt to predict the future, he is relying on historic resource crises that have led to mass killings, revolts, invasions, and famines. However, almost all of those resource crises came during the earth's "little ice ages," not during our planet's warm cycles. (Neither Hitler nor Mao Tse Tung were driven by resource crises; Japan may have thought it was, but their invasion of China cost a terrible price)
On the whole, the warmings have been the good times. The long summers, sunny skies, and moderate rainfall in the Medieval Warming tripled human numbers around the globe, according to respected Medieval population scholar Josiah Russell. The long Roman Warming delivered similar benefits, with ample food and a massive increase in economic growth, trade, and prosperity.
The key resource crises have always been about food. It's hard to grow much food if your farmers are beset by short, cold, cloudy summers, century-long droughts and violent, flooding storms. The six cultural collapses in Egypt's famously fertile Nile Valley were all caused by centuries of too little rainfall in the Sudanese and Ethiopian highlands during the "little ice ages." Half the Egyptians may have died in the resulting famines, and records say that parents literally ate their own children. That was truly a resource crisis!
The famed Bronze Age collapse occurred at 1200 B.C. because of a global stab of cold and storms. Roads turned to mud, and sea-storms sank ships. Making bronze required tin, and the ships could no longer safely reach the major tin mines in southern England, Turkey, and the Malay Peninsula. The Greeks, the Hittites in Turkey, the Egyptians, the Akkadian Empire in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, the Harappans in northwestern India, the steppe nomads on the grasslands across Eurasia, and several cultures in China all collapsed. For several centuries, famine ruled most of the populated world
Dian Zhang calculates that 80 percent of China's wars, rebellions, and failed dynasties have come during the floods, droughts, and famines of its "little ice ages." What comparable "resource crises" does Dr. Snyder see in our globally warmed future?
The global computer models' predictions have already failed. We have no reason to expect their predictions of sudden catastrophic warming to come true. Nor has the UN's climate panel told its computers about the long, natural 1,500-year climate cycle. The Dansgaard-Oeschger cycle has afflicted humanity with eight "little ice ages" since the last Ice Age. However, it has also given us an equal number of warm, stable centuries-long warmings.
Humanity only began to rise above the "little ice age" famines as we began to develop high-yield farming, out of desperation, toward the end of the last Little Ice Age (AD 1200–1850). The new gang plow permitted cropping the heaviest, richest bottomlands for the first time. The mechanical seeder allowed planting in rows, so the crops could be weeded. The potato and tomato came from the New World. Turnips, from China, permitted a livestock feed crop after the grains were harvested.
History tells us that if we have food, the other resource crises can be handled. In the current Corn Belt drought, our grain and yields will still be about six times as high as during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. We have developed no-till farming during the intervening 80 plus years to protect the land from erosion when drought events happen. Our biggest recent mistake has been to put a sizeable percentage of our food crops into corn ethanol—so the U.S. drought will now drive up the costs of both food and fuel to excruciating levels.
Take the food out of our gas tanks and put it back on the table. Reinvigorate high-yield farming research. Our ancestors coped with the "resource crises" as long as they could eat.
Dennis T. Avery, a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., is an environmental economist. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Years. Readers may email to firstname.lastname@example.org; Visit our website at www.cgfi.org.