Sins or Nature? Seventeenth and Twenty-First Century Responses to Climate Change

by Nicholas Cunigan.
Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters, Hendrick Avercamp, c. 1608, Rijksmuseum

Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters, Hendrick Avercamp, c. 1608, Rijksmuseum

The past year has borne witness to deadly hurricanes, unseasonable temperatures, record flooding, and uncontrollable wildfires. The natural disasters that have wreaked havoc on Houston, Puerto Rico, and millions of acres in the West have left thousands of those directly affected homeless, destitute, and heartbroken. Many more are left looking for explanations.

As a climate historian whose work focuses on the seventeenth century, I can’t resist comparing today’s unfolding climate crisis with the Little Ice Age, a period of unusual climate that lasted roughly from 1350 to 1800. The seventeenth century was a particularly turbulent time during the Little Ice Age. In Europe, average temperatures dropped .5º to 1.5º Celsius. As a result, crops never ripened, people starved, disease raged, and wars erupted. According to historian Geoffrey Parker, the mid-seventeenth century saw more wars than in any era until the 1940s.

Those affected by the seventeenth century’s extreme weather and climate variability, just like those affected today, sought out explanations. Europe’s Christians looked to the heavens and judged extreme weather to be God’s punishment for sin. “The principal cause of the calamities that afflict this kingdom are the public sins and injustices committed,” explained one of Philip IV of Spain’s leading advisors. A Jesuit in the Philippines exclaimed, “Divine Providence wishes to show us something, perhaps to warn us of some approaching catastrophe, which our sins so deserve…because God is angry.” (Parker 2013, 8)

These explanations bear striking resemblance to comments made in the wake of this past year’s natural disasters. InsideClimate News reported that Kathy Glover, a resident of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, also pointed to the heavens to explain the heavy rains and flooding that killed 23 people in West Virginia. “I’m a firm believer that God tells us in the Bible that he will warn us through signs in the sky.” Jake Dowdy, one of Kathy’s neighbors, echoed her sentiments: “I don’t know if these are signs of the ending coming or if this is climate change. I’m as puzzled as everybody is.”

Today, climate scientists using tree rings, ice core samples, and pollen records argue that the leading cause of the seventeenth century’s extreme weather was natural. The century experienced unusually high numbers of volcanic eruptions whose ash clouds entered the atmosphere and created a veil that diminished the sun’s heat-providing rays. Contemporaries described the clouded skies and painters including Hendrick Avercamp depicted the frozen European landscape in some of the period’s most well-known works of art.

In contrast, today’s climate crisis is anthropogenic in origin. Carbon dioxide levels have steadily risen since the Industrial Revolution from 270ppm to over 400ppm. This rise has resulted in a warming trend that has only accelerated in recent years. Sixteen of the seventeen warmest years on record have occurred since 2000. This warming has been linked to an increased likelihood and severity of extreme weather.

Climate historians like myself are interested in a variety of questions including what caused periods of extreme weather and how people understood climate, but we are most interested in whether and how humans responded to these events. Historically, peoples and institutions have responded in ways both destructive and constructive. Spain instituted an oppressive tax during the early seventeenth century that led to more starvation and more death. Those in the Dutch Republic, however, went to work building and repairing dykes and canals to guard themselves against the deadly effects of extreme weather.

The Little Ice Age, as a natural phenomenon that cannot be ascribed to the actions of human beings, falls into what theologians refer to as “natural evil.” Today’s climate crisis, in contrast, is directly linked to human activities and might better be understood as a “moral evil.” The 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Synthesis Report puts it bluntly: “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history.” We are living in a crisis of our own making and in the consequences of our sin against the creation.

Anthropogenic climate change that leads to destitution, displacement, and death is surely a manifestation of the fall. But as such, it also beckons a Reformed response – one rooted in the firm belief that Christians are not only capable but tasked with pulling back the effects of the fall. Doing so requires a firm biblical as well as scientific grounding.

References

Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate, and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (Yale University Press, 2013)

Nicholas Cunigan is an adjunct professor of history at Calvin College, and a Calvin history alum (’07). He recently completed his Ph.D. at the University of Kansas. His research interests lie at the intersection of environmental, indigenous peoples, and Atlantic World history. His dissertation investigates the impact of 17th-century climate change on the relationship between indigenous peoples and the Dutch West India Company.

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Giving Honor to Whom Honor is Due: Chinua Achebe

by Eric M. Washington

Upon arriving on campus yesterday and sitting in front of my computer, I noticed something eye-catching for the Google Doodle. I rarely click on them, but this one featured the late Nigerian novelist, writer, and professor Chinua Achebe, who would have been 87 yesterday. A number of online stories underscored the significance of the Achebe Google Doodle, including one by The Independent. The article by San Francisco-based Jeremy B. White, describes Achebe’s work as “telling distinctly African stories from the perspective of African characters, helping to forge a literature that — like newly created countries — was independent from Europe.” I wholeheartedly agree.

In the Spring of 1990, I took my first African history class, Africa: 1880-Present. In it, my professor assigned Things Fall Apart. This was my introduction to African fiction. Things Fall Apart tells the story of a man, Okonkwo, who lived in the village of Umuofia in Igbo land, which is now the eastern area of Nigeria. Achebe set the story sometime during the late 19th century as the Igbo began to encounter Anglican missionaries from England, and Igbo-speaking evangelists. This was also the period of the Scramble for Africa, where European powers colonized African people and African land. Okonkwo is the person through whom the reader witnesses this time of tremendous change in Igbo land.

What I appreciated then about the novel is that Achebe told an African story. No apologies. As a student in an African history course but as an American-born person of African descent, the descriptions of the intricacies of Igbo life and culture interested me. Because of this novel, I have a fondness for West African yams! Reading Igbo voices and coming to understand an Igbo worldview created within me a deep empathy for each character, even the majorly flawed Okonkwo. The novel engendered so much empathy within me that I found myself rooting against the European missionaries in the story. How could I, who identified as a Christian, side with non-Christian Igbo men and women as they ridiculed the halting attempt of an English missionary to explain Christianity to them?

I can honestly testify that reading Things Fall Apart moved me to love African history; thereby, it placed me on a track to choose African history as my major field in graduate school. Though I would specialize in southern African history, I have remained devoted to Things Fall Apart. When I began teaching World History here at Calvin, I chose to assign Things Fall Apart. So for the past ten years, I have taught this novel to students in World History and African History. Though I do teach other historical fiction by African writers, I cannot let Things Fall Apart go. It is a deep love affair that endures.

As I read Things Fall Apart for the first time in 1990, the story captivated me much like the singing of Christian missionaries had captivated the character Nwoye. Most of the times I teach the book, I read this passage out loud:

But there was a young lad who had been captivated. His name was Nwoye, Okonkwo’s first son. It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow. The hymn about the brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul—the question of twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed. He felt relief within as the hymn were like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry panting earth. Nwoye’s callow min was greatly puzzled.

This passage encapsulates the beauty of the novel. First, it is wonderfully composed by Achebe, just chock-full of sharp imagery. Second, it brings to light the complexity of Igbo-Christian encounters serving to counter a popular notion that European missionaries “forced” Christianity upon Africans. Achebe presented Nwoye as thinking through what Christianity had to offer as an alternative solution to deep, troubling, and nagging problems he had with Igbo culture and practices. What Achebe did was act as a good historian. He complicated the narrative.

It is difficult for me to measure the amount of impact Things Fall Apart has had on me personally and spiritually. It has been immense. I read the novel at a time in which I began to think deeply about my own African heritage and identity. What did it mean to be Black? What did it mean to be an African American? Things Fall Apart served as a bridge for me in understanding the base from which I emerged. It has had existential relevance for me. I have no idea if any person in my lineage was Igbo. That is unimportant. What is significant is that Things Fall Apart gave me a reference point to claim what was mine already, an African heritage. Achebe served as a teacher. In his 1965 essay, “The Novelist as Teacher,” Achebe wrote these words, which can readily apply to the situation of Africans in the Diaspora:

Here then is an adequate revolution for me to espouse—to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement. And it is essentially a question of education, in the best sense of that word. Here, I think, my aims and the deepest aspirations of my society meet. For no thinking African can escape the pain of the wound in our soul… The writer cannot expect to be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done.

For this, I am forever indebted.

Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.

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Sometimes History Hits Home

by Bob Schoone-Jongen.
Black and white photo of flattened wood building on the coast.

A building in Corpus Christi, Texas, destroyed by a storm surge in 1916. (Photo by National Weather Service.)

Sometimes history hits home. Hurricane Harvey is one of those hits.

Watching the devastation along the Gulf Coast, from Corpus Christi to Port Arthur, has been heart wrenching. Following the struggles of folks in the region, some of them my former students from back in Minnesota, puts real faces and real experiences into the picture. Thankfully, the people I know have emerged intact, at least physically.

There is a second raw nerve here: Just last year I spent a week in Corpus Christi. I walked along the waterfront; I had dinner on a barge anchored in the marina. I stayed in a motel in Robstown, where a house burned to the ground in the storm’s aftermath. I flew in and out of the airport the president used to make his stop in town just last week. These places are not just pictures on a television screen. They are three-dimensional images in my mind.

Five years back I visited a research library in Beaumont. Now the city has a severely limited water supply. I saw a reporter standing at an exit on I-10 situated within shouting distance of the hotel where I stayed. The documents I handled are likely still under water. If so, they will not be handled again, except on the way to a dumpster. The life story of someone I researched will be gone, at least the original manuscript version of it.

About one hundred years ago, this same Gulf Coast area endured other hurricanes of similar proportions. Just the other day I saw a weather map showing the paths of them, one that struck the Beaumont area in 1914 and the other which came ashore south of Corpus Christi in 1916. There are lessons in them.

The 1914 storm literally washed away a farming community. When it struck, the crops were in the fields, just days away from harvesting. The storm surge rolled more than 12 miles inland from the gulf, pouring salt water into the canals that fed the rice fields. When the sun finally reappeared, the crops were gone, the future of rice production destroyed. One hundred farm families left the area within days, never to return.  A few of the families held on to their land, if only for sentimental reasons. If they did, their reward came decades later when the land sprouted oil wells, instead of produce. Those wells fed the refineries in Beaumont and Port Arthur that produce 20% of the gasoline consumed in the United States today, and are currently out of production due to the flooding.

The 1916 storm destroyed a church, a resort hotel, farmsteads, and a railroad. The railroad tracks went for scrap. Since the local farmers could not afford to leave, they rebuilt their houses and barns. They also built a new church, with bricks made of mud mined from the bottom of Baffin Bay. That Thanksgiving, the parish priest organized a community celebration, starting a tradition that endures to this day. Since the oil companies concluded they had no use for the area, the future remains with small farms raising produce, and small-scale cattle operations that compete with the industrial sized ranches that dominate South Texas.

I’m not sure what this says about cities like Houston and Beaumont and Port Arthur, or the many small communities, like Rockport, that line the Gulf Coast. Except this, maybe: No matter what we think or hope, Harvey has changed the region permanently. Things will never be the same. And this: the region’s future will not be the one we think it will be today. One final thing: although I write this from a distance, Harvey changed me, as well, because history has once again hit home.

Robert Schoone-Jongen is in his fourteenth year at Calvin College, working with student teachers who hope to become high school and middle school social studies teachers. His historical interests are immigration, American social history, and the presidency. 

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