Not so Happy Birthday

Dear Reader:

June 8 was my birthday. My kids gave me a book “Hero of  Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution” by Mike Duncan. It’s not the kind of book I would have chosen for myself. But it is so well written that I can’t put it down. The book recounts the participation of Lafayette in the American Revolution and, later, in the revolution of his native France. I was interested to read the following passage on pages 197-8.

It is doubtful the ongoing fight over taxes between king, nobles, and parlements would have resulted in the French Revolution had it not broken out in the middle of an ongoing environmental disaster. Europe was living through a period of prolonged cooling retrospectively dubbed the Litte Ice Age – a climatic era that opened a new interval of dropping temperatures around 1770. In the midst of this cooling, a volcanic fissure in Iceland erupted continuously over the span of eight months between 1783 and 1784, which blanketed European skies in sulfurous ash. The eruption wreaked havoc on the climate. Weather patterns swung unpredictably between torrential rains and extended droughts, bracketed by winters of unprecedented severity.

All of these factors devastated agricultural production – and the harvests of 1787 were particularly bad. So while the elites of France fought over taxes, the common people faced starvation. The problem was not just lack of food, but lack of money. The economic reforms approved by the assembly of Notables to liberate the grain trade from their allegedly oppressive controls happened to be rolled out at a moment of an acute supply shortage. Speculators and merchants did not miss the opportunity to make a fortune by jacking up the price of precious grain as high as possible. These rising prices affected all segments of society. Thomas Jefferson later recalled, “The slender stock of bread-stuff had for some time threatened famine, and had raised that article to an enormous price. So great indeed was the scarcity of bread that from the highest to the lowest citizen, the bakers were permitted to deal but a scanty allowance per head.” With the price of food consuming so much of the household budget, the contraction of consumer spending of the middle and upper class triggered a recessionary collapse of France’s nascent manufacturing sector. A steep decline in orders left the silk workers in Lyon, for example, in penniless limbo.

The harvest of 1788 was shaping up to ease the burden when Mother Nature struck again. On July 13, 1788, a massive hailstorm devasted most of northwestern France. Mind-bogglingly huge hailstones beat crops into crumpled and useless heaps. The harvest of 1788 now looked to be one of the worst in recorded history. Prices skyrocketed further. Pantries lay distressingly bare. Fear, anger, and dread took hold of all society. Collective anxiety having nothing to do with the ongoing political battle gripped the Kingdom of France. But it gave those ongoing political battles a grave and desperate energy. That is how revolutions are born.

Sound familiar? My history major son Nick is fond of saying those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. CCPP hopes to help forestall the revolution by doing something about climate change. Et vous?

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