The Horsemen Of The Apocalypse Which

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Historians have long sensed that the last centuries of the Roman era, and those that followed, were something of a reversal in the "onward and upward" march of human progress typical of previous centuries, at least in Europe. The Romans had for a while achieved a level of engineering technology and general prosperity that would not be repeated again in most of the West for over a millennium. Aqueducts brought to their cities fresh water of a quality not equaled until less than 200 years ago in London or Paris. The aqueducts, as well as baths and public structures not intentionally destroyed by human hands, have stayed intact for almost two millennia because they were bound by cement of a quality that Europeans still could not match in the early 1800s. The durability of Roman roads was also unsurpassed. In most respects, life in Rome during the height of the Roman Empire had much more in common with life during the early 1800s than it did with conditions 8,000, 6,000, or 4,000 years ago. Similar advances had also occurred by 2,000 years ago in the advanced civilizations of China and India.

But soon after the height of the Roman era, Western civilization entered the "Dark Ages," a time marked in most areas by a regression in technological knowledge and a general loss of respect for, or interest in, scientific inquiry. In much of the West, this stagnant condition was to last until the Renaissance almost a millennium later. The Dark Age was also a difficult time in a more fundamental sense: world population growth slowed and even stopped during some intervals, apparently because of rising mortality rates. A woodcut in 1528 by Albrecht Dürer left an enduring image of several kinds of devastation that added to normal mortality during this era: the four horseman of the apocalypse. This image came originally from Revelations, the last book of the New Testament. The identities of the horsemen have been variously interpreted through history, but the typical version names three of them war, famine, and pestilence, with death the fourth.

The horsemen of the apocalypse seemed like a useful starting point to search for the cause of the unexplained CO2 drops during the Dark Ages. Whichever horseman had killed the most humans might explain the CO2 reductions: fewer humans, and less CO2 release. Although not a historian, I began to explore the last 2,000 years of recorded human history, optimistically searching for any link to those dips in the CO2 concentrations (see fig. 12.1), with the horsemen of the apocalypse as my gloomy guides.

An ancient, and somewhat fatalistic, wisdom acknowledges that human progress is not always a one-way process, and a popular song lyric from recent decades captures this attitude well: "one step forward, and two steps back." The initial discovery of agriculture, and all of the innovations that followed, had for several millennia been of unprecedented benefit to humanity. With more food available, human populations grew as never before. With dependable sources of food in a single region, people could stay in one place, rather than constantly having to pack up and move on. With their livestock nearby, people had easy access to protein-rich meat, milk, butter, and cheese to supplement crops rich in carbohydrates. With orchards of fruit and nut trees, diets became more nutritious still. With crop excesses stored away for lean years, extreme swings in weather could often be ridden out. Compared to the more vulnerable existence of those who had lived by hunting, fishing, and gathering, agriculture had transformed existence on Earth.

But agricultural progress came at a cost. Embedded in this new way of life were changes that would lead to problems on a scale previously unknown in human history. Each of the first three horsemen of the apocalypse is, indirectly or directly, linked to the unprecedented success of agriculture. And gradually, after 2,000 years ago, the "forward" steps of agricultural success would begin to produce "backward" feedback effects that would grievously afflict humanity.

Consider war, obviously a major killer of humans. By 2,000 years ago, war was occurring on previously unprecedented scales. Stone Age clans moving from site to site in forest clearings no doubt fought often over resources, but they did so locally, with deaths on a smaller and more random scale. But after agriculture produced far larger societies with much greater wealth, these cultures began to pay a class of full-time warriors to defend that wealth and to invade other regions to obtain even more. In addition, as different religions came into being from region to region, differences in beliefs became a common motivation for war.

If war had been the major cause of human mortality, I would have expected to see the largest wars clustered within intervals of low CO2 concentrations at roughly ad 200-600, 1300-1400, and 1500-1750, with little warfare from 600 to 1300. Yet a cursory look at the history of warfare showed little or no obvious correlation of this kind. We (humans) have rarely allowed much time to pass without a major war, and no era of any length has been entirely free from it on one scale or another. An animated world map of the history of warfare would show endless overlapping battles of considerable intensity throughout every interval of history. To my eye, no convincing link to the three intervals of low CO2 was apparent.

Some might still be tempted to infer that a significant concentration of wars occurred during the decline of the Roman Empire from 200 to 600, the first low-CO2

interval. The Huns, the Visigoths, and then the Vandals invaded southward from Germany beginning in 370 and through the middle 500s, followed by the Avars in the 500s to 600s and the Slavs in the 500s to 700s. Large disturbances also occurred in China and India during this time. But war did not subsequently cease for the next 600 years when CO2 levels rose. Later warring groups included the Franks in the 700s, the Vikings in the late 700s to the 900s, the Magyars in the 800s and 900s, and the Muslims from the 600s and until the Saracen resurgence of the 1200s. With no obvious gap in the frequency of warfare, little correlation to CO2 emissions was apparent.

One important exception may exist: the Mongol invasions throughout Eurasia that began in the early 1200s and reached a peak during the middle 1200s left effects that lasted for centuries afterward. Genghis Khan and his successors invaded every region from China in the East, to India in the South, to Europe in the West, and in several regions they ripped up the very fabric of the societies they conquered. Tens of millions may have died in China at Mongol hands in the 1200s. In the arid Near East, where agriculture had originated, the Mongols destroyed most of the existing irrigation-based agriculture, and populations fell precipitously. War and systematic destruction at this large a scale is unusual, and CO2 concentrations were falling during this interval, so a causal link is possible in this case.

But in all other respects, war seemed an unlikely explanation of the CO2 drops during preindustrial times, at least to my nonhistorian's eye. Even the 8 million Germans and Belgians who died during the Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648 were "only" 1-2% of the global population of that time. War is deadly, but seemingly not deadly enough to qualify as the horseman I sought.

Famine is another potential killer, and to some extent also an outgrowth of the success of agriculture. With gradual improvements in agricultural techniques, farmers gradually began taking the risk of growing crops closer to the limits nature sets: in far-northern regions and on mountain flanks where cold temperatures set natural limits, and in warmer semi-arid regions where drought is the limit. Crops grown in these environments naturally became more vulnerable to year-to-year freezes or droughts, and even more so to longer-term climatic changes. The most severe famine in preindustrial European history in terms of mortality occurred in 1315-1322, and another in the 1430s.

But was famine really a major factor on a global scale? Like today, very small fractions of the total human population on Earth lived along the northern or high-altitude limits of agricultural regions. When crops failed in these cooler regions, the deaths they caused tended to be relatively small on a global scale. Even the famine of 1315-1322 mainly affected far-northern and high-elevation regions of Europe. By 1322 good crops were again coming in, and population levels seem to have quickly recovered.

What about the tropics and subtropics, where most humans actually live and where the most serious climatic concern is drought? Could drought-induced famine be a major killer across large areas of the tropics and subtropics? This possibility seems unlikely for several reasons. For one thing, irrigation provided much of southern Eurasia with a buffer against the worst impacts of drought. Many of Eurasia's agricultural regions had dependable supplies of water from rivers that flowed from well-fed mountain sources that received considerable rainfall even during droughts.

In addition, the likelihood of drought striking vast areas of Eurasia simultaneously is unlikely on a meteorological basis. On a global scale, very nearly the same amount of rain falls each year. Solar radiation evaporates very nearly the same amount of water vapor from the oceans and land each year, but the atmosphere can store only so much water vapor before it sends it back to Earth. As a result, global rainfall does not vary much from year to year.

Of course precipitation does vary widely on a local basis. One town can be as green as a golf course late in June, with another town nearby parched and brown; yet a month later the two regions may have switched colors, as the scattered thunderstorms that first favored one area then fell on the other. This same uneven distribution of rainfall occurs at larger regional scales, with one country suffering a multiyear drought while a neighbor has heavy rains and flooding. But on a larger, more nearly global scale, the droughts and floods (and normal rainfall elsewhere) tend to balance out. It is nearly impossible for a region as large as the entire southern tier of Eurasia to be gripped in drought at a single time. To my knowledge, no climate historian has ever claimed that drought has simultaneously afflicted this largest and most populated of continents during the last 2,000 years. Because neither freezes nor droughts are likely to produce simultaneous crop losses across large portions of Eurasia, famine does not seem to be the horseman I sought.

What about the horseman called pestilence, or disease? One afternoon when I had just begun wondering about those CO2 dips, I was eating lunch and reading a book review when the word "plague" caught my eye. I put down my sandwich and walked over and pulled out the encyclopedia. There, I quickly relearned that bubonic plague had caused the Black Death pandemic of the mid-1300s, as well as later outbreaks during the 1500s and 1600s, but I also learned for the first time that a major pandemic had occurred during the Roman era in ad 540-542. The rates of mortality in both pandemics had been incredibly high (killing over 25% of the population), and at first glance the pandemics correlated fairly well with the dips in CO2. Here was a more promising explanation of the CO2 drops: pestilence, the rider of the pale horse.

As Jared Diamond summarized in Guns, Germs, and Steel, the very successes of agriculture had also been favorable to the spread of disease. In earlier times, people living the hunting-fishing-gathering life were dispersed in small clans or tribes. If disease struck a clan or local group, some (or even most) of its members might die, but the likelihood of them transmitting it to other clans was limited. Hearing about strange deaths in one group, people nearby could flee to areas beyond reach of the disease. People died from disease, but primarily at the limited scale of clans or tribes.

By 2,000 years ago, the rapid growth of populations had eliminated some of this natural protection. Ample production of food in the populated regions of eastern Asia, India, and Europe had led to the growth of towns and then cities. Because dense concentrations of people are natural breeding grounds through which contagious diseases can be transmitted quickly, both the victims and the carriers of virulent diseases were now conveniently clustered close together.

In addition, the fact that farmers lived settled, sedentary lives helped to breed disease. In preagricultural times, when food sources were depleted, hunting-gathering clans had been forced to move to new sources, leaving their refuse behind. Now, with large food surpluses from agriculture, people could live in one place and in ever-greater numbers, and their dwellings were surrounded by growing amounts of rubbish and waste. Permanent houses attracted mice and rats, carriers of diseases, and in many towns and cities the sanitation was primitive and the streets strewn with refuse, excellent breeding grounds for disease. Human feces were spread on fields for manure, and even irrigation ditches became potential sources of contagion.

Even worse, the livestock that humans had begun tending thousands of years earlier were carriers of diseases that afflicted people. Cattle carry smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis. Pigs carry influenza. Another factor indirectly related to agriculture was the increase in travel because of improved ships and greater use of overland routes for trading goods. Agricultural success generated increased wealth and increased trade, and trade put regions in closer contact. Now, when disease hit one area, it could more easily be carried to others. For all of these reasons, agricultural successes gave disease wider access to human victims.

Until the historical era, little is known about disease. The Old Testament mentions pestilence several times (for example, in First Samuel). As the historical era began, written records of disease in some regions give us a limited picture of this history. I had initially hoped to find a graphic plot of disease mortality through the historical era, but I have not yet succeeded, although such a plot may well exist somewhere. Instead I compiled my own plot based mainly on Plagues and Peoples by W. McNeil, Disease and History by F. E. Cartwright, and Armies of Pestilence by R. S. Bray.

An accurate, reliable plot of the entire history of disease mortality seemed impossible. Instead, I chose to portray a general sense of the scope of mortality

Table 13.1

Epidemics and Pandemics of the Last 2000 Years

Table 13.1

Epidemics and Pandemics of the Last 2000 Years

Year (AD)

Region

Disease

Intensity (% Mortality)

79, 125

Rome

Malaria?

Local epidemic

160-189

Roman Empire

Smallpox?

Regional epidemic

265-313

China

Smallpox

Regional epidemic

251-539

Roman Empire

Smallpox? or bubonic plague?

Regional epidemics (decadal repetition)

540-590

Europe, Arabia, and North Africa

Bubonic plague

Major pandemic (25%) Decadal repetition (40%)

581

India

Smallpox?

Regional epidemic

627-717

Middle East

Bubonic plague

Local epidemics

664

Europe

Bubonic plague

Regional epidemic

680

Med. Europe

Bubonic plague

Regional epidemic

746-748

Eastern Med.

Bubonic plague

Local epidemic

980

India

Smallpox

Regional epidemic

1257-1259

Europe

Unknown

Regional epidemic

Europe/North Africa

Bubonic plague Decadal repetition

Major pandemic (40%) Regional epidemic

1500-1800 1500-1800

Europe Americas

Smallpox

Regional epidemic Major pandemic (80-90%)

1489-1850

Europe

Typhus

Regional epidemic

India/China/Europe

Cholera

Local epidemic Pandemic (< 5%)

1323-1889 1918-1919

Europe Global

Influenza

Regional epidemic Pandemic (2-3%)

1894-1920

Southeast Asia

Bubonic plague

Regional epidemic (small %)

through time by plotting historically recorded outbreaks on three spatial scales: local epidemics, which affected towns or parts of countries; regional epidemics, which affected several countries or small parts of more than one continent; and pandemics, which affected large parts of several continents. The major disease outbreaks are listed in table 13.1 and plotted alongside changes in ice-core CO2 and the populations of disease-afflicted continents in figure 13.1. The population

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