Did climate change stoke past religious persecution?
A thought-provoking new book on Christianity’s “lost history” holds that one of the central causes of 14th century religious persecution may well have been climate change. You can read my interview with author Philip Jenkins about “The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia — and How It Died” on the Reuters website here.
“The Chronology of Christian sufferings under Islam closely mirrors that of Jews in Christian states,” he writes, noting that “Around 1300, the world was changing, and definitely for the worse.”
“If we seek a common factor that might explain this simultaneous scapegoating of vulnerable minorities, by far the best candidate is climate change, which was responsible for many economic changes in these years, and increased poverty and desperation across the globe.”
Jenkins notes that after a period of warming that had seen Europe’s population double from the 11th to the 13th centuries, the world entered a period of cooling which historians have long dubbed “The Little Ice Age.” Cooler, wetter summers hit harvests, leading to famines in Europe. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, there was widespread environmental collapse in the face of desertification.
This was all followed of course by the Black Death of the mid-14th century, which struck severely weakened societies and in Europe saw fresh persecution and pogroms against Jewish communities. This pushed many Jews to less developed, eastern regions of the continent; and Christians in Muslim societies also eked out their existence mostly in marginal or remote areas.
Jenkins is hardly the first historian to highlight the impact of climate change on past societies. But his observations are sobering against the backdrop of global warming and environmental pressures in our own time and the role many analysts think they are playing in stoking social conflict in places such as Nigeria and India, where religious tensions run high.
Climate change in our day — which most scientists attribute to greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels — is seen exacerbating conflict in poor, rural communities in the developing world in part because of competition over increasingly scarce resources such as arable land and water. It may also raise tensions in overcrowded urban areas as rural migrants leave the land.
As an aside, it is interesting to note that some fundamentalist Christians in the United States think climate change may be a sign of the End of Times — a widespread take in the 14th century on that period’s turmoil. Other U.S. Christians have joined the green crusade on the grounds that rising temperatures and their associated problems will be felt most harshly by the poor, making global warming a moral issue.
What do you think? Are there lessons from the links between religious conflict and climate change in the past that we can usefully draw on today?