Monday, June 11, 2012

The Ottomans and the Little Ice Age

Don't be surprised if the next winner of the Albert Hourani Book Award is Sam White's The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire.  It has been ages since I've read a book both so subtle in its original conceptualization of its topic and based on such thorough research in a variety of different sources across what are often thought of by multiple disciplines.

In this book, White narrates a new interpretation of Ottoman history from the 1500s until the 1700s, one in which the Little Ice Age plays a prominent role in shaping the physical infrastructure for diverse historical actors.  A key concept is his description of an Ottoman "imperial ecology," in which the premodern state is primarily a system for mobilizing natural resources.  The Ottoman realm, in other words, was not so much a place on a map or peoples under a ruling dynasty, but system in which plants, animals, and presumably minerals were shipped around and processed to meet both human and dynastic needs.  The dynasty's strength was its ability to access available resources and put them to, for example, military purposes.

We know that there was a warm period in the late 1400's and early 1500's, and it is in this environment that the Ottomans achieved their greatest strength vis a vis European powers and their population reached its greatest extent.  This population, however, moved into ever more marginal farmland, and as the warm perid began to wane in the late 1500's, there were recurring signs that, in certain areas of Anatolia, it might be growing to large for the available resources.

The Celali Rebellion of the years around 1600 were the crisis point.  The 1590's brought the longest drought the Middle East has seen in the last 600 years.  In that same decade, the Ottoman Empire required significant resources for a war against the Habsburgs, but the population of certain areas was unable to meet the demands, and these were the areas where the rebellion began.  Amidst the dislocation, famine, and plague, the population contracted sharply, and the rest of the 1600s saw a reconfiguration of the Ottoman imperial ecology that would endure until the 1800s.

One strength of White's work is his detailed work in the primary sources, especially Ottoman archival reports of provisioning difficulties, weather conditions, and burgeoning discontent, and their correlation with significant uprisings and broader climate events.  Beyond that, however, he suggests credibly that the Ottoman experience of the Little Ice Age might represent a recurring pattern in Middle Eastern environment history, in which periods of growth are followed by ecological crises with protracted recoveries.

Early in the book, White visualizes Middle Eastern settlement history as having permanent population centers from which new settlement radiates to more marginal areas under favorable conditions.  A key part of the long-term pattern, however, is the fact that Middle Eastern agriculturalists tend to engage in raising crops or nomadic pastoralism, but seldom both.  Farmland expands at the expense of grazing.  When there is a population collapse, however, animal populations with shorter generations recover first, and so in the 1600's former farmland became the grazing land for revitalized sheep herds and their newly powerful nomadic herders.  Farming populations, meanwhile, fled to the cities to escape both starvation and insecurity, only to contribute to death of recurring epidemics.  Agriculture only began to recover when this situation was stabilized in the 1800's.

The Ottoman dynasty survived by negotiating new power-sharing arrangements with local and regional elites that gave the latter more autonomy, autonomy which enabled them to enter the world market as suppliers of cash crops to Western European capitalists.  The fact the regime survived this crisis is unusual, and White suggests that it is not necessarily better for the region than a change would have been, as happened when the Qing successfully imposed a new regime in China after the Ming collapse or the Romanovs did after Russia's "Time of Troubles," both of which were linked to the same climate changes.  Another difference he notes is the lack of an open agricultural frontier where surplus population could expand, as Russia had with Ukraine and Siberia, India had in Bengal, and China had with its underpopulated south and west.

In his conclusion, White briefly suggests that his study might have significance as we consider contemporary climate change.  That is certainly true in a general sense, but one thing I am wondering about is whether his model of Middle Eastern ecological changes has lessons for the environmental crises in the Middle East today, especially Yemen and the Euphrates valley.  For that reason, I hope analysts of Yemen, Iraq, and Syria will become aware of his conclusions and remain sensitive to shifting environmental factors as a living infrastructure system for human civilization.

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