"A great manufacturing country is peculiarly exposed to temporary reverses and contingencies, produced by the removal of capital from one employment to another. The demands for the produce of agriculture are uniform; they are not under the influence of fashion, prejudice, or caprice. To sustain life, food is necessary, and the demand for food must continue in all ages, and in all countries."
~ David Ricardo (1772—1823), English Economist
History, if nothing else, is the story of civilizations and their use or abuse of creation. We all intrinsically know it but few have verbalized it.
No matter where we look the first prerequisite for any of mankind’s endeavors is to secure that which is needed from nature’s abundance. There are no exceptions! Civilizations or empires — whether evil or just — rise and fall totally depending on the abundance or scarcity of creation’s bounty.
It is no wonder then that the human priority is for a continuous supply of food, and clothing. For without these necessities every other human desire becomes unthinkable and unachievable.
The majority of civilizations have been dependent on agriculture to supply these needs.
However, to be successful man must obey the immutable — if not inviolable — laws that govern agricultural production, otherwise all his efforts are doomed.
For the purpose of this article we need to understand two such laws; one which governs animal husbandry and the other intrinsic to crop production. Both of these laws have had a profound effect on and an important role in history.
The law of animal husbandry is known as "carrying capacity." It is generally defined as the number of AU’s (Animal Units) a particular piece of land is capable of sustaining over a year (AUY). Horses, sheep, goats, bulls, and mother cows are assigned a number called an animal unit equivalent (AUE) which is based on the daily forage in dry matter consumed by various kinds and classes of animals.
For our discussion say that a particular piece of land is capable of supporting 100 AU’s and those animal units are mother cows with their calves.
This means that the feed, water, and facilities of the land will sustain, unaided, 100 cow/calve pairs for 12 continuous months. Now, for some reason, maybe greed or conquest, we have acquired another 100 cow/calve pairs, doubling our herd to 200 mother cows.
What will happen? You may be thinking that only 100 cows with their calves are going to starve to death but you are wrong. In a herd of 200 cows each individual will eat to satisfy their daily needs every day for 6 months. All 200 cows with their calves will grow fat and look very healthy. Then starting on the seventh month all the feed will be depleted and the WHOLE herd will begin to starve.
It is a simple equation. Instead of the land being able to support the needs of the herd for 12 months we now have a herd consuming twice as much feed thus, the land can only sustain our herd of 200 mother cows for 6 months.
Now, let’s take this one step further using our original herd of 100 mother cows. What happens if our land can sustain 100 mother cows for 12 months under normal conditions but then we are faced with a period of time when it can’t produce the feed we need due to draught or extended winters?
As we have seen, our animals will feed as a unit and consume their daily requirement of feed for as long as the feed is available. After the feed is gone the herd will again starve en masse.
In each case our options are limited. We either have to acquire more land to sustain the herd at its present size or reduce the herd size to a level that the land will support.
Animals have given much to man and civilization but they feed on vegetation and that vegetation comes from seed; which bring us to our second law.
Regardless of what seed you sow there are four environmental requirements for seed germination. These requirements are water, light, oxygen and OPTIMUM soil temperature which is species dependent.
Water, light and oxygen are self-evident, but every farmer will tell you that around planting time, if the weather becomes problematic, between placing the seed in the ground and germination of that seed, it will have a disastrous effect on crop production, which in turn will directly affect the farm’s profit.
Here is why. In the spring when the weather turns nice we all get the urge to be outside: to prepare the garden, start mowing the lawn, or just to bask in the warmth of the spring sun.
Those beautiful warm days are nice but they have little effect on soil temperature and it is soil temperature that is critical to seed germination. Only when the days and nights both stay warm for an extended period of time will the soil temperature start to rise. If the soil temperature is not warm enough for the variety of seed planted, then the seed will often rot in the ground before it has a chance to germinate, resulting in crop failure.
Popular vegetable varieties will suffice as an example:
Optimum Soil Temperature for Germination
Days to Germinate at Optimum Soil Temperature
75 to 85 degrees F
7 to 10 days
65 to 70 degrees F
7 to 14 days
What is immediately apparent is that the soil temperature must remain constant for between one week and two weeks for the seed to germinate. What happens if there is an extended period of cooling resulting in longer winters and shorter growing periods?
This might not be a problem for crops that can be harvested in 60 to 70 days from germination. However, the staple of society, corn, rarely reaches maturity in less than 85 to 120 days after germination.
Then there is barley which reaches maturity 70 to 80 days after germination: spring wheat takes 80 to 90 days: flax which takes 90 to 100 days and soybeans require 105 to 120 days to reach maturity.
If many of these crops cannot be planted until late June or early July harvest cannot take place until late August in the case of some varieties of corn and barley. However, other crops wouldn’t be ready for harvest until the middle of October or the first of November and perhaps not at all due to the colder temperatures encountered with the changing seasons.
It is painfully obvious what the consequence would be on a society as centralized and complex as the United States. Food prices would rise, poverty would increase and starvation on a massive scale could become a frightening reality.
If we look at history we find some very interesting events surrounding temperature change and agriculture during the last years of the Roman Empire.
For much of the history of the Roman Empire, ca. 500 BC until the Empire fell apart just prior to 500 AD the Roman Empire (including England) flourished owing to mild weather conditions. Warm weather allowed grapes and olives to be grown further north, and good rains allowed the Romans to buy abundant crops of grain from across the Mediterranean and in North Africa.
The three most important agricultural products traded in the Roman world — grain, wine and olive oil — were abundant and they created a very wealthy class of merchants. Great care was also taken to secure the routes needed to maintain a constant supply of corn from Egypt and Africa to feed the population of Rome.
However, by the close of the second century AD and early part of the third century, the Empire’s monetary policies were playing havoc with the Empire’s agriculture production. These monetary problems were nothing compared to what transpired when weather became a factor after 235 AD and the end of Severan dynasty.
The period from 235 AD to 284 AD was a half-century of unmatched calamity which nearly brought the Roman Empire crashing down on itself and was the result of constant unrepressed statism which had matured on the corpse of individualism and self-reliance with the passing of the Roman Republic.
The rigidity of the Roman psyche at this time, would not allow anything to exist in Roman territory that didn’t fit the Roman ideal of the Empire’s status quo. So when the Franks, Jutes, and Germanic Alemanni crossed the Rhine River and began to move back onto their ancient lands, and the Vandals, with the Goths, crossed the Danube River settling in the empire’s northeastern providences, there was nothing the Roman State could do but "suppress the uprisings." The question is; were these migrations really uprisings against a failing Roman Empire or was something else the cause of these migrations?
There is a growing body of evidence that suggests the third century AD was the beginning of one of the coldest periods in European history. If the data is correct then it would go a long way toward explaining those migrations from the north that the Romans ineptly called uprisings.
Indeed, temperatures have a complex effect on weather and patterns of rainfall; only a few degrees difference are required to produce dramatic results. We have only to remember the two laws stated above and the events which occurred in Africa in the 1970’s and 1980’s to make the point that disaster can result from even short-term fluctuations in climate patterns.
However, in the case of the Roman Empire during the late third century we have more than a short-term fluctuation in temperature, we have what very well could be described as a calamity of four centuries duration.
Historical evidence points to the fact that those first migrating northern people did not plague the Roman Empire as invading armies but rather as desperate peoples seeking land. It is far more likely that widespread droughts, short growing seasons, storms, and cold weather north of Danube and Rhine Rives resulted in hunger which in turn drove the first northern European peoples south to assault the granaries of the failing Roman Empire.
Migration due to harsh weather conditions could also be the reason such varied peoples as the Attacotti, Franks, Vandals, Alans and the Visigoths (western Goths) were willing partakers in the Roman foederati. These peoples and tribes normally would have been enemies, but since they found life easier because of Roman subsidies, which took the form of money, foods, and eventually even land, were willing to put aside their differences and fight to preserve the Roman Empire.
There is no doubt that the fourth century AD saw the prevailing weather patterns of Europe change for the worse. People of the south watched as their crops failed for the lack of rain while in the north there was too much rain and long cold snowy winters.
Recent studies have confirmed that from about 100 AD until 500 AD the mean temperature in northern China was dropping from 35.2 F° (1.75 C° ) to 32.5 F° (.25 C° ). These changes in the climate of Eurasia appear to have played a major role in the waves of conquering horsemen who rode out of the plains of central Asia into China and Europe called the Huns.
Of the external forces that aided in the disintegration of the Roman Empire we have to place the Huns at the top of the list.
The Huns arrived in southeastern Europe around 370 AD with an army of an estimated 300,000 to 700,000 light cavalry.
We don’t know much about the Huns, prior to their arrival in Europe, but what we do know is that they came from the Eurasian Steppes.
The western Eurasian Steppes are temperate, short grass plains which offer feeding grounds for pastoral animals (such as sheep and goats) and are easy to traverse on horseback. However, being a temperate grassland means it only has two seasons: a growing season and a dormant season. Anytime the weather becomes too cold the grasses go dormant and cease to grow.
The same is true of the eastern steppes of Mongolia and Siberia where grass is less abundant due to the harsher climate.
Here we need to remember the law of "carrying capacity" mentioned earlier. Using very conservative figures for a Hun cavalry along with the goats and sheep to feed and clothe just the army (excluding women and children) would require approximately 3,293,000 tons of feed yearly. Given that this is the steppes and feed would be very limited per acre, even in the best of times, a conservative estimate of the acres needed to supply this army would be 2,634,424 or just over 4,116.25 square miles yearly.
It is easy to understand then that if the weather remained cold for an extended period of time and the grasses of steppes weren’t producing the feed needed, that it wouldn’t be long before the Huns would have to find new grasslands to feed their stock and maintain their standard of living.
Thus as this large group of people began moving south and west they would push weaker groups ahead of them in a domino effect. The net result being that the northwestern providences of the Roman Empire were quickly overrun with migrating peoples. (See Map)
The Roman Empire, which had been built by warfare and sustained by welfare, was now battling the effects of colder weather and it was too much; nothing could save the empire. By the beginning of the fifth century AD as much as one third of the cultivated land which had sustained the empire was lost to trees and deserted fields of abandoned estates left by fleeing wealthy Roman land owners.
In the west, the Roman Empire began to shrink as its borders from the Black Sea to the North Sea were inundated with migrating, fleeing and dislocated peoples due to the continuing advance of the Huns from the northeast.
The result was the Roman Empire of antiquity passed into history.
Both history and science inform us that a warmer planet is beneficial to civilization. Warmer days result in longer growing seasons, and increased rainfall. The greatest benefit of warmer weather comes in milder winters and in springs when there are fewer crop-killing frosts.
We have just seen that colder weather does not bode well for a warfare/welfare state.
Another Little Ice Age, like the one that subjected Europe and North America to bitterly cold winters from about 1250 to 1850, in today’s societies, would decimate populations through hunger, and disease.
It has happened before and it is a warning that should be heeded.
Disclaimer: No dim-witted politician or spurious give-a-way program was harmed during the writing of this article.
Tim Case [send him mail] is a 30-year student of the ancient histories who agrees with the first-century stoic Epictetus on this one point: u201COnly the educated are free.u201D