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How modernity erupted from a volcano Natural disasters have affected our history far more than politics

The Death of Empedocles by Salvator Rosa. According to myth, he leaped into the flames of a volcanic revolution. Credit: Immagini srl/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

The Death of Empedocles by Salvator Rosa. According to myth, he leaped into the flames of a volcanic revolution. Credit: Immagini srl/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images


March 10, 2021   6 mins

The summer of the year 1783 was an amazing and portentous one, and full of horrible phenomena, wrote the parson-naturalist Gilbert White:

“…for besides the alarming meteors and tremendous thunder‐storms that affrighted and distressed the different counties of this kingdom, the peculiar haze, or smokey fog, that prevailed for many weeks in this island, and in every part of Europe, and even beyond its limits, was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man.”

According to White, July had been fiercely hot: “butchers’ meat could hardly be eaten on the day after it was killed; and the flies swarmed so in the lanes and hedges”. On 18 August a fireball was seen to course across the skies of southern England. That month and into September, the dank air was tainted with acid aerosol. As many as 25,000 Britons are believed to have died from associated respiratory disease and malaria. And all the while, crops were failing and livestock perishing, meaning the summer of suffering was followed by a winter of dearth and hunger.

The cause of all this misery was Laki, a huge volcanic fissure, 23km long, in the south-east of Iceland. Its eruption, beginning on 8 June 1783, brought the island’s life to a standstill for eight months. Jón Steingrímsson, an Icelandic pastor, described the initial impact: “Great cliffs and slabs of rock were swept along, tumbling about like large whales swimming [a very Icelandic metaphor], red-hot and glowing.” All in all, the eruption disgorged almost 15 cubic kilometres of lava, the greatest single amount ever recorded.

Steingrímsson noted that in the wake of the disaster, a mysterious illness affected his flock — both human and animal:

“Ridges, growths, and bristle appeared on their ribs, the backs of their hands, their feet, legs, and joints. Their bodies became bloated, the insides of their mouths and their gums swelled and cracked, causing excruciating pains and toothaches.”

A “haze” of sulphur dioxide from the eruption had created acid rains, which singed leaves and bark and irritated human flesh. An excess of fluorine in the air caused the bloating and swelling described by SteingrĂ­msson. Almost a quarter of the nation’s human population died during this time, and more than 60% of its grazing livestock. “Those people who did not have enough supplies of food to last them through these times of pestilence suffered great pain.”

The phenomenon, and the tragedy, reached far beyond Iceland; it went global when the “haze” entered the jet stream, soon reaching the Continent. Ash from the eruption travelled as far as Venice, where the haze was so rich in iron that magnets were used to attract it. Italy had already suffered its own seismic tragedy that year: in February and March, Sicily and Calabria had been struck by a series of earthquakes that killed as many as 50,000 people. A tsunami broke over the beach at Scilla, where people were sheltering from their town’s collapsing buildings. 1,500 died.

Meanwhile in Bohemia, a teacher named Antonin Kodytek recorded that “the rising sun could not be seen due to the fires
 from six to nine o’ clock the sun looked like a red hot iron ball”. Across Europe, temperatures fell around 1.5 degrees below average. Crops were damaged by acid rain. Monsoons failed, parts of the River Nile dried up and numerous ice floes were spotted in the normally tropical climes of the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi froze at New Orleans. Charleston harbour became a skating rink. Famine was recorded in Japan and the Indian subcontinent.

But perhaps the greatest impact of this lost year of harvests was felt in France — where food shortages, famine and febrile conspiracies became tinder for the fire of the French Revolution.

By 1783, France had suffered decades of poor harvests. And whereas once ailing crops had been seen as the will of God, by the 1770s they had taken on new meaning. Feast and famine were no longer accepted as part of the cycle of life, but had become the subjects of wild conspiracy theories.

At this time the monarch, Louis XVI, was also known by the title of le premier boulanger du royaume. It was his patrician duty, as the representative of God on earth, to provide his people with a basic diet, and for most that meant bread, however coarse. The wheat harvest took on enormous significance — a matter of life and death, and one open to outlandish and paranoid claims. Grain merchants became hated figures, for it was believed that they short-changed the people, mixing grain with inferior ingredients, even crushed bones. Allegations that they withheld public grain from the royal stores were commonplace. It was a way of rationally explaining the effects of nature, designed for an increasingly rational age.

The disturbances known as the Flour Wars of April and May 1775, which took place all over France, forced the king’s hand. He instructed his Controller General of Finances, Turgot, to impose a standard price on wheat. This was very much against the Controller General’s instincts at a time when Ă©conomistes such as Vincent de Gournay, adherents of the invisible hand, were advocating laissez-faire policies.

But nature made a mockery of the king’s response. Poor harvests continued. And then Laki arrived, adding flooding and frost to the rack and ruin. One French priest exorcised a dust cloud, but to no effect. A cycle of extreme, unpredictable weather kicked in, which destabilised a society seeking new answers to old problems.

The spring of 1788, for instance, saw drought take hold. Conspiracy and climate gripped one another tightly in a general panic — the Great Fear — caused by baseless rumours of a plot by the aristocracy to starve peasants and workers. This alleged Pacte de Famine was a factor, too, in the RĂ©veillon Riots of April 1789, another stone on the path to Revolution and Modernity.

A crisis combining climate change and conspiracy. Our age seems well seeded for such a thing. If French peasants of the 18th century, all too familiar with the vagaries of laughing chance and the fragility of nature, can fall prey to such thinking, then populations far more used to having control over their comfortable lives will surely seek “rational” explanations for their misfortune. The discourse surrounding the origins and course of Covid-19, for instance, demonstrates just how difficult it is for the modern mind to deal with contingency. There is a deep need to believe that nothing happens by chance.

That modern mind was forged around the time of Laki. The decades before its eruption had seen an explosion — sorry — of interest in vulcanology, which attracted the attention of Enlightenment philosophers. Immanuel Kant claimed that an erupting volcano was an example of the “dynamic sublime”, impressive in the immediacy of its might. Edmund Burke, in his great reaction to the events across the Channel, Reflections on the Revolution in France, humanised Kant’s insight. He references a Horatian myth about the philosopher Empedocles, who, “in cold blood, is said to have leaped into the flames of a volcanic revolution”. Burke calls this compulsion towards sublime destruction the Empedocles Complex. According to the philosopher David McCallum, he was defining an “extreme psychological state inducing its sufferer to throw himself or herself into the red-hot heat of Revolution in a mad identification with its terrible power”.

European Revolutionaries and Romantics adored the idea of a tragic figure defying God, monarch, or any other fixture of a capricious natural order. The age of Robespierre, of Danton, of Marat was also that of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: the Modern Prometheus. The god who brought fire to humankind was the idol of those who sought to create the world anew, unfettered by nature and its contingencies, which had caused so many to suffer.

Whereas before the Enlightenment, natural disasters were accepted as God’s will, the fathers of modernity politicised the years and lives lost to them, blaming the random on design, the contingent on conspiracy, skewering the order of things when nature wreaks havoc.

Now we look at countries that have “succeeded” in their fight against the virus — New Zealand, Israel, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam — seeking to learn lessons, believing that it was solely the rational acts of politicians and public bodies that brought them success. In doing so, we fail to acknowledge the contingency in those stories: New Zealand’s geographical isolation; Taiwan, South Korea and Israel’s military footing; the experience of SARS in Asia; the lack of obesity in Vietnam. Britain’s new-found success in the vaccination programme is similarly contingent — you might call it “lucky” — founded on the gambling instincts of venture capitalism, a highly centralised health service trusted by the people it serves, and access to world class universities. Policy made in the moment can only do so much.

Soon after its Revolution, France returned to monarchy on a grander scale, in the shape of the Emperor Napoleon, who dressed old-fashioned imperialism in brand new clothing. But Napoleon understood one thing the revolutionaries didn’t: contingency. Rehashing an old saying of Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV’s great diplomat, the Emperor is said to have asked of his generals not “is he skilful?”, but rather “is he lucky?”. Though it seems flippant, it’s an important and enduring insight. The role luck plays in our lives, as individuals, as nations, is a reality we will always find hard to bear.


Paul Lay is Editor of History Today. 

_paullay

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Well perhaps, except that Corona was – almost certainly – not a ‘natural disaster’. It – almost certainly – arose as a consequence of ‘gain of function’ research in the lab in Wuhan, this type of research having been been banned in the US and transferred to the lab in Wuhan.
There were suggestions that, allegedly, Dr Faustus, sorry Fauci, was involved with the funding of this transfer. Even the always wrong and ever duplicitous NTY has started to cover the ‘lab leak hypothesis’.

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

So let me get this right. The US in the form of Faustus-Fauci outsources some dangerous and illegal ‘Quatermass ‘ type experiments to the Biological Warfare Establishment in Wuhan.

The Chinese blunder big time and behold Corona Virus!
That sounds so grotesque it must be true.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

This is what has been suggested by perfectly credible people such as Bret Weinstein. It is certainly the case that under Obama the US banned this form of ‘gain of function’ research. It is certainly the case that this research continued at the Wuhan lab, It has been alleged/suggested that this was funded by the US, with the help of Fauci.
Nobody is suggesting that the leak was deliberate.
I suggest you watch Bret Weinstein – a highly credible, careful and progressive evolutionary biologist – discussing the ‘lab leak hypothesis’ on his Dark Horse podcast and on Real Time with Bill Maher.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Many thanks.
I agree the idea that the ‘leak’ was deliberate is preposterous.
Good old human error is the most likely candidate.

Shades of Chernobyl perhaps?

barbara neil
barbara neil
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I don’t doubt the credibility of Weinstein , who I admire in as far as I know him. But it is a suggestion. And should be investigated if/when it can be established that the virus was developed and escaped from Wuhan. Which is the only thing we know at the moment ( from the timeline of infections.) Not everyone has the same weight of responsibility in a disaster.

Lindsay Jenkins
Lindsay Jenkins
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

This was common knowledge in the US courtesy of State Dept leaks a year or so ago. The Wuhan Lab gave the Americans huge cause for concern due to poor security. They sent in teams of scientists several times in a very short period – weeks. In early October 2019 there was a cyber incident which may have been the security breakdown which had been feared.

Wile the leak appears not to have been deliberate the CCP recognised a beneficial crisis when it saw one.

David Barnett
David Barnett
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

More important than the origin of the virus itself, is the origin of our very damaging response to it. Had we stuck to the original pandemic response plan (forged in the mid 2000s) mortality would have been no worse (and arguably better), while the self-inflicted social and economic harm would have been avoided.
I can’t emphasise enough how the lockdowns etc were an unprecedented experiment in pandemic management. Why did we import this idea from China? Why did we stick with it when the data indicated that, at best, it did nothing useful re hospitalisations etc.?

Last edited 3 years ago by David Barnett
Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
3 years ago
Reply to  David Barnett

“Had we stuck to the original plan …”
Nice idea but politically impossible. You’ll remember the media hysteria last April as deaths rose inexorably towards the then unimaginably awful 1,000 per day. Now imagine that hysteria encountering a government that was saying, despite the lockdowns across Europe, that we didn’t need a lockdown and weren’t going to have one.
A feasible approach in Sweden perhaps, but Britain is not Sweden.

David Barnett
David Barnett
3 years ago

There is a big difference between Laki and 1783 and Covid-19 in 2020. Almost all the damage in 2020 was the result of our unnecessarily hysterical response to Covid-19 rather than the virus itself.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  David Barnett

Well said sir!

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
3 years ago

I take two things from this article.
The first is that the UK has been lucky with its vaccine. If the French one had worked, but ours had not, then the boot would be on the other foot.
The second one is that the present gentle Global warming is good. It might even mitigate from more volcanic eruptions and hence Global cooling.
We should be optimistic about life as we live in a lucky time, in a lucky country.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Yes, gentle global warming is, on the whole, a good thing.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago

“The discourse surrounding the origins and course of Covid-19, for instance, demonstrates just how difficult it is for the modern mind to deal with contingency. There is a deep need to believe that nothing happens by chance.”
Surely this is a deep need of the human mind, not the modern mind. Before modernity, people simply believed that things happened according to the will of God or the workings of fate.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago

The other advantage of God or Gods is that it offers an escape from death, or at least some form of after life.

However for some non believers it can be rather bleak, knowing that nothing-nihil awaits them. Hence the current neurosis over such an inefficient killer as C-19.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago

You never know! You might one day be surprised to find yourself waking up in the Elysian Fields!
The point you make about the anxieties of non-believers is true, and I think I’m probably no less frightened of death (and perhaps a bit more) than the next man. But I’m damned if I’m going to be frightened of life.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago

That’s the spirit!
However it is illogical to fear death because how can one fear nothing?

Additionally we have plenty of practice. Every night when closes one’s eyes there is no certainty that one will ever open them again; And one day we won’t.

Last edited 3 years ago by Charles Stanhope
Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago

Yes, indeed, it is illogical, but since when were people’s feelings logical?
“And specious stuff that says No rational being / Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing / That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound, / No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, / Nothing to love or link with, / The anaesthetic from which none come round.”

Last edited 3 years ago by Basil Chamberlain
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago

Who was it who described Mr Glum as the the “saddest heart in the post-war supermarket”?

Each to his own, although had he read ‘Greats’ at St John’s he might have thought differently?

Last edited 3 years ago by Charles Stanhope
Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago

Apparently it was an American critic called Eric Homberger (the Wikipedia entry, however, says that Homberger was echoing Randall Jarrell; I’ve not been able to trace Jarrell’s original sentiment yet).
Larkin’s sadness, eloquently versified, tells part of the truth about the human condition. That’s enough, surely!

Last edited 3 years ago by Basil Chamberlain
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago

Off course I wouldn’t deny Larkin’s eloquence.

It seem impossible to type more than one word per line?

Is this an I-pad problem?

Last edited 3 years ago by Charles Stanhope
Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago

I’ve no idea – I always use my laptop to contribute.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago

.Has this come at one roughly word per line?

Last edited 3 years ago by Charles Stanhope
Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago

No, it looks quite normal. Narrower, because the left-hand margin shifts right when you reply, but still several words on a line!

Christopher Wheatley
Christopher Wheatley
3 years ago

Up until WW1 Britain was always at the top of everything. It wasn’t a democratic country but it was rich and the ‘trickle down’ theory just about kept the peace. WW1 changed everything because we might have ‘won’ but it didn’t feel good to win. Up to that point it was sufficient to have a charismatic, brave leader who did what he/she thought was right for the country – and they kept winning and people kept cheering.
Then came universal suffrage and decline, not perhaps related. The loss of colonies meant that cheap metals and minerals were not really available any more. Grey men took over at the helm.
Over about 30 years this was a huge change but our systems didn’t change to handle the new world order. We were still a monarchy, our leading politicians either came from public schools (so we were supposed to respect their erudition when they explained things) or from working class roots (so we were supposed to respect their sincerity). The world became more complex and still we kept the same system. The only change is that the politicians have surrounded themselves with specialists, who might or might not know what they are doing but the answer has to be the answer the paymaster politicians want. These advisers are not really advisers, they are like the props in a scrum – they provide force to the argument whether they are right or wrong.
We need a new system and a mechanism for getting there. UnHerd contributors will ‘know’ what we need but they will represent just one side of things, one older generation. We need to debate:
Should we continue to be a monarchy?
Should we keep a House of Lords – what would replace it?
Is our voting system fair? More referenda? PR? A federal Britain (not just Wales and Scotland but also Yorkshire, London, Lancashire, etc.)
Should the PM be selected in a more democratic way. Do we have a president and what are his responsibilities?
We must change before it is too late.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
3 years ago

Not much approval for this but it deserves some thought, certainly the last sentence is true in my view.
The reference to specialists is exactly what Eisenhower warned about with the term military-industrial complex. The politicians have given up thinking and policies are determined by unelected academia, business and government bureaucrats.The politicians are not responsible to us, they are controlled by the group thinking of political parties.
You mention universal suffrage. This resulted in a belief that true democracy was finally achieved. This is a delusion. All we have is a system where taxation and welfare buy votes and we on a slow decline to increasing dependence on the state which ultimately is not sustainable, as Ancient Rome discovered.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

Ancient Rome managed to lurch on in one form or another for over two millennia.
We shall not be so fortunate.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

I agree with your point about suffrage not equalling democracy. To my mind, though, of the three it is business that has the greater power over government or academia. Business supports the extension of the state in that the state creates the environment in which business can thrive and fulfil its sole objective- the creation of economic surplus as profit. is then used to increase the wealth of those who own the business. Academics like to debate ideas and morals, governments have to persuade voters to vote for them. Business just has one objective and the welfare of humans isn’t it.

David Bell
David Bell
3 years ago

When similar events happen today we only hear the words “man made climate change”.

Edward Seymour
Edward Seymour
3 years ago

Very interesting piece. I was unaware of decades of crop failures in France before 1789. How interesting that in their bemusement and ignorance the peasantry, informed by the intelligencia, turned to conspiracy theories for an explanation. In our covid time the “peasantry” are listening to covid deniers who prefer to think Davos, globalists and Bill Gates are trying to “re-set” the world. Some even believe that the vaccines are all part of the same plot. The endurance of ridiculous conspiracy theories along with the modern proclivity to emote, virtue signal and panic makes the Western world “scared to death” as Booker et al once wrote.

barbara neil
barbara neil
3 years ago

I’m looking for the point of this article. Yes, luck/chance is important, amongst other things like good management, effort, intentions etc. Yes it’s very hard for we humans to live with the lack of control that is the element of chance. Always has been. But the example of the Corona virus and its origins got my nerves jangling. This is the point? Really? Should we just put it down to curiosity killing the cat? ( And while we’re at it let’s head off any further inquiry by introducing a cancelling-out American involvement.)

Clay Trowbridge
Clay Trowbridge
3 years ago

Back long ago, (until the middle of the last century humanity had to depend on natural events in order to reduce populations. Heat, cold, dfought, flood, famine, plague, quakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis.

Clay Trowbridge
Clay Trowbridge
3 years ago

Today, in a technologically advanced world of seven billion, some of us being useless eaters in the minds of others, there are those effectively bringing this about. It is no longer but a dream for some Prince to reincarnate as a virus to destroy masses of humanity, living people are working to
create viruses, bacteria, fungi, and toxins to bring it about today! And blame people for global warming so to add further control over the humanity from which he seeks separation. In the meantime, we have transhumanism. How fortunate for some that they can look in a mirror and see either nothing or something to be admired; for the rest, we are merely human.