When mass rebellions lead to change

Each week, Symposium Magazine invites an author to guest-blog. This week, Prof. Scott K. Taylor is blogging about “Weather and War, Reconsidered.”

In my article, I wrote that one of the most important lessons of Geoffrey Parker’s “Global Crisis” is that early modern states adjusted during the broad turmoil of the seventeenth century. Indeed, some even emerged with a new compact between government and society, with the rulers showing a new concern for the welfare of the people they governed.

But why did this adjustment take place? One reason is that the suffering, starving people of the early modern world demanded it. The seventeenth century saw an unprecedented wave of rebellions and riots across the world, from the English Civil War to the great peasant uprising in China, led by Li Zicheng, that paved the way for the fall of the Ming Dynasty. Even the leaders in Japan, where the Tokugawa Shogunate largely staved off the worst parts of the crisis, did not so much act from the goodness of their hearts, but because the regime had emerged from a similar period of upheaval in the sixteenth century and had learned its lessons well.

This is not to say that Parker advocates riot and rebellion today to stave off climate change. Instead we have democracy as a tool for putting pressure on our elites, at least in the developed world.

Of course, not everyone has liberal democracy. What will happen to the regimes of China, Pakistan, and Vietnam when the great rivers that flow from the Himalayan glaciers slow to a trickle?

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