“The fall of the Ming dynasty,” writes Timothy Brook in his fascinating new monograph The Price of Collapse: The Little Ice Age and the Fall of Ming China, “has traditionally been narrated as a period of political factionalism, failed administration, dwindling tax revenues, and rural rebellion, all of which has been shrouded by the larger judgment of moral failure.” Attaching this transformational event instead to the Little Ice Age—a centuries-long cold snap that intensified in the early 1600s—is, after a moment’s thought, pretty self-evident. The contribution of the book is not so much the correlation (which has been noted before) given in the (admittedly engaging) title, but rather Brook’s systematic and rigorous use of price data to build a picture of what was going on.
Without going into detail (and there is a lot of it), Brook methodically tabulates the extent and size of spikes in grain prices (“famine prices”) that grew in both frequency and severity as the 17th century unfolded. Unlike what had prevailed in previous periods (famines being as old as time), prices stopped reverting back to some pre-crisis normal but instead to some ever-rising new normal, resulting in both price shocks and general inflation. These prices are benchmarked against estimates of the cost-of-living (“living” meant quite literally for the majority of people existing at subsistence level), taking note of the differences in rates of exchange between the copper and silver monetary systems then in simultaneous use. Although specialists will find a great deal of useful information in the data and Brook’s analysis, the executive summary is that the economic situation became increasingly dire and Brook has, via the pricing data, provided a mechanism for how climate change destabilized the economy and society, illustrated by prose descriptions (some very vivid) of the situation and the various responses (or lack thereof).
Brook has a chapter-long, slightly tangential, discussion on silver and foreign-trade which, while interesting in its own right and a further demonstration of what can be learned from price data, has its apparent primary purpose to discount a different prevailing alternate explanation for the inflation, that it was caused by inflows of silver from Spanish America and Japan
The only sector in which I have been able to detect the effect of an abundance of silver driving up prices … is the luxury market.
This short book of only some 170 pages is a tour-de-force
In the interests of full disclosure, I should note I can only give an informed layman’s evaluation of this book. And one imagines that other historians or economists will re-crunch the numbers, and that refinements or even new conclusions may be forthcoming. Nevertheless, as important as the conclusions themselves is the data-driven methodology: Brook has, it would seem, blazed a trail; this short book of only some 170 pages powerfully persuasive.
What is also notable, although Brook hardly remarks on it, is that this sort of econometric analysis is possible at all. It’s not just that there actually is four-century-old data, but also that Ming China was perhaps the first polity in history to be large and complex enough to operate as something that might be treated as an “economy”. Spain, China’s European rival for superpower status, had a population of only about seven million.
Brook is only slightly less definitive when it comes to whether climate change was a sufficient as well as necessary condition for the fall of the dynasty:
It is not helpful to deny the impact of the failures of judgment throughout the Tianqi and Chongzhen administrations. Had these administrations been in the hands of competent officials devoted to more than advancing their own factional and personal interests, it is plausible that some of the fiscal and military crises could have been avoided …
or whether grain prices pretty much account for everything.
Famine grain prices do not explain the fall of the Ming, but narrating the final great crisis of the Chongzhen era in the absence of climate would be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, to quote Shakespeare. More than that, the prices point to the cause. What had China in its grip was not moral failure but climate failure. The scale on which the climate deteriorated made the fall of the dynasty as irreversible as any morality tale could imagine.
He squares the circle by noting the need “to distinguish between long-term and short-term climate disruptions”:
Historical research shows that people, including the people of the Ming, regularly intervened through the Little Ice Age to ameliorate their environmental situations… Short-term disruption, however, has a different human impact. Whereas long-term disturbance forces humans to adapt their practices to adjust to new circumstances, short-term catastrophe, especially when it is sudden and intense, is more likely to overwhelm adaptation than to stimulate it.
Other possible short-term economic causes for the fall of the Ming Dynasty have been proposed. Brook hints at one, the converse of the silver-induced inflation argument:
when the flow of silver dwindled in the 1640s as production declined in the Americas and Japan sealed its borders, that constriction strangled the commercial edifice that the growth in money supply had induced, tipping China into economic crisis.
He discounts this as a corollary. But there was also a short-term monetary crisis: starting in 1638, three “Manila galleons”—that brought silver from Spanish-America—were lost in succession, resulting in a possible money-supply shock, just as, as Brook puts it, “a well-organized military force across the northern border, burdened by its own food shortages, was waiting for the moment to strike.”
Brook’s extensive data is nevertheless convincing.
Today’s challenges are not entirely unprecedented.
Brook is somewhat coy about whether he intends the collapse of the Ming as a cautionary tale for today, but his use of the terms “climate change” and “anthropocenic” indicates that he’s aware the reader might.
We and they [the Chinese of the Ming Dynasty] inhabit a global ecosystem that was and is prone to disturbance, whether because human folly blocks Heaven’s blessing or human-generated carbon and aerosols block the sun’s energy. We also share the habit of tracking our fortunes through the prices we have to pay.
Direct parallels are a bit fraught: the Little Ice Age was one of global cooling, not warming. In a pre-industrial age, the economy was driven by the sun on a year-by-year basis: there was less ability to compensate (or kick the can down the road). But Brook has provided a data-driven case study of how a complex society reacted to sharp changes in climate. Today’s challenges are not entirely unprecedented.