Giving thanks in a changing climate

Our national day of gratitude is next Thursday. In Plimoth, New England – now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts – almost 400 years ago, the Pilgrims and the native Wampanoag tribe had a feast to celebrate the colony’s first successful harvest. The year was 1621, and the climate was cold. In fact, that year was just decades within range of the peak of the Little Ice Age.

There’s quite a bit of disagreement within the scientific community about exactly when the Little Ice Age began, but most agree that the coldest period within it started around 1650. There’s also some disagreement on the cause of the chilly climactic period. Some point to heightened volcanic activity, some to solar minima, and some to a change in the Earth’s orbit. It’s quite possible that many things contributed to the centuries-long cold spell. After all, climate is a complicated thing.

One fact seems certain: humans had to adapt or die in the face of a cooling planet. The Little Ice Age has been blamed for famine, changes in agricultural practices, and wars (indirectly). For example, when old ways of keeping warm weren’t enough, fireplace hoods and enclosed stoves were developed to make more efficient use of heat. Fossil fuels became more widely used for power toward the end of the period in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Can you imagine life in a strange, new world without our modern-day conveniences when the earth was at least one-degree Celsius cooler? Farm animals struggled to survive long, cold winters. The growing season was shorter. Disease was rampant.

In Plymouth, after two years of struggling, and with help from the local Native American tribe, the settlers finally had a successful harvest and something to celebrate. So, they had a community feast and gave thanks to the Creator for that success.

A tradition was born, and we still celebrate it today. Now we have accessible technology and more options for heating our homes in the winter and cooling them in the summer. We have flat-top stoves, microwaves, and television. We import our cranberries from Massachusetts to North Carolina, raise turkeys on gigantic farms, and wear synthetic fleece to keep the chill off when walking to our cars. Even on our worst days, we have so much for which to be thankful.

Our ability – humanity’s as a whole – to overcome the Little Ice Age by creating new technologies and adapting our lifestyles is the reason I don’t feel hopeless when thinking about the current state of the climate. When the going gets tough, we find new ways to get going. For example, we take old technology like wind mills and improve upon their efficiency and scale. We create new technology such as solar panels and graphene. And in the face of necessity, we find ways to make them more accessible and economical. We must! Because now, as always, humanity needs to adapt to a changing climate.