In the year of 1815, the Tambora volcano erupted with tremendous force, turning the entire mountain into a “liquid fire” and causing football-sized stones to rain from the sky. One of the most powerful eruptions in human history, the Tambora eruption resulted in a significant period of climate change, and Professor Wood from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign dissected its impact on the society then in the “Continuing Revolution” lecture series here at Colby College.
The most interesting aspect of the eruption’s impact on our society, in my opinion, is the general cultural shift in the 1816 society: the freakish, cold and twisted trends became the new fashion, which reflected people’s reaction to witnessing the refugee crisis, deadly famines, and grimy weathers.
This historical event is especially relevant now, as we are facing a rapidly worsening climate change. The reality of mass climate refugee is closer to us than ever, and we need to draw lessons from the Tambora event to properly handle such climate shift. The eruption is an ultimate test to us human’s ability to cope with such crisis, and certain systems worked while others didn’t.
An example of the system that worked was the granary system installed in several countries in Europe as well as in China. They were sufficient at relieving the local starvation and the seeding of the next year. Other granary systems, however, including the one in Ireland, failed miserably, as the rulers attempted to export their produce in order to bring down the prices of the grains. This triggered widely-spread local political protest, accusing the government of diverting life-saving supplies to other nations.
However, the granary system also failed in other places, where a rather advanced granary system was actually in place. Wood mentioned that in Yunnan, China, thousands of miles away from the Royal court, spontaneous child/slave market began to emerge in the year of 1816. With the failure of the harvest, parents could not afford to feed their children, and therefore sold them to slavery to ensure their basic needs. Slave market was not their only out-of-the-way response to such a disaster, however. As the normal crop failed, people were desperate for cash to buy live-supporting necessity. One crop that produces the most profit at the time was opium. Therefore, the people of Yunnan converted their rice farms to drug manufactories, and started the drug dealing business that was prosperous till the 1950s.
Despite all the famine, suffering and loss, people still share empathy with one another and tried their best to alleviate the situation. Humanitarian aids were working hard on buying grains abroad and distribute them to the locals. Multiple new religions/cults formed on the mission of feeding the poor. Many poor people turned to religion at this difficult time for a portioned daily meal. However, it was only the lower class that was severely impacted and died in large numbers. The only impact on upper class was a higher food price, and some political struggle, but never hunger. Today in our political system, there is still a major political party that denies climate change and refuses to take on responsibility to make a difference, and if we look back in history, these people are the ones that are likely impacted last by a severe climate disaster. However, it is crucial to remember that we all share this one planet, this one home, and it is up to every one of us to protect it and live sustainably.