Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Great Warming

The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations
© 2008 Brian Fagan
282 pages

Earlier this year, Dr. Brian M. Fagan visited my university to deliver a talk titled "Climate Change, the Flail of God, or the Elephant in the Room" in which he spoke on the effects of the "Medieval Warming Period" on societies then existing. Fagan elaborates in the book that while the "Medieval Warm" was a topic of discussion occasionally bandied about, there was little in the way of concrete evidence outside of oral history. He did find evidence to support such a theory, but more disturbing was the evidence of severe climactic disturbances elsewhere on the global -- perhaps different consequences of the same weather pattern. This book is -- as I've hinted -- a full elaboration of that brief lecture, and in fact answered a question I raised during the question and answer session that Fagan only answered half-heartedly then. The full title is Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. Fagan is primarily concerned with the global consequences of the Medieval Warm period, and his chapters -- while beginning in sunny Europe, enjoying a climate far more conducive to being able to grow surplus food than ever before, take us to the Sahara, following Moorish caravans, eventually visiting every continent except Antarctica.

I read Collapse by Jared Diamond back in December, and this book reminded me of it in many ways. Both Fagan and Diamond examine the expanding reach of the Vikings and how settlers in Greenland struggled to survive in the harsh climate, eventually being cut off from Europe when the warm period ceased and vanishing all together. (My question to Fagan was if the warm period had affected Scandinavia to the point that surpluses had created a population boom, necessitating the Vikings attempting to make a living for themselves by trading with and sacking parts of Europe. That's a lot to fit into one question, so there's little wonder he misheard me then. The answer, according to the book, is yes. My suspicions were confirmed.) Diamond and Fagan both address the Mayan "implosion", although I will say that Fagan's coverage of the Maya was more exhaustive. In his lecture, Fagan told us how the Mayan temples were actually used to catch and channel water in additional to being tall and intimidating. Fagan covers more ground than Diamond, though,visiting places I've never heard of.

The theme of the book is how climate change alters human societies differently depending on where they live. While some societies -- the Europeans, for instance -- fared well during the warm period, severe and extended droughts and flooding periods in other parts of the world killed millions and in some cases dealt societies a staggering blow from which they would not recover. An observation of mine was of how vulnerable we are to droughts, flooding, and so on: we seem utterly at the mercy of the climate. My opinion of the book is mixed. While the information was interesting and generally presented well, it wasn't that strong of a narrative: it didn't grip me the way Diamond did. I'm going to read a little more Fagan to see if it was just this book, though.

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