Monday, March 17, 2008

Pg. 99: Brian Fagan's "The Great Warming"

The current feature at the Page 99 Test: Brian Fagan's The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations.

About the book, from the publisher:
How the earth’s previous global warming phase, from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries, reshaped human societies from the Arctic to the Sahara — a wide-ranging history with sobering lessons for our own time.

From the tenth to the fifteenth centuries the earth experienced a rise in surface temperature that changed climate worldwide — a preview of today’s global warming. In some areas, including Western Europe, longer summers brought bountiful harvests and population growth that led to cultural flowering. In the Arctic, Inuit and Norse sailors made cultural connections across thousands of miles as they traded precious iron goods. Polynesian sailors, riding new wind patterns, were able to settle the remotest islands on earth. But in many parts of the world, the warm centuries brought drought and famine. Elaborate societies in western and central America collapsed, and the vast building complexes of Chaco Canyon and the Mayan Yucatan were left empty.

As he did in his bestselling The Little Ice Age, anthropologist and historian Brian Fagan reveals how subtle changes in the environment had far-reaching effects on human life, in a narrative that sweeps from the Arctic ice cap to the Sahara to the Indian Ocean. The history of the Great Warming of a half millennium ago suggests that we may yet be underestimating the power of climate change to disrupt our lives today — and our vulnerability to drought, writes Fagan, is the “silent elephant in the room.”
Among the early acclaim for The Great Warming:
“This is not only World History at its best, sweeping across all of humankind with a coherent vision, but also a feat of imagination and massive research. If Fagan has given the medieval period throughout the globe a new dimension, he has at the same time issued an irrefutable warning about climate change that is deeply troubling.”
—Professor Theodore Raab, Princeton University

"Global warming is hardly new; in fact, the very long-term trend began about 12,000 years ago with the end of the Ice Age. Anthropologist Fagan (The Little Ice Age) focuses on the medieval warming period (ca. 800-1300), which helped Europe produce larger harvests; the surpluses helped fund the great cathedrals. But in many other parts of the world, says Fagan, changing water and air currents led to drought and malnutrition, for instance among the Native Americans of Northern California, whose key acorn harvests largely failed. Long-term drought contributed to the collapse of the Mayan civilization, and fluctuations in temperature contributed to, and inhibited, Mongol incursions into Europe. Fagan reveals how new research methods like ice borings, satellite observations and computer modeling have sharpened our understanding of meteorological trends in prehistorical times and preliterate cultures. Finally, he notes how times of intense, sustained global warming can have particularly dire consequences; for example, “by 2025, an estimated 2.8 billion of us will live in areas with increasingly scarce water resources.” Looking backward, Fagan presents a well-documented warning to those who choose to look forward."
Publishers Weekly

"A prequel to the author's fascinating The Little Ice Age (2001), a history of climate's influence on civilization from 1300 to 1850, Fagan's work queries the response of societies to the warm period of 800 to 1300. Encompassing the inhabited globe, Fagan's breadth balances with his power to synthesize a range of scientific and archaeological evidence with historical imagination, achieving a global perspective on the medieval warm period, as scholars title the time. Each chapter about a geographical area evocatively depicts its farmers or hunters in the backbreaking task of wresting food from their environment before presenting locally specific weather events of these centuries. (Sidebars explain how scientists determine ancient weather.) Stressing climatic volatility even within a planet-wide warm-up, Fagan delineates the precarious relationship between societies outgrowing their resources. Bountiful to Europe, the warm period was a disastrous drought to more southerly civilizations in Asia, Central America, and southwest North America. Superbly integrating the human and climatological past, Fagan's expertise wears easily in a fine popular treatment relevant to contemporary debate about climate."
—Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

"An alarm bell ringing out from a distant time."

“Climate has been making history for a very long time, though historians have rarely paid much attention to it. But as it turns out, a few less inches of rain, a change in temperature of just a degree or two can make all the difference in how human events unfold. The Great Warming demonstrates that although human beings make history, they very definitely do not make it under circumstances of their own choosing.”
Ted Steinberg, author of Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History and American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn
Read excerpts from The Great Warming and learn more about the author and his work at Brian Fagan's website and his blog.

Brian Fagan was born in England and trained in archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge University. After seven years carrying out fieldwork in Central and East Africa, he went to the United States in 1966. He was a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for 36 years. He retired in 2003 and is now a full-time writer and lecturer on archaeology, climate change, history, and other subjects.

The Page 99 Test: The Great Warming.

--Marshal Zeringue