The Great Warming Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations


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Bloomsbury Press


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159691601X

9781596916012

304 Pages

$17.00

Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy
Anthropologist and historian Brian Fagan reveals how subtle changes in the environment during the earth’s previous global warming phase, from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries, reshaped human societies from the Arctic to the Sahara. The history of the Great Warming 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.”  Half a millennium ago, 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. Fagan uses that natural history to show that the planet is due for its next warming phase, and explores the dramatic changes that may be in store for the human societies of today when it takes place.

REVIEWS

Praise for The Great Warming

“[A] fascinating account of shifting climatic conditions and their consequences from about A.D. 800 to 1300, often referred to as the Medieval Warm Period . . . Mr. Fagan, an anthropologist who has written on climate change in The Long Summer and The Little Ice Age, proceeds methodically, working his way across the globe and reading the evidence provided by tree rings, deep-sea cores, coral samples, computer weather models and satellite photos. The picture that emerges remains blurry . . . but it has sharpened considerably over the past 40 years, enough for Mr. Fagan to present a coherent account of profound changes in human societies from the American Southwest to the Huang He River basin in China.”—William Grimes, The New York Times

"There are optimists who, upon reading the opening chapters of this new book about the warming trend that gripped the planet from the 9th to the 14th centuries A.D., will be tempted to conclude that our current predicament isn't all bad. And to a degree, they'd be right. Take the peasants of Western Europe. For them, higher temperatures meant longer summers, bigger harvests and a nice break from centuries of near-starvation. The cathedral of Chartres, the author points out, was a direct product of global warming, financed by the boom-time donations of local farmers. Melting ice allowed Norse sailors to open lucrative trade routes with Inuits in Greenland, while Polynesians harnessed shifting winds to colonize faraway islands. Then there's Genghis Khan. His bloody rampage across the Asian continent happened in no small part because the grasslands of the Mongolian steppes grew too parched for his people to graze their horses there. Which brings us to the real side of global warming: According to Fagan, it's not tsunamis or hurricanes we should be fretting about, it's drought. Harnessing a variety of research tools available to archeologists and climatologists—tree ring studies, deep-sea and pollen cores, ice borings and even human bone analyses—Fagan reconstructs a worldwide wave of pitiless, prolonged droughts that struck large swaths of Asia, Australia, Africa and the Americas. The Mayan civilization partially collapsed during the period, mainly for lack of water, while numerous other cultures splintered or declined. As for North America, let's just say that the Southwest wasn't the most popular place to be. If history is any guide, the folks in L.A., Tucson and Phoenix might want to start thinking about, say, Albany."—Thomas Jackson, Forbes

The Great Warming is a thought-provoking read, which marshals a remarkable range of learning.” —Financial Times

The Great Warming is a riveting work that will take your breath away and leave you scrambling for a cool drink of water. The latter is a luxury to enjoy in the present, Fagan notes, because it may be in very short supply in the future."—Christian Science Monitor

“Fagan is a great guide. His canvas may be smaller than Jared Diamond's Collapse, but Fagan's eye for detail and narrative skills are better.”—New Scientist

“Brian Fagan offers a unique contribution to this discussion [of climate change] . . . Readers should not underestimate this book, writing it off as another addition to a burgeoning genre: the travel guide to a torrid world. Fagan’s project is much bigger. He re-creates past societies in a lively and engaging manner, aided by his expert synthesis of obscure climatological data . . . In his ability to bring nature into our global, historical narratives, Fagan rivals Alfred Crosby, William H. McNeill, and Jared Diamond, scholars who revealed to large audiences the explanatory power of microscopic biota or gross geography. Fagan promises to do the same for longterm climate dynamics . . . We would be fools to ignore his warnings.”—The American Scholar

"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."—Theodore Rabb, author of The Last Days of the Renaissance

“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

"An alarm bell ringing out from a distant time."—Kirkus Reviews

"Superbly integrating the human and climatological past, Fagan’s expertise wears easily in a fine popular treatment relevant to contemporary debate about climate."—Booklist

"Concerns about global warming have caused an increased interest in the history of climate and the influence of climate change on societies. Archaeologists, historians, and ecologists have studied past climates for decades, and many of Fagan's previous 24 books have explained aspects of these multidisciplinary studies for a general audience. Here, Fagan surveys data on the Medieval Warm Period, CE 800-1300, to discover its worldwide impact. In the Arctic, Norsemen and Inuit flourished and expanded their territories, and their contacts led to the trade of American walrus ivory for European iron tools. Europe benefited from longer growing periods for crops. However, arid regions on four continents suffered severe droughts that forced some nomads to abandon lands that had previously supported them. Fagan's chapters explain the kinds of evidence available—dendrochronology, paleobotany, Greenland ice cores, coral growth rings, kitchen middens, historical records—and what that evidence indicates about societies. Fagan emphasizes that concerns about the impact of rising sea-levels have diverted attention from the equally serious impact of widespread droughts. The Great Warming provides accessible accounts and citations to scholarly sources of evidence. Includes helpful illustrations, maps, and charts. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Public, academic, and professional collections, all levels."—F. N. Egerton, Choice magazine

“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 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

Reviews from Goodreads

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BOOK EXCERPTS

Read an Excerpt

Brian Fagan is an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Born in England, he did fieldwork in Africa and has written about early man, forensic archaeology, and many other topics. His books on the interaction of climate and human society have established him as a leading authority on the subject; he lectures frequently around the world. He is the editor of The Oxford Companion to Archaeology and the author of Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and the Discovery of the New World; The Little Ice Age; and The Long Summer, among many other titles.

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BACK

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


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  • Brian Fagan is emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His books on the interaction of climate and human society have established him as a leading authority on the subject; he lectures frequently around the world. He is the editor of The Oxford Companion to Archaeology and the author of Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and the Discovery of the New World; The Little Ice Age; and The Long Summer, among many other titles.
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