Book Review: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations

———————————————————-
“Fagan says we’re now entering another era of extreme aridity, and that the
challenges of adapting to water shortages and crop failures won’t be easy.”

“The bad news is that elites try to super-manage their way out of droughts,
with disastrous results for ordinary people.”

” …for ordinary readers, Fagan’s book serves as another warning about a true
marvel: It only takes a temperature change of a
Celsius degree or two to rapidly
unsettle the order of things.”
————————————

The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)
March 22, 2008

ENVIRONMENT

We’ve been here before, and it wasn’t pretty the first time
ANDREW NIKIFORUK

THE GREAT WARMING

Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations

By Brian Fagan

Bloomsbury, 282 pages, $29.95

While the Arctic melts and our glaciers
disappear, one by one, like guests at a
late-night party, Canada’s political elites
remain the only guys too drunk to recognize that
the climate is changing. Let’s face it: Global
warming probably will never sober up Conservative
or Liberal leaders as long as tar-sands taxes
fill the federal treasury, lower the GST and give
the loonie a petro swagger. And they are not the
first group of rulers to ignore the weather.

During the medieval ages, a great warming similar
to our fossil-fuelled meltdown profoundly changed
civilizations from the Norse to the Khmer.
Archeologists call it the Medieval Warm Period,
and it served up a “silent and oft-ignored
killer”: drought. The dry-out even parched much
of present-day Alberta.

In a book that reads like climate déjà vu,
well-known University of California
anthropologist Brian Fagan shows that the
Medieval Warm Period humbled political elites and
demolished their well-engineered empires with
equanimity.

Fagan says we’re now entering another era of
extreme aridity, and that the challenges of
adapting to water shortages and crop failures
won’t be easy. Although elites can ignore the
climate, Fagan says, the climate won’t ignore
them. It never has.

Fagan begins his tidy and fascinating climate
fable with a look at how a great warming from the
10th to the 15th century really rearranged
Europe. There, a rise of one or two degrees
actually favoured abundant crops and even
established wine industries in southern England
and Norway.

Reliable harvests, however, encouraged much
peasant begetting. Rising human population, much
like a pine beetle epidemic, leads to
unprecedented forest clearing. Forests, then as
now “the mantle of the poor,” served as a
communal form of ecological insurance that
provided game, herbs, firewood and grazing space
for animals.

But during the great warming, Europeans chopped
down their ancient forests to grow more meat,
honey and flour. When the Little Ice Age came,
along with the Black Death, Rinderpest and other
climate-driven surprises, Europe lost a third of
its population. There simply was no mantle for
misfortune.

The medieval warming changed the global map for
the Norse, too. Thanks to warmer weather, they
rowed out of the fjords of crowded Norway and
founded a number of Club Viking destinations.
Thanks to favourable ice conditions, Club Viking
even settled Greenland and explored the Canadian
Arctic, where they encountered the Thule, an
Inuit people on the move due to ice-free water.
Trade in walrus ivory and iron made the two
cultures temporary global partners until
temperatures started to drop again.

But for much of the world, the great warming
basically served up “megadroughts” and an
ever-diminishing larder. In California, for
example, sustained aridity killed off oak trees,
source of the carbohydrate-rich acorn for the
Chumash people. (Just prior to the Spanish
conquest, aboriginals harvested 60,000 metric
tons of acorns, a bounty greater than the state’s
current sweet corn production.) But drought
reminded the Chumash that counting on acorns to
provide 50 per cent of dinner could quickly
translate into a crash diet.

Drought, the product of the tempestuous Pacific
marriage between ocean and atmosphere, also
emptied the pueblos in Chaco Canyon. While a
decade-long dry spell pumped people, plants and
animals out of the southwest of North America (as
well as Alberta), it also dried up the lowlands
of the Guatemala peninsula, taking down the Maya.

Jared Diamond, the author of Collapse, has
covered this territory well, but Fagan adds some
critical details. In a land of unpredictable
rainfall, Mayan rulers constructed elaborate and
huge water reservoirs in Tikal and other fabled
cities, becoming “Lords of the Water Mountains.”

The elites, who considered themselves divinely
infallible, had no real sense of tragedy, and
that’s just when the climate served up a super
drought. In the face of hunger and thirst,
ordinary people abandoned their rulers, who
squatted alone on blood-stained pyramids. The
implosion of the Maya, Fagan says, “is a sobering
reminder of what can happen when societies
subsist off unpredictable water sources, and
through their efforts, put more demands on the
water supply than it can sustain.”

Droughts also humbled Asia during the great
warming. In northern China, the Yellow River
basin (Huang He) has always made too much or not
enough water for nearly half of China’s people.
The Medieval Warm Period delivered some
spectacular droughts and mass famine. Thanks to
industrialization and Maya-like water managers,
China remains “even more vulnerable to
catastrophe today.”

Fagan, a veteran chronicler of how climate can
undo a society’s best-laid plans, cements his
lucid and often surprising observations on this
climate event with much scientific data collected
from ice cores and tree rings. He admits that
there is still much debate about what caused the
great warming, and nobody really knows how hot it
actually got. But no one doubts that the dramatic
event turned a grape-like bunch of civilizations
into raisins.

In his final chapter, Fagan explains why climate
history matters, and it’s not inspiring reading.
Britain’s esteemed Hadley Centre for Climate
Change recently documented a 25-per-cent increase
in global drought since the 1990s. Right now,
about 3 per cent of the planet is drying up.
Global warming will soon place a third of the
Earth in extreme drought and force another half
of the world’s land mass to taste “moderate
drought.” Such abiding dryness will “challenge
even small cities, to say nothing of thirsty
metropolises like Los Angeles, Phoenix and
Tucson.” Even Las Vegas could lose a craps game
or two.

But history in a virtual age remains an
impoverished teacher, much like truth speaking.
The good news, Fagan says, is that highly nomadic
communities with diverse food supplies often read
the weather signs and move. The bad news is that
elites try to super-manage their way out of
droughts, with disastrous results for ordinary
people.

Fagan’s account of how dry spells humbled the
Khmer of Angkor Wat and probably propelled
Genghis Khan out of the Mongolian steppes
certainly won’t move imperial mountains in
Ottawa. But for ordinary readers, Fagan’s book
serves as another warning about a true marvel: It
only takes a temperature change of a Celsius
degree or two to rapidly unsettle the order of
things.

Andrew Nikiforuk’s next book, The Tar Sands:
Dirty Oil and the Future of the Continent, will
be published this fall.

————————————————————-

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed