Book Review: The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations

———————————————————-
“Drought doesn’t usually get much attention in
concerns over melting icecaps, rising sea levels,
toxic UV rays and poisonous air. But … Fagan’s
The Great Warming examines what’s known as the
Medieval Warming Period (MWP), a sort of trial
run for the present.”
————————————————————-
Toronto Star
June 8, 2008

History, climate change destined to be repeated
The Medieval Warming Period provoked massive social and historical convulsions

Hans Werner
————————–
The Great Warming:
Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations
by Brian Fagan
Bloomsbury,
282 pages, $29.95
————————-

Brian Fagan, the leading authority on the
interaction of climate and human society, has
noticed that there’s a little detail that tends
to get lost in all the dire predictions of global
warming. Fagan is professor emeritus of
anthropology at the University of California and
editor of The Oxford Companion to Archaeology,
and has something like 21 books to his credit,
including Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting and
the Discovery of the New World. His latest, The
Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and
Fall of Civilizations, is about drought caused by
climate change.

Drought doesn’t usually get much attention in
concerns over melting icecaps, rising sea levels,
toxic UV rays and poisonous air. But to
demonstrate its dramatic effects on human
society, Fagan’s The Great Warming examines
what’s known as the Medieval Warming Period
(MWP), a sort of trial run for the present.
Lasting from about 800 to 1300 AD, the MWP was a
trial run because it was only a little blip
compared to our present global warming, which has
been on an accelerated upward spike since 1860,
due to the use of fossil fuels.

Still, the Medieval Warming Period saw a
sustained rise in temperature when some parts of
the world – notably parts of China, Europe and
western North America – were a few degrees warmer
than normal. If that doesn’t sound very dramatic,
wait till you see what a difference a degree (or
two) makes.

The MWP contributed to the rise of some
civilizations and the fall of others. On the
cheerier side, England became a wine-exporting
nation – even to France, with, of course,
predictable howls of protest from French wine
producers.

The MWP also produced the favourable ice
conditions in the North Atlantic that allowed the
Vikings to sail west, to Iceland and beyond. This
was the time (ca. 1000 AD) of the first
European-Inuit contact across Davis Strait, and
when Leif Erickson got as far as Newfoundland and
Labrador before the Beothuk drove the Norsemen
off. In the South Pacific, possibly due to
frequent El Niños, prevailing easterly winds
changed to westerlies, opening the way for
Polynesians to colonize Hawaii (800), New Zealand
(1000) and Easter Island (1200).

Back in England, formerly nonarable lands became
cultivable, the population jumped from 2 to 5
million, towns mushroomed, and deforestation
proceeded apace. In Europe generally, more than
half the forests were cut down between 1100 and
1350. This was also the era of what Fagan calls
“a veritable orgy of cathedral building.”

Not that climate change caused the flowering of
medieval culture. It did, however, create the
preconditions for it by producing years of good
harvests and a heap of extraneous wealth.

But don’t get too excited. Where the MWP caused
prolonged droughts, things were not quite so
rosy. Drought in Mongolia probably triggered the
sanguinary conquests of Genghis Khan. Mongol
society depended on horsepower (of the
four-legged kind), and parched grass was a poor
fuel for equine protein-conversion systems.

In the southern Yucatan, drought wiped out Mayan
civilization, leaving it to survive on a reduced
scale in the north. In western North America, the
Sierras experienced the worst droughts in
millennia, forcing inhabitants to abandon
ancestral sites like Pueblo Bonito. In
California, local water holes became the scenes
of massacres. In China, it’s thought that
droughts brought on social disorder and
rebellion, most likely contributing to the fall
of the Tang dynasty, the incursion of northern
nomads and the rise of powerful warlords.

In the long run, things weren’t so great for
Europe either. When the MWP was succeeded by the
failing harvests of the Little Ice Age (roughly
1400 to 1700), population outstripped a shrinking
food supply. The crisis was exacerbated by all
those mushrooming towns (urban density), which
made society top-heavy with non-food producers
totally dependent on others to feed them.

Worse, deforestation had stripped off the “mantle
of the poor,” the surrounding forests where the
less fortunate could always scrounge for
something (including medicinal plants) to keep
them alive. Apparently, threat of the great unfed
(and unwashed) kept Tudor regimes more jittery
than the threat of Catholic invasions from Spain.
And that’s even after the Black Death (1347-51)
had obligingly culled the herd by some 25
million, Europe-wide. (Think SARS, bird flu or
anticipated pandemic of choice.)

Fagan’s book can be seen as a contribution to
what has become known as Big History,
demonstrating that there are more important
engines of the past than the usual run of dubious
characters we’re invited to admire in our history
books.

But The Great Warming is intended primarily as a
warning. Drought caused by climate change is
already upon us, as in the 2006 droughts in
Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, which put
some 11 million people at risk of starvation.
During the 1990s, drought increased around the
world by 25 per cent, and it’s slated to rise to
50 per cent at current rates of greenhouse gas
emissions. You can read all the grim statistics
in a chapter called (appropriately) “The Silent
Elephant.”

Taking the warning to heart, I can’t help
questioning the wisdom of building all those
condos while allowing the family farm to
disappear. In view of The Great Warming, it seems
a little stupid to let urban densities mushroom
while wiping out the nearest food source.

And even if – as I’ve heard – we in Ontario might
not do too badly with global warming, it’s worth
remembering that we (along with the rest of
Canada) have all the water. Considering that the
great Ogallala aquifer – a huge underground
reservoir supplying eight states, from Nebraska
to Texas – is being depleted at the rate of 42
billion gallons a year, I guess we can look
forward to someday fighting over water holes
again. Water, you know, is a helluva lot more
important than oil. Dead men don’t drive cars.

Hans Werner is a frequent contributor to these pages.

———————————————————————————————————————-

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed