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The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization (2004)

af Brian Fagan

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A fascinating look at how climate has challenged and shaped human history, from the Ice Age to the Medieval
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Mark Twain supposedly once said "Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it", I guess as a commentary on how helpless human beings are over the vast power of nature. Well, these days humanity is certainly doing something about the weather in the form of dumping tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year, but it's under-appreciated how vulnerable we still are to unusual weather events, how dependent on complex climate patterns modern civilization is, and also how fortunate we are to have come of age as a species in an unusually long spell of (relatively) moderate climate across the whole planet. Indeed, without particular confluences of abrupt climate disequilibria, we'd probably still be hanging around Olduvai Gorge.

According to Fagan, primitive peoples were doing just fine in their native ecosystems for tens of millennia, wandering around their veldts and steppes, chasing the seasons and the prey animals, until a series of climate shifts allowed them to expand beyond their traditional homelands and colonize the whole planet. He documents a whole series of climate "pumps" - in the first stage a group of humans has settled a particular area and is hemmed in by resources or inhospitable conditions. Then a shift allows that group to expand a little bit farther, either to take advantage of new opportunities or under pressure from another group trying to compete for its homeland. Then the climate shifts again, and since the group can't stay where it is and it can't go back to where it was, it's forced out into new lands. After a few cycles of expand, explore, consolidate, and expand again, groups of hunter-gatherers had been pushed to every corner of the globe, sometimes carrying old technology with them but often being forced to innovate and adapt to new environments and food sources along the way. At some point in recent history an unusually long period of relative calm began - and I say "relative" only because Fagan recounts numerous examples of the often catastrophic effects that even single-year events like late rains or exceptionally cold winters had on medieval and classical civilization - and humanity was able to build the foundations of intensive agriculture and far-flung trade networks that all modern societies have inherited. There's a consistent theme of the fragility of civilization, as groups coalesce into tribes, then into states, then into empires, only to disintegrate after rainfall patterns shifted.

It concurs with a good deal of Jared Diamond's Collapse, albeit from strictly climate-based perspective rather than resource-based. I always enjoy these broad high-level popular science history books because they give you new ways to look at the world. For example, in not too long the American Southwest, which for many many years was a nearly waterless desert, will have to make tough choices about what kind of lifestyle they can afford in the face of what is guaranteed to be an astronomical increase in the price of water. Up until now, the US has been rich enough (and wet enough) to have all the golf courses and hilariously non-native crops that it wanted, wherever it wanted, but very slight shifts in climate could render the lifestyles of tens of millions of people not just unsustainable, but unsupportable period. The abandoned dwellings in Chaco Canyon make for excellent tourist attractions, but it doesn't take a huge stretch of the imagination to wonder if Phoenix could end up the same way, and what the implications would be for the rest of the country. Closer to home, the landscape of my own native Texas Hill Country has changed greatly from its settlement by cotton farmers to its current infestation by cedar trees, the only thing hardy enough to grow on the edge of the great western desert (for more on the heartbreak this caused would-be farmers, see the beginning of Robert Caro's superb Path to Power). If rain fell consistently just a few meridians to the west, then the economy of all of North America would be very different, and it's cool to speculate on that sort of thing.

Fagan doesn't really go into much of the what-ifs, but I was a little mystified by his tendency to end every chapter in the same way - after pages and pages of sober, well-sourced historical discussion, he would launch into a few closing paragraphs of fervid speculation about the spiritual beliefs of the Clovis people or Siberian nomads or whoever. It's not a huge deal, but the contrast between the detached and scientific sections talking about the contents of paleolithic waste dumps and the feverishly prolix sections about the meanings of cave paintings was very noticeable. However, his overall metaphor of civilization as a huge ship blundering in treacherous seas was well-chosen, and ably conveys the risk and uncertainty involved in building our cities and our lives in places so easily affected by changes in climate. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
A professor of anthropology by training, Fagan traces the effects of climactic change on civilizations over the past 15,000 years--a period of prolonged global warning that has only accelerated over the past 150 years. In particular, he's interested in how civilizations have responded to, or been radically altered by, changes in environment. One of Fagan's most compelling examples is his detailed history of the city of Ur, in what is now modern-day Iraq. Once a great city in one of the world's earliest civilizations, it first thrived thanks to abundant rainfall and then suffered even more severely when the Indian Ocean monsoons shifted southward, changing rain patterns. By 2000 B.C. its agricultural economy had collapsed, and today it is an abandoned landscape, an assemblage of decaying shrines in the harshest of deserts. Fagan views this event as pivotal. It was, he writes, "the first time an entire city disintegrated in the face of environmental catastrophe." But not, Fagan notes, the last. In his epilogue, which covers the last 800 years of human history, Fagan explores the climatic upheavals that left 20 million dead in famine-related epidemics in the 19th century. He notes that today 200 million people barely survive on marginal agricultural land in places such as northeastern Brazil, Ethiopia, and the Saharan Sahel. If temperatures rise much above current levels, and rising seas flood coastal plains, the devastation could dwarf any disaster humankind has previously known. Fagan doesn't offer easy solutions, but he presents a compelling history of climate's role in the background--and sometimes foreground--of human history.
  jhawn | Jul 31, 2017 |
i learned from this book.

it was interesting and informative and clearly written but more and more i find myself lost in a morass of extraneous words and narrative when reading non-fiction. this is just my own radical sensibility and reflects nothing upon this author. he did a fine job in a scholarly and academic sense. this subject matter is even accessible to most lay people.

however, i have come to think that informative books such as this need more visual elements, more concise construction of information, and less speaking to the reader across the page.

a sampling of things i learned:
>mesopotamia and the fertile crescent and the levant all were productive because of glacial melt waters and the warming period after the ice age
>temperatures were much more mild in Asia Minor and the Mediterranean area during the ice age and just after- duh, you might say but it simply never occurred to me to connect those dots
>in fact, forests of oak and beech and pistachio and birch dominated the landscape in areas that are deserts now
>the collapse of huge ice sheets in north america affected the global climate by alternately stopping then restarting the gulf stream and atlantic conveyor current

if you like understanding the origins of human society, read this book. it changed the way i view ancient Egypt and the hyperborean age. they are lush green now rather than rocky, dusty brown. ( )
  keebrook | Mar 10, 2015 |
8
  agdturner | Aug 5, 2011 |
This book traces how climate change has been both a spur to development and a destroyer of civilizations. Beginning with man's pre-history in the stone age he traces how civilizations have tended to increase in size which can only be maintained by the food resources of the existing climate. If climate change occurs which is prolonged on a global scale, there are very few societies which can maintain themselves. ( )
1 stem maunder | Apr 21, 2008 |
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A fascinating look at how climate has challenged and shaped human history, from the Ice Age to the Medieval

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