Friday, January 20, 2006

Brian Fagan - The Long Summer; How Climate Changed Civilisation

It doesn’t take that scientific a look at human history before you start to see a pattern – the rise and fall of societies, civilisations and cultures. The Roman Empire came and went – it eclipsed the Greeks, before them there was the Egyptians. More recently, South America had the Mayan and Inca city states – powerful societies that dominated that part of the world for hundreds of years. There are numerous other examples.

Brian Fagan’s book is an attempt to explain how and why some of those societies were able to reach such prominence so quickly, and why they often seemed to collapse overnight.

Fagan’s particular basis for this is the weather, or rather climate change. He shows how changes in the earth’s weather – from ice ages, to rainfall patterns – often led to major changes over quite local areas. Places that might have been ideal regions for crops could become arid in the space of a few years.

Fagan shows, though with much less detail than Steven Mithen’s work reviewed previously, how this sometimes leads to changes in society. Climate change he points out, was the motor for the transition from hunter gathering to farming in many parts of the world.

Unfortunately, Fagan’s work suffers slightly from too much journalistic description at times. For instance, I do not believe that we can accurately say that the forest dwellers who lived in the forests which covered Europe 8000 years ago were an “elusive, cautious” people. I doubt whether we can say anything at all about their bravery in fact.

The later part of the book deals with medieval European times and Fagan’s main theme becomes familiar. The more centralised and large a civilisation is, the more threatened it is by slight changes to the climate. His epilogue points out how modern society too lives very close to the edge. A tiny percentage of the population engaged in food production, with the people of many parts of the world living on a knife edge of existence.

It is interesting, that both Fagan and Mithin end their books, which are essentially historical accounts with calls to arms to their readers about the threat of climate change to modern society. Perhaps they are unique in this, but I suspect that there is a growing sense of fear in some areas of academia about the future of the planet and the threat to mankind. Not least because historically environmental changes have had such a tremendous impact.

Related Reviews

Fagan - Floods, Famines and Emperors; El Niño and the Fate of Civilizations
Fagan - The First North Americans

1 comment:

al fin said...

I suspect there is a very thin line indeed between many academics and the bearded longhaired persons carrying signs declaring "The End is Near!" Doom is a long tradition, there must be books about the phenomenon. Doom is very attractive to a lot of people, they are drawn to it like moths to the flame. All the varieties of doom. Nobody gets out of this world alive, after all.