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The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations [Hardcover]

Eugene Linden
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

13 Feb 2006
"The Winds of Change" places the horrifying carnage unleashed on New Orleans, Mississippi, and Alabama by Hurricane Katrina in context.Climate has been humanity's constant, if moody, companion. At times benefactor or tormentor, climate nurtured the first stirrings of civilization and then repeatedly visited ruin on empires and peoples. Eugene Linden reveals a recurring pattern in which civilizations become prosperous and complacent during good weather, only to collapse when climate changes -- either through its direct effects, such as floods or drought, or indirect consequences, such as disease, blight, and civil disorder.The science of climate change is still young, and the interactions of climate with other historical forces are much debated, but the evidence mounts that climate loomed over the fate of societies from arctic Greenland to the Fertile Crescent and from the lost cities of the Mayans in Central America to the rain forests of Central Africa. Taking into account the uncertainties in both science and the historical record, Linden explores the evidence indicating that climate has been a serial killer of civilizations. "The Winds of Change" looks at the present and then to the future to determine whether the accused killer is on the prowl, and what it will do in the future.The tragedy of New Orleans is but the latest instance in which a region prepared for weather disasters experienced in the past finds itself helpless when nature ups the ante. In the closing chapters, Linden explores why warnings about the dangers of climate change have gone unheeded and what is happening with climate today, and he offers perhaps the most explicit look yet at what a haywire climate might do to us. He shows how even a society prepared to absorb such threshold-crossing events as Katrina, the killer heat wave in Europe in 2003, or the floods in the American Midwest in the 1990s can spiral into precipitous decline should such events intensify and become more frequent."The Winds of Change" places climate change, global warming, and the resulting instability in historical context and sounds an urgent warning for the future.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Printing edition (13 Feb 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684863529
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684863528
  • Product Dimensions: 2.8 x 16.1 x 23.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,825,742 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"Hurricanes, floods, droughts, melting ice caps -- Nature's serving them up at what seems like an ever-increasing clip. Which makes this compelling account of the weather's impact on civilization the book of the moment for all of us. Eugene Linden elegantly weaves history, science, and narrative into a must-read tale of the earth's most powerful forces." -- Susan Casey, author of "The Devil's Teeth"

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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Zephyrs of mass destruction 23 April 2006
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
Format:Hardcover
The "debate" over climate change, its causes and impacts, is beginning to wind down. Anyone asserting that climate change isn't occuring, or denying that humanity is a major factor in global warming, is living in the dark. What is of concern now is the determination of how the mechanisms work. One aspect of those mechanisms is learning how rapidly the change can occur. According to Linden, even naturally occuring climate change can be swift and tumultuous. In this well-written account, the author reviews the evidence for early climate shifts and their impact on early human societies. He follows the scientists and their research results in building a framework for how climate works, and what its past impact has been. Linden reminds his readers that however they consider climate, they must remember that it is the background "playing field" in which our society operates.

If any one term permeates this narrative, the word is "flicker". No word better imparts the idea that a shift in climate, once started, enters a raceaway path. Long used to relatively stable climate, our species has little concept of how swiftly regional, or even global long-term weather patterns, can alter. Linden finds the rapidity of change the major threat for our society, just as it eliminated ancient ones. His primary example is an uncompleted wall in the Akkadian site of Tell Leilan. From the evidence, workers simply "downed tools" or were ordered to stop. Drought had curtailed the food supply. Today, the causes of such events are better known. From an interrupted North Atlantic Current to the vagaries of El Nino, Linden explains how changes in these phenomena have long-reaching effects. When the complexities of climate change encounter the complexities of civilisation, the results can only be momentous.
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  26 reviews
70 of 73 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars engrossing introduction to the topic 17 Feb 2006
By R. M. Williams - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is outside of my normal reading and any scientific knowledge basis that i might claim. To me, unfamiliar with the literature, it forms an interesting and breezy introduction to the way that mankind may have changed the climate in the past, the way we can study it now, all with the objective of interacting with political and social systems to lessen the impact of climate on our future. The author is an excellent writer, educated in the field, with an obvious gusto and delight that he manages to transmit to the reader, making the book a smooth and engrossing read.

The topic is important, there are substantial issues to understand. This book offers its reader a glimpse into both the issues, the problems and potential solutions. It is not a how-to book in the sense of outlining prescriptions but a book helping us to think better about the topics, an effort i find most stimulating. Its a quick read, it will provoke discussion from the partisans of viewpoints at odds with the author, i can see the reviews panning it now online, but you ought to read it for yourself.

One idea sticks particularly with me. The idea of flickering, of quick oscillations in the weather brought on by instabilities in the system. His image is a switch versus the usual metaphor of a dial, radical movement, rather than slow movement. For this addition to my mental tool i am grateful.

The book is uniform and even in writing, to get an idea of how you will interact with the author and the material just pickup the book at the bookstore and read a few pages at random. There isn't any particular chapter or section i recommend for a quick familiarization. If you have any interest in the topics of: global warming, thermohaline currents in the oceans, the effect of mankind on the climate, this appears to be a good introduction.

thanks for reading the short review.
48 of 50 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good, But A Bit Lightweight 12 Mar 2006
By John D. Cofield - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I read this book immediately after Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers, and it does not compare all that well. Linden takes an historical look at the effect weather has had on past civilizations and on our own time, much of the time writing in a tone which is meant to be informal but often made me feel he was talking down to me, thus detracting from the importance of the subject. (In contrast, Flannery's book is often more technical and certainly more demanding of the reader.) It also bothered me that Linden was constantly referring to and quoting sections from other works, so that the book seemed to be more a summarization than anything else.

I did enjoy Linden's summaries of the impact climate had on the Greenland settlers and the Mayans, the effect of the Little Ice Age on Europe, and the descriptions of the varied impacts of El Ninos on different parts of the world were clear and illuminating. Readers who want a more detailed analysis of these and similar events can find them in Jared Diamond's Collapse and Brian Fagan's Floods Famines and Emperors, The Little Ice Age, and The Long Summer.

The best part of Linden's book comes at the end, when he examines the evidence that sudden changes in climate have occurred in the past and will most likely happen again in the near future, with some ominous predictions of the likely result. These are presented clearly, with additional evidence in the form of a lengthy chronology indicating that strange weather events have certainly been occurring increasingly often in recent years.

I'd recommend this book as a good first step in understanding how weather and climate have affected past and present human history, and then those readers who want deeper coverage can move on to some of the other books I mentioned above.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A sobering discussion of climate and humanity. 27 Jun 2006
By Atheen M. Wilson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Eugene Linden's "The Winds of Change" is much like the works of Brian Fagan, who for some time seems to have cornered the weather-as-determiner-of-human-fate business. Like Fagan's books, "The Winds of Change" gives a well documented account of past cultures that have collided with climate change at the worst possible moments. The Maya, probably the classic case and the one most often cited, is included as are the Norse colonies on Greenland.

While Fagan's book on the Little Ice Age included a very thorough discussion of the North Atlantic Oscillation, el Nino and la Nina, and the thermohaline circulation in the Atlantic, Linden's work has the benefit of the author's having visited on site with a number of climatologists studying ocean circulation and what ice and sediment cores have to say about past climate. Linden's book is a discussion of modern climatology as well as a presentation of historic disasters. It would definitely be a good book for a high school library since it reveals a good deal about what the work of a climatologist or oceanographer is like. It also reveals indirectly what it takes to be a good practicing journalist.

What this book does that Fagan's doesn't--at least not directly--is point out the issues facing our own culture. Most sobering is that while the world's cultures have managed to spread the negative impact of disaster among larger numbers of people, indeed has increased it to global proportions rather than to city, state or nation as it has been until even just recently, that same global interdependance increases the world's vulnerability to massive global size disasters. Note that just as the US volunteers during disasters abroad, so too did foreign countries offer aide to the US during hurricaine Katrina. The problem is that disasters occur along a curve of magnitide, with major global disasters occuring least often. They occur least often, but they can occur. Unfortunately how big the disaster and just when it might occur is difficult to predict.

As an example, the ancient Anasazi are believed to have survived in the American Southwest for quite some time despite the instability of their local climate by maintaining connections of obligation between various distant towns and villages. If disaster hit one area, the population could find a home and support further away with family and friends in another area. The entire system collapsed, however, when the climate introduced a downturn of greater severity, duration and territorial distribution than that for which the organization of towns and villages was prepared.

Something along these lines is what Linden predicts might happen to human civilization should the world's climate suddenly change for the worse. His estimate of the liklihood of its doing so is quite high, and he gives good reasons for it, documenting his contentions with statistics and expert testimony.

A sobering discussion of climate and humanity.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Compelling and scary 27 Jun 2006
By W. Buffam - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a very important book. It brings the last 15 years' worth of paleoclimatic research out into the open where the layman (and, with any luck, the politician and the industrialist) can see it. I find it astonishing that before the 1990s we knew very little about long-term climate trends, and even more astonishing that we've made so much progress since. Linden lays out the evidence of the last 15 years of research and analysis that indicates that events of extreme climate change have unfolded over just a few years, in some cases a decade or less.

As important and illuminating as the book is, it has some shortcomings. Linden, as a journalist, compiles his story from the writings (augmented by interviews) of the researchers. As a result, the continuous stream of references tends to overwhelm the reader. Perhaps an appendix with a concise table of cited researchers and a summary of their contributions would provide the reader with a way to periodically reorient himself. Such reader orientation is especially important because Linden often presents the same material in different contexts, giving you that deja vu feeling. (Other reviewers have complained about this "repetition," but I see it as more a case of replaying earlier material to make a different point, or to apply a different emphasis, in a slightly different context.)

Linden uses several figures and graphs in the text that are insufficiently explained, or not even explained at all. The figure that introduces Chapter 8 is a case in point. I can find no way to map a meaning onto this figure, and the text does not refer to it even once.

Perhaps the most serious criticism I have concerns the explanation of the Coriolis effect on page 103, which is not merely misleading but flat-out wrong. (The explanation depends upon the assertion that the Earth turns towards the West!) Now, this is a serious criticism not because it's important that the reader understands how the Coriolis force arises (it actually doesn't matter), but because it casts doubt on Linden's other scientific explanations. If he has so misunderstood the Coriolis force, what else has he misunderstood and consequently (and unwittingly) misrepresented? After my experience with the bogus explanation of the Coriolis effect, I found myself not even trying to get my head around subsequent scientific explanations that were at all challenging. My feeling was that there probably wouldn't be enough information and detail to get a good grasp, and even if there were it might be inaccurate or wrong. The ironic result was that it made for a much faster read.

Incidentally, it must be said that the Coriolis force is a devilishly difficult concept to grasp. You can find good explanations of it on the Web, as well as sites that try to dispel the misconceptions surrounding it.

Shortcomings aside, this book assembles compelling evidence that Earth is warming rapidly, that if this trend continues on its present course global catastrophe will result, and that the catastrophe may be very near at hand. We live in scary times.
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of Best Two Out of Four 12 Jun 2006
By Robert David STEELE Vivas - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book just edges out "The Weather Makers" by a slight margin that has everything to do with the specific gems I pulled from both and is therefore a very personal even random order. The two together are superior to "When the Rivers Run Dry" and "Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum," the "runners up" in my four book survey.

From my personal focus on non-fiction about national security and prosperity, the authors focus on the fact that climate change can undermine legitimate governments by fostering water scarcity, disease, migration, and hence poverty, was highly relevant.

The author is wonderfully contextual in declaring that the real weapons of mass destruction are these: disease, migration, conflict, and famine. He gives credit to David Key's "Catastrophe," a book I reviewed some time ago, very favorably.

The author identifies climate as the ultimate context for the human playing field, and points out that a series of El Ni�o's in the 19th century may well have killed more people than the two World Wars in the 20th century.

Thus, the author does not show alarm about Global Warming per se, as do many of the more scientific observers, but rather about the manner in which global warming leads directly to the spread of disease, often sparked by drought.

He notes--and this is in the aftermath of the global fright over SARS--that Asia historically produces cataclysmic plagues from weather and water related disease, including the Black Death in 1332. He specifically identifies water as the gold of tomorrow, hence Canada (or separatist Quebec) and Scotland will be quite heavenly.

The chart on page 89 is alone worth the price of the book--showing the rate of change in each decade from the 1950's (10,000 years) to 1980's (100 years) to 1985 (50 years) to 1992 (3 years).

On page 190, without direct reference to the Cheney-Bush regime, he could not have described them better: "Climate's capacity to inflict misery rises steadily when arrogance and ideology hinder a society's adjustments to extreme weather." This is consistent with other books I have reviewed that point out that the difference between disaster (e.g. New Orleans flooding) and catastrophe (e.g. the U.S. Government sitting on its hands) is mind-set--planning mind-set, preparation mind-set, and response mind-set.

Of the four books, this one is the best for the warrior-thinkers as it brings forth the ideas of Mike Davis and on pages 199-200 discusses the triangle of State Decapacitation; Household Poverty; and Ecological Poverty. In the author's view, it is social and political misjudgments that "load" the climate "gun."

The author is consistent with other books I have reviewed for Amazon in pointing out that scientific alarm is sharply at odds with public indifference to climate. Those that think Al Gore will get a second shot from his book (bad) and movie (good) on the environment are delusional.

The author is gently vitriolic in suggesting that governments that claim that climate changes are going to be moderate and incremental as either delusional or deceptive--in today's (2006) White House, both would apply.

The absolute high point of this book--and one that singles the author's perception out as being acute, is when he provides an extremely provocative discussion of the need for "science in real time" in order to detect and understand changes in the deep ocean and high atmosphere that otherwise might not be noticed or known for 3-5 years--which, as the chart on page 89 shows, are now a statistically significant period for climate change. Here I have to give the White House *very* high marks, for their attempts to get all nations to share information from earth observation systems including undersea sensors, sea buoys, ground sensors, aviation sensors, and satellite sensors. That project has been very successful and is now being extended to monitor disease. The problem is that the White House, while advancing the collection of data, refuses to acknowledge the meaning of the data that is arriving.

Citing Kerry Emmanuel of MIT, the author notes that hurricanes have gotten twice as intense in the past 30 years. He goes on to note that Los Angeles is "hosed" in that the best case scenario for that city calls for it to suffer a 50% drop in available water by 2050, absent a major program to desalinate sea water and save the aquifers from further depletion.

According to the author, 9/11 opened a lot of eyes, and actually made some people more sensitive (but see also my reviews of the four books in the series beginning with "The Republican War on Science"). He cites John Dutton of Penn State as stating that $2.7T of the total US economy of $10T is subject to weather related loss of revenue.

As he draws to a close, he gladdens my heart in pointing out that insurance companies are now getting wise, and starting to withhold insurance coverage from the Exxon's of the world with respect to lawsuits for damages and liability in the case of climate change. Just as tobacco companies were ultimately held accountable for covering up the lung cancer risks, so does the author foresee the day when both oil and coal companies are buried by punitive law suits related to their negative impact on the climate and their lies to the courts and the legislatures (remember, its not the sex, it's the lying about the sex that draws the greatest punishment).

The author ends the book with a fine chronology, 18 pages long, on changes in climate and changes in views about climate change from the 1950's to date.

In addition to this book I would certainly recommend E. O. Wilson's "The Future of Life" and J. F. Rischard's "HIGH NOON: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them."
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