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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Drowning and drought, 11 Jun. 2004
This review is from: The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization (Hardcover)
Anyone still believing scientists lack a sense of humanity should read this. Although the title suggests yet another climate study, this isn't a simple analysis of our weather systems. Fagan places the human condition at the centre of his narrative. It's not enough to present more evidence of global warming. In fact, he's adamant about the causes of current climate change being a "side debate". He's much more concerned about how many climate shifts humanity has experienced and how we reacted to them. His theme is our adaptability to weather changes in the past and whether we can garner lessons for the future.
Establishing a scenario beginning twenty thousand years ago, Fagan lines out three Acts for the peopling of the Americas. The first is in "the primodial homeland", Ice Age Siberia, followed by conditions revealed about the Beringian Land Bridge of fifteen thousand years ago. The final act takes us to the chaotic Atlantic and the European environment. Conditions were rarely stable as "the glaciers were never still". Their "irregular dance" kept conditions variable and human response was adapt or perish. Canadian fresh meltwater interrupted the Gulf Stream letting harsh cold envelope Europe.
Human adaptibility often meant improvements on older technologies or innovative ones to cope with the result of climate change. Spears, later with atlatls - "spear throwers" to improve range and accuracy, then bows, were significant tools. Yet, one of the most momentous inventions was the needle - still in use almost unchanged today. This device could produce layered clothing, a major adaptive step in times of abrupt weather changes.
Weather changes can be due to single events - even those occurring at intervals like El Nino. A critical solitary event happened around 6200 BCE with the "implosion" of the Laurentide Ice Sheet. The cascade of fresh water into the North Atlantic created drought conditions throughout Europe and the eastern Mediterranean while raising ocean levels. This rise later led to a catastrophe when the Mediterranean found an outlet to the Euxine Lake. The inflow created the Black Sea, driving people west into the Danube Valley and changing human society in the area drastically. Continuing fluctuations brought further challenges to increasing populations. Stable food supplies provided by agriculture reduced mobility and fed population growth. The cost was people tied to the land and a new vulnerability to climate change.
Fagan's example of this new situation is found in the history of a California people known as the Chumash. These coastal people had deep ties with family members living inland. The arrangement kept food supplies relatively stable through exchange networks. This continuum expanded over a large area resulting in concomitant population growth. When expansion was no longer feasible, war substituted for exchange systems. Not a violent people, the conflicts were the result of environmental pressure on food resources. A drastic social change took place around 1150 AD. The lost networks were restored through a new arrangement. The family system was shelved for a new oligarchy of powerful community leaders working cooperatively with meagre, but sustaining food stocks. While the Chumash remained vulnerable to climate vagaries, they didn't starve as in the past.
Fagan stresses that vulnerability has been built into modern society. Civilisation is a high-stakes game, and the planet is the banker. Most of the cards we played in the past are now in the discard pile. Mobility is not an option when the planet is so thoroughly occupied. New technologies will not provide new lands submerged by rising seas nor blighted by drought. If the Gulf Stream fails again, as it has in the past, it will be all Europe faced with the need for a new home. Where? A Europe covered in ice will produce drought throughout western Asia and likely beyond. It isn't the cause of climate change that requires examination, but what must be done to deal with, Fagan urges. The "stewardship" of resources successfully adopted by some societies must be invoked again. That requires a knowledgeable population, briefed by readers of this book. This is far from a "should read" book - it is a "must read" for us all. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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