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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Drought, discontent and decapitation, 7 May 2004
This review is from: The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850 (Paperback)
A few years ago historians proposing history was driven by climate aroused a squall of controversy. Global warming, so clearly impacted, if not driven, by humanity is leading to greater acceptance of the interaction of weather and society. Fagan's history of a period of mildly cooler conditions shows how a little change can have immense impact on the human situation. It takes little variation in "temperature", he shows, to change patterns of rainfall, crop success or failure and resulting social disruption. A phase of the Little Ice Age may not have brought the downfall of the French monarchy, he notes. Crop failures compounded with a selfish aristocracy demonstrates capped a long period of discontent with decapitation.
Reading Fagan's account of the impact of climate over half a millennium can be a daunting task. Although the focus on the period from 1300 to 1850 is largely European, that's merely due to the extensive written records kept there. The variations in climate were global and Fagan rushes you from place to place to demonstrate the impact of trends and "weather events". Scampering about the planet in time and space can be disconcerting, but there's a reason for his peripatetic approach. He wants you to avoid falling into the trap our ancestors did - thinking that a few freak storms or dry years will smooth out over time. If these events impinge on a weak social framework, disaster can, as it has before, follow. In modern times, with our huge global population, he reminds us, "smoothing out" is unlikely. Without the means to counter the effects on society of global warming, the result will be far more serious than ridding the world of another monarch.
Fagan's challenge to the reader is far greater than tripping about the globe. He wants you to understand the wide variety of subtle changes inherent in global weather patterns. A small change here means the loss of a whole fishery industry. Small drops in temperature there result in widespread drought, population dislocation or deprivation. Governments, and their supporting societies, need to instill programmes that can adjust to these changes. Social adjustments that modify lifestyle or inhibit vague promises of prosperity in order to provide survival mechanisms must be implemented. Short-term benefit programmes must be viewed with suspicion, he reminds us. Too many have already been proven illusory, and must not be repeated. And wholly unanticipated events, such as volcanoes, must be factored into the planning. The book's cap, "The Year Without A Summer", has been shown to be a significant time in the history of North America. When an eruption half-way around the world leads to crop failure in New England, the need for planning becomes starkly evident. Today's global warming suggests many little volcanoes are compromising climate stability. All those little volcanoes are called "automobiles".
With a captivating theme and an expressive prose style, this book is an excellent read. Fagan's use of graphics and maps enhances an already fine volume. Although the title gives the impression that it's a work of history, Fagan demonstrates clearly that conditions long ago are exemplary for modern times. We may have mechanised farming, for example, but the world exists on conditions no less marginal than they were in Medieval times. The same triggers, volcanic eruptions and, most importantly, the North Atlantic Oscillation controlling Europe's rainfall, El Nino and other anomalies, are set to invoke unpredictable conditions. He explains these forces with skill and clarity. You will learn much more than some historical pedantry from this book. If you fail to read it, your children, huddled around a weak fire, may ask you why.
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