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3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations
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HALL OF FAMEon 13 July 2004
According to Brian Fagan, the phenomenon known as El Nino has abruptly entered our collective awareness. That's a good thing, since its effects have a long, and often disastrous reach. It is not, he contends, the only issue to consider in climate impact. It has been "over-hyped" by media. The issues go beyond freak storms and harsh droughts. Humans have confronted weather throughout their evolutionary history. How society copes with global weather impact is Fagan's real concern. He's collected a wealth of information in this well written account. There is much to learn from this book, which includes some intriguing
Comfortably divided into three major themes, Fagan opens with an explanation of El Nino's "discovery". What had seemed to be freak weather events proved to have an underlying pattern. The El Nino Southern Oscillation [ENSO] is an eastward moving body of warm Pacific Ocean water. The warmth blocks the flow of the Humboldt Current moving from Antarctica along the South American coast. Fish die or depart, with birds duplicating the pattern. Fagan stresses that the effect of that warm cell has global reach and has roots deep in time. Pharonic Egypt felt its impact, perhaps contributing, if not causing, social upheaval and even a new philosophy of rule by those absolute rulers.
How society and its rulers deal with abrupt weather change is the focus of the second part. As an anthropologist, Fagan is conversant with ancient societies. He examines the Andean Moche people who engineered extensive irrigation systems to catch feeble rainfall. With El Nino, rainfall changes from feeble to fabulous and the Moche watched their canals being flushed away. The following famines broke the power of the Moche aristocracy and the culture collapsed. A similar fate occurred to the Maya, whose rigid social pattern prevented them from coping with crop loss. However, the Anasazi people of the American Southwest, long skilled in desert agriculture, had a different method for dealing with drought. A loose, flexible society encouraged sharing of resources, then departure when the soil failed. Fagan overturns the long-held view that the Anasazi "mysteriously" disappeared. He contends they simply dispersed.
In the final section, Fagan relates some historical climate events such as The Little Ice Age and the Sahel drought. He examines the short-sighted policies that have exacerbated the human impact of such events. Over expansion in good years leaves no flexibility for addressing the needs of bad times. Governments must avoid superficial solutions in the face of knowing climate will generate surprises. Better planning scenarios are required for land occupation and use. Although it's been said before, Fagan urges better understanding of what is sustainable. That, of course, means more research and the application of political will derived from its results. While that may curtail some short-term profit gains and force revision of some cultural noms, it's the survival of the species that's at stake.
Fagan's easy writing style mustn't undercut the value of this book. Enhanced with good maps tied nicely to the text and an outstanding bibliography make this book required reading. Weather, after all, is part of the human condition everywhere. We all need to understand better its impact, and cheap jokes about El Nino aren't part of that comprehension. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 11 March 1999
As a professional meteorologist, routinely faced with questions on El Nino and La Nina, I found this book both interesting and enjoyable. Like other Fagan books, it was well written and easy to read.
Meteorologists and Climatologists will enjoy this book, with simple and historical treatments of Monsoons, ENSO, and the North Atlantic Oscillation. Those with a weather interest will enjoy this book, especially the first 100 page or so.
Finally, the book connects the climatological phenomena with civilizations. The climate impacted all civilizations and may have weakened them, contributing the their evolution or demise. These concepts are supported in the text and fit well with the concept on human evolution in Ian Tattersall's book "Becoming Human-Evolution and human uniqueness".
This book supplements some of the ice age material in the earlier Fagan book, "The Great Journey-The peopling of ancient America". This book is both easy to read and understand, well worth the cost.
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on 18 June 1999
Never has one work tied together so much world history with the geologic and geographical weather record to create such a compelling case for the power of El Nino, the "christmas child." Reading this book made me much more aware of the subtle, power of nature working "behind the scenes" The author held my interest throughout and left me contemplating other world events that must also have been influenced by El Nino and La Nina.
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on 20 August 2011
This book was a little disappointing. The first half of the book, which deals with El Nino and various other climatic phenomena, is a clear and readable treatment of a complex subject. Having said that, it didn't add much to other accounts of El Nino. The main part of the book, covering the impact of changing weather conditions on various socities through history, was less impressive. From the evidence presented it isn't entirely clear that El Nino was anything other than one of several contributing factors to the collapse of some of these societies, and it felt as if the El Nino title was tacked on as a way of selling a collection of pieces of sociological/archaeological research covering (mostly) the carrying capacity of land. In short, the two halves of the book didn't gel convincingly.

As a personal aside, I also found the repeated cheap digs at governments and traders over the years a bit grating (almost without exception they are 'corrupt' and 'vicious')- it may well have been true in many cases but the tone detracted from the overall argument.
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on 8 July 2001
This book is hardly about El Nino. It is about the carrying capacity of land in relation to catastrophic instances of El Nino and similar phenomena. And the author adds nothing new in explaining that catastrophes have great influence. Another failure in this book is that there are not enough maps. The few that are there could have been much clearer.
I think this subject was too broad for Fagan. He has done a much better job on a smaller one in "The Little Ice Age".
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