The Great Warming: Climate change and the rise and fall of civilizations by Brian Fagan. It is by his own admission mistitled, which I will get to below. It begins with a discussion of the various aspects of modern global warming with comparisons to what we used to call the Medieval Period, calling it the Medieval Warm Period. That terminology is rather Eurocentric for a book that turns out to be about all of the world, and all of the world’s cultures. There are whole chapters on specific cultures, and their behaviors during a very loosely defined time period between 500 and 1500, focused generally about the year 1000. There was a generalized warm period in Europe between those years, and that is the departure point for the book.
It is a well researched, and well written book in which the author has chosen a style reminiscent of Scientific American magazine articles, being thoughtful, well researched, informative, modestly documented, and vaguely disappointing. Why disappointing? Because, I have grown accustomed to the internet, and to Wikipedia, Google Earth, Flickr and Youtube where references are hot linked to whatever detail one wishes about the subject being discussed. Certainly a large bibliography at the end is scholarly, but I actually chase down less than one percent of references listed, and I suspect most readers do far fewer. Whereas with the internet I click through fairly often because it is so quick, and easy, and frequently informative. What is needed in books these days are the URL references printed right into the text. Of course these tags would have to be very short to be useful. I read a lot of books, but I am finding it increasingly annoying to have to read a book when not sitting if front of a computer. That is necessary in a book like this one just to understand all of references to obscure geographical locations. It is so much easier when the author puts in the time, and location tags, as is frequently done on the internet, so you can go right to the spot. For example on page 138 he mentions Chaco Canyon, and moves on to compare it to Maya civilization which is all okay but if there was a location tag like Chaco Canyon +36.06 -107.96 and Tikal +17.22 -89.62 you could go there quickly on Google Earth, and have a much better idea of what was being discussed. With the Panoramio photos checked you can look at many color photographs taken on the spot, and not a single black and white printed halftone. Even movies are often available. Some of these are poorly made, but some are excellent, and as the data base grows there will be a quality selection profile. Wikipedia is now much better than it was a couple of years ago and everything else about modern life is being improved by that increased quality of accurate information. Modern books must access these modern opportunities to stay relevant.
The book purports itself to be about global warming, but as it turns out the couple of degrees warming isn’t the real issue. Warming is one of the effects of climate change, and that change is being influenced by anthropogenic factors, but the real climate change, and hazard is variability of access to fresh water. As the Earth warms, it does not do so uniformly, but rather some places such as dark land masses heat more quickly, and this changes the flow of the winds. And some ocean areas gain more heat which changes the behavior of their flows which in turn has a massive influence upon where the wind, and rain go. These winds are what bring in whatever rain there is that falls on the land, but because the wind is flowing differently the rain falls in different places. Some farming areas may benefit from this new rain pattern, but most will not, and some heavily populated farm lands will become deserts.
When living in a city it is easy to forget that food doesn’t come from restaurants, and supermarkets, but from farms. We live in a global market where food often moves vast distances from farm to dinner table, and this can be quite efficient because the huge quantities permit the the use of huge machines and the mechanization of the entire process. The transportation also stabilizes the access to food because it is monetized worldwide, and that evens out the seasonal price fluctuations. However, because there is this easy transportation of food it means that when times get difficult those with money are able to buy food, and have it hauled to their dinner table, but people without money are not able to purchase it and will starve. Food has become a commodity which can be purchased away from the place where it was grown, and hauled to those with money to buy it. Thus, there may be rich agricultural areas with abundant harvests where the poor people are unable to purchase the food they have helped create, and so they starve.
The last chapter claimed to be offering solutions to the coming climate induced crisis. On page 240, “This is the immediate crisis of global warming in human terms and it requires not a short-term response but massive intervention on a truly international, and long-term, scale.” A true enough statement, but it doesn’t say anything anyone can act upon. Then on page 241, “Many futurists believe the wars of the coming centuries will not be fought over petty nationalisms, religion, or democratic principles, but over water, for this most precious of all commodities may become even more valuable than oil.” Once again true enough, but once again there is nothing new in the statement, and nothing to act upon. Then, the concluding sentence, on page 242, “Let us think of ourselves as partners with rather than potential masters of the changing natural world around us.” Once again a true enough statement, but with no teeth into what we should actually do, neither as individuals nor as humanity. The author’s statements don’t have any teeth, they don’t even have any gums.
The book did make a couple of points which we all must take to heart. The world’s climate is variable, and this sometimes leads to famine, and so we are dependent upon a steady supply of fresh water to create our food. But, the author doesn’t make the next logical step, that when the supply is steady the local environment will sustain a certain number of people, and after a few generations the population increases to fill that sustainable number. But, because the climate is variable, sometimes highly variable, there are years with little or no water. When there is less water there is less food, and with less food there must be a reduction in people eating what little food there is available. The author admits this lack of water, and thus lack of food is a cause for wars, but he never confronts the realization that the world is now economically a single unit, and the next World War will be with atomic weapons, and will be catastrophic. There isn’t even a suggestion of population control via birth control. Wars will probably be precipitated directly out of the drought issue and fighting will ensue over water rights, but it always comes down to too many people for the resources available. Because local population control makes that place into a population vacuum, and puts the people practicing it at a disadvantage there must be a worldwide population authority and controlling mechanism. That is impossible at this time, and so we are left with famine, and homicide as the only population controls in the modern world.