- Paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: Basic Books (Dec 27 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0465022723
- ISBN-13: 978-0465022724
- Product Dimensions: 13.7 x 1.9 x 20.7 cm
- Shipping Weight: 227 g
- Average Customer Review: 27 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #71,013 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850 Paperback – Dec 26 2001
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"Even without the contemporary relevance lent the book by the specter of global warming. The Little Ice Age would be an engrossing historical volume."
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The interesting question is to what extent did these climatic shifts alter the course of European history?
In some distinct cases, in my opinion, the answer is quite clear-cut. Norse settlement in Greenland, for example, became impossible because of the cooler temperatures after the 13th century. Famine in rural areas throughout the Middle Ages was also an undisputed consequence of sudden weather shifts. The damage done to the Spanish Armada in 1588 by two savage storms is patently climatic in origin, too.
In most cases, however, the climate is just one - mostly minor - factor out of many that contributed to the occurrence of major historical events like the French Revolution, for example. Fagan rightly calls climatic change "a subtle catalyst." Finally, if we look at historical developments that unfolded over centuries - like the Renaissance or the making of modern Europe - the influence of the climate does not explain anything.
A book like Fagan's "The Little Ice Age" is most interesting for historians who examine grass roots history, such as the daily lives of farmers and fishermen in the Middle Ages. At first I thought the climate would provide answers for economic historians, too. But as Fagan shows, the human response to deteriorating weather differs widely from region to region. The conservative French farmers stuck to growing wheat, which is notably intolerant of heavy rainfall, whereas English and Dutch farmers diversified their crop (and became much less vulnerable to bad weather). The weather alone does not explain this development. Obviously, an economic historian who is interested in the question "why are people better off in this country (or region, society, etc.) than elsewhere?" has to look to other factors than the weather when he seeks for answers.
So far, the climate has been a footnote in World History. Nonetheless, this footnote can be quite interesting, as "The Little Ice Age" shows. The book is divided into four parts. Part One describes the Medieval Warm Period, roughly from 900 to 1200. Parts Two and Three describe how people reacted to the cooling weather, and how devastating climatic changes are for societies whose agriculture is at subsistence level. Part Four covers the end of the Little Ice Age and the sustained warming of modern times. All four parts make for fascinating, sometimes even disturbing reading; and for the reader new to the field Fagan offers the basic explanations of the effects of oceanic currents and air pressure on the climate in Europe.
Bottom line: A good introduction to the subject aimed at the general reading public. It largely exploits earlier literature on the subject, however. And while asking very broad questions, the book bases its answers on a narrow range of data mostly pertaining to northern Europe.
Professor Fagan carries on a tradition (which he freely admits was discredited in the past but is now enjoying a renaissance because of newer information) of viewing history through the eyes of a paleoclimatologist. Much of what he had said in the earlier text, namely that many of mankind's major social and cultural transitions have been climate and weather driven, made a good deal of sense to me. Episodes such as the Sea People's invasion of the ancient Levant with the ultimate collapse of the Hittite empire and the reduction of the Egyptian during the late second millennium B.C.E. have long been thought to have been the result of droughts experienced in northern Europe. Similarly the demise of the Moche in Peru, of the Mayan civilizations in Middle America, and of the pueblo cultures in the Southwestern US are believed to have been the result of el Nino/la Nina weather changes, massive rains in the case of the Moche and severe drought in the latter two cases. Although no one would say that any of these historic human changes occurred purely in response to climate, it is abundantly apparent that the economic impact of especially prolonged climate changes on large subsistence level populations tend to leave the more inflexible social systems at great risk.
The earlier book described the probable role of el Nino/ la Nina cycles on world climate, while more briefly discussing the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) and it's effects. It was also concerned with much earlier cultures. The current book discusses the North Atlantic Oscillation in much greater detail and outlines it's specific effects on the climate and social environment of Europe and North America during more recent times. The material is dealt with in a very clear manner and was not difficult to understand even with my average person's more casual understanding of weather and climate.
Because the history is of events in more recent time, especially in the last half of the book, the narrative clearly has greater implications for the modern reader than the earlier book does. The Irish potato famine, for instance, was an event of great social significance whose impact on the modern politics in the United Kingdom and on the population demographics of the United States and Australia continues to this day. Certainly pertinent is the lesson of the political upheavals suffered by European governments in the 18th and 19th centuries. Those that ignored the precariousness of the lives experienced by the bulk of their population, choosing to do little or nothing to alleviate their suffering during famines, did so at their own peril. Those that refused to improve their management of their agricultural and natural environment also suffered more acutely. Even now as over half of the world's population suffers from hunger, poor sanitation, little or no health care, and a growing sense of hopelessness, the governments and people of the developed world face similar challenges and choices. Dealing with the inequities and injustices has now grown from a national to a global scale, but ignoring them could easily have the same consequences as it did for the upper and lower classes of the nascent nations. Similarly, the degeneration of the environment through overpopulation and mismanagement is looming large on our international horizon and can not be ignored for much longer.
My only complaint is that the last half of the book is riddled with dates to the point of distraction. I realize that accuracy is much to be appreciated when it comes to historic events, but in this case "before" and "after," "earlier" or "later" might have been perfectly adequate. I found that as long as I was aware of the general character of the times, its historic personalities and events, I could ignore the dates without being too misled as to time frame. I am aware that individuals like Eric the Red and Lief Erickson were not contemporary with Louis the XVI or Napoleon but that Thomas Jefferson was, etc. Someone less familiar with the events of history might find the dates more helpful.
I would definitely recommend this book for anyone interested in climatology, paleoclimatology, social change, and early modern history. For those with an interest in earlier cultures, I'd suggest Fagin's previous book Floods, Famines and Emperors
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