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I generally consider myself an information sponge, the kind of person who can happily watch just about anything on "The National Geographic Channel", so I was more than happy to swipe The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilization by Brian Fagan from the other reviewers before they could get his hands on it.
Why you should read this book
The basic thesis of the book is that between about A.D. 800 to 1200 there was a period that is commonly called the Medieval Warm Period that was characterized by milder, warmer temperatures in Europe. The warming allowed for increased exploration -- there is a persuasive argument made that the Norse explorers would not have made it as far in their travels if the temperature had been slightly cooler, for example -- but the same climatic forces that created the warming period created cooler, dryer conditions elsewhere in the world. In addition to examining the effects of all kinds of climatic forces on civilizations during the Medieval Warm Period, the author paints a picture of the interrelated, interacting forces all over the world, giving the impression of a web in which a tug in one direction affects every other part of the network.
The varied nature of this text is one of its most striking qualities. Discussions of science, biology, geology, and climatology are punctuated by vivid descriptions of life in our distant past from the perspectives of villagers and subsistence farmers.
Global warming advocates will be happy to note that Fagan is very careful to differentiate the Medieval Warm Period, the "Great Warming" of the book's title, from the anthropogenic warming of the last 60 years. Some opponents of global warming theories have tried to use evidence from this period to suggest the current warming is a natural cycle, and this book makes it clear that the earlier warming is very different from what we see today. Further, it gives convincing evidence that even minor periods of warm, cold, wet, or dry climate conditions have had serious impact on the development of civilizations as far back as we can record, but especially during this Medieval Warm Period, around A.D. 800 to 1200. Cultures from the Maya to the Chinese have taken dramatic up or down turns due to droughts or floods or anything in between.
I was most impressed by the handling of potentially sensitive cultural topics – say, descriptions of rituals involving human sacrifice. This is the kind of thing that can generate a lot of judgment and westernized perspectives in the name of "impartial" science, but Fagan doesn't stoop to that and instead uses a clear voice to present the information and allow us to make our own moral value calculations. We are given enough information to appreciate cultures and cultural practices vastly divergent from our own to be able to appreciate their rituals and behaviors in context.
But it can't be all good...
My biggest criticism of the book by far is its lack of illustrations, graphs, charts, maps and the like, when the subject matter is quite plainly crying out for them. On pretty much every single page is some discussion of curves or statistics or zones or any number of other things that could have been illustrated better. The few times a graph is included made me wonder why, the author chose this particular statistical analysis to illustrate and not some of the more important data. Additional figures and illustrations would make this rather dense text a lot more accessible to readers who are less familiar with all the terminology and science. I would love to see a second edition of this book with a lot more sidebars breaking up the text.
One other complaint is with the writing's quality – most of the time it's first-rate, with a handful of passages musical enough that I marked them in the book with a pencil. But especially towards the end of the book there were several passages that made me cringe, and a higher than normal incidence of typos and punctuation errors that cries out for another round of editing.
The final verdict
The Great Warming is a great introduction to the science of climate change as it applies to human history. In addition to educating the reader on climatology we get a grasp of anthropology, history, biology, and geology as it relates to the subject matter. I liked the book and I hope to see an updated and expanded second edition sometime soon with about 200 more illustrations and charts.
Author: Brian Fagan
Publisher: Bloommsbury Press
Publication Date: March 4th, 2008