Before the Little Ice Age, there was the Medieval Warm Period. In Western Europe, the centuries around the first millenium were a time of mostly long, warm summers and a steady rise in prosperity. But of course, climate is global, and most of the rest of the world didn’t fare so well. In The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, Brian Fagan looks around the globe during this period and sees it as a warning for the future.
In short, there were terrible, persistent droughts in the past, and if the climate responds similarly to anthropogenic warming, we should fear the droughts of the near future. Civilizations of the Maya, the American Southwest, and Angkor Wat all tried to manage water and ultimately failed. This argument sounded more coherent and the descriptions of ancient civilizations were more intriguing when I first heard the interview.
The book offers tantalizing glimpses of little known territory. The gold kingdoms of Africa. The Inuit already trading for iron with the Siberians, when the Vikings showed up with more iron. The Maya, with pyramids filled with dark waters. But since it’s about climate, not world history, there’s only space for a few broad strokes.
The book denies being simplistic, and then suggests that good harvests led to overpopulation in the North, which meant young men had to go Viking to make a living. And then it suggests that droughts led to a lack of fodder in the East, which meant horse raiders had to ride far afield to make a living. Either way, the weather seems to push a lot of people around.
From the beginning, the book hammers away at the statement that subsistence farming barely suffices and most of history was lived at the mercy of the weather, until you’re thinking, Okay, I get it. Most, but not all chapters, start with a vignette imagining life at the time. Some, but not all, of the technical information is intermingled with the historical, with no clear rule for what needed to be segregated in sidebars. It makes it hard for the reader to see how the book is supposed to be organized.
Only in the last chapter does it come together, with a circular argument about how much drought there was and how we should be afraid of severe droughts to come and how this global warming is manmade and comparing it with the warm period of the past is relevant to the future because we could be facing terrible droughts. Okay, I get it.