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The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations Hardcover – March 4, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Global warming is hardly new; in fact, the very long-term trend began about 12,000 years ago with the end of the Ice Age. Anthropologist Fagan (The Little Ice Age) focuses on the medieval warming period (ca. 800-1300), which helped Europe produce larger harvests; the surpluses helped fund the great cathedrals. But in many other parts of the world, says Fagan, changing water and air currents led to drought and malnutrition, for instance among the Native Americans of Northern California, whose key acorn harvests largely failed. Long-term drought contributed to the collapse of the Mayan civilization, and fluctuations in temperature contributed to, and inhibited, Mongol incursions into Europe. Fagan reveals how new research methods like ice borings, satellite observations and computer modeling have sharpened our understanding of meteorological trends in prehistorical times and preliterate cultures. Finally, he notes how times of intense, sustained global warming can have particularly dire consequences; for example, by 2025, an estimated 2.8 billion of us will live in areas with increasingly scarce water resources. Looking backward, Fagan presents a well-documented warning to those who choose to look forward. Illus., maps. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


“Fagan is a great guide. His canvas may be smaller than Jared Diamond's Collapse , but Fagan's eye for detail and narrative skills are better.” ―New Scientist

“[A] fascinating account of shifting climatic conditions and their consequences.” ―New York Times

“The Great Warming is a thought-provoking read, which marshals a remarkable range of learning.” ―Financial Times

“‘The Great Warming' is a riveting work that will take your breath away and leave you scrambling for a cool drink of water. The latter is a luxury to enjoy in the present, Fagan notes, because it may be in very short supply in the future.” ―Christian Science Monitor

“Brian Fagan offers a unique contribution to this discussion [of climate change]...Readers should not underestimate this book, writing it off as another addition to a burgeoning genre: the travel guide to a torrid world. Fagan's project is much bigger. He re-creates past societies in a lively and engaging manner, aided by his expert synthesis of obscure climatological data...In his ability to bring nature into our global, historical narratives, Fagan rivals Alfred Crosby, William H. McNeill, and Jared Diamond, scholars who revealed to large audiences the explanatory power of microscopic biota or gross geography. Fagan promises to do the same for longterm climate dynamics...We would be fools to ignore his warnings.” ―American Scholar

“An alarm bell ringing out from a distant time.” ―Kirkus

“Superbly integrating the human and climatological past, Fagan's expertise wears easily in a fine popular treatment relevant to contemporary debate about climate.” ―Booklist

“This is not only World History at its best, sweeping across all of humankind with a coherent vision, but also a feat of imagination and massive research. If Fagan has given the medieval period throughout the globe a new dimension, he has at the same time issued an irrefutable warning about climate change that is deeply troubling.” ―Theodore Rabb, author of The Last Days of the Renaissance

“Climate has been making history for a very long time, though historians have rarely paid much attention to it. But as it turns out, a few less inches of rain, a change in temperature of just a degree or two can make all the difference in how human events unfold. The Great Warming demonstrates that although human beings make history, they very definitely do not make it under circumstances of their own choosing.” ―Ted Steinberg, author of Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History and American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn

“Looking backward, Fagan presents a well-documented warning to those who choose to look forward.” ―Publisher's Weekly


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Press; First Edition edition (March 4, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1596913924
  • ISBN-13: 978-1596913929
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #141,800 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Brian Fagan was born in England and studied archaeology at Pembroke College, Cambridge. He was Keeper of Prehistory at the Livingstone Museum, Zambia, from 1959-1965. During six years in Zambia and one in East Africa, he was deeply involved in fieldwork on multidisciplinary African history and in monuments conservation. He came to the United States in 1966 and was Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, from 1967 to 2004, when he became Emeritus.
Since coming to Santa Barbara, Brian has specialized in communicating archaeology to general audiences through lecturing, writing, and other media. He is regarded as one of the world's leading archaeological and historical writers and is widely respected popular lecturer about the past. His many books include three volumes for the National Geographic Society, including the bestselling Adventure of Archaeology. Other works include The Rape of the Nile, a classic history of archaeologists and tourists along the Nile, and four books on ancient climate change and human societies, Floods, Famines, and Emperors (on El Niños), The Little Ice Age, and The Long Summer, an account of warming and humanity since the Great Ice Age. His most recent climatic work describes the Medieval Warm Period: The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. His other books include Chaco Canyon: Archaeologists Explore the Lives of an Ancient Society and Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and the Discovery of the New World and Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age gave birth to the First Modern Humans. His recently published Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind extends his climatic research to the most vital of all resources for humanity.
Brian has been sailing since he was eight years old and learnt his cruising in the English Channel and North Sea. He has sailed thousands of miles in European waters, across the Atlantic, and in the Pacific. He is author of the Cruising Guide to Central and Southern California, which has been a widely used set of sailing directions since 1979. An ardent bicyclist, he lives in Santa Barbara with his life Lesley and daughter Ana.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

121 of 134 people found the following review helpful By Jerome P. Koch on March 10, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Brian Fagan, a popular anthropoogist, has again written a well researched, clearly written book on climate and human anthropology. The Great Warming details how climate in the past affected different civilizations. From the Mayan Culture to Medieval Europe, Fagan investigates the period known as The Medieval Warm Period (800AD to 1350AD). Unlike other his other well regarded book, the Little Ice Age, Fagan expands his research into Asia, the Saraha, China, India, the Artic, and South America. As the result of his research, he believes that the Medieval Warm Period should be re-named the Medieval Dry Period, as much of the globe saw periods of devastating droughts, with Europe being the exception.

What Brian Fagan does best is to get down to the micro level of human existence during these periods. He uses his forensic skills in illustrating how individuals from the peasant to the nobility coped with sudden changes in thier local climate. He ties in history, anthropoligy and just enough climate science to render a very detailed easy to read narrative. The reader does not have to be a professional climate scientist or anthropoligst to understand his essays. Techinical language is kept to a minimum. His chapters that cover Gengis Khan, the Intuits, as well the Moors Gold Trade are quite fascinating.

There are a few technical defects I see in this book. One, is his use of the now famed Hockey Stick graph authored by Dr. Michael Mann. The reader should be warned that many of Fagan's climate graphs are derived from this flawed temperature reconstruction. The Hockey Stick essientially writes off the Medieval Warm Period as well as the Little Ice Age. Michael Mann believes they were both regional (European) events, and not global in reach.
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56 of 63 people found the following review helpful By John D. Cofield TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 12, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Most people who have heard the term "Medieval Warming Period" tend to think of it as a period of good weather in Western Europe which led to population growth, the construction of Gothic Cathedrals, and the beginning of the rise of centralized nation-states. Brian Fagan, in another work as intriguing as his earlier "The Little Ice Age, "The Long Summer," and "Floods, Famines, and Emperors," now examines the world wide evidence that this particular warming period not only affected Western Europe but Asia, Africa, Polynesia, and the Americas as well.

I find Fagan's work fascinating on many levels. His clear, succinct explanations of the science behind tree ring, glacial ice core, and sedimentation analyses are approachable but not insultingly simple for non-scientists. His ability to draw parallels is impressive, helping us to recognize that what benefited or at least did not harm one culture was damaging or even catastrophic to others. This is quite important when we study the El Nino-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO, which can cause simultaneous floods in the Americas and droughts in India. I especially like his short vignettes of life in various cultures during the Warming Period, which place the climate changes they had to deal with in human context.

This is an important book which helps us better understand the role climate change has played in the past and its potential role in our own future.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on June 1, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Climate change is a regular item in the news. Most articles and books look at the future - few address the past. While the human condition is a large consideration, real effects are not often dwelt on. Brian Fagan makes up for both these lacks in this finely researched and comprehensive study. In a framework centred on a millennium in the past, he takes us on a global tour of what is known as The Medieval Warm Period. Lasting for half a millennium, about 850 C.E. to 1300 C.E, Fagan shows us the importance of understanding the global nature of climate and its interconnected elements.

In Europe, the era was later named the High Middle Ages. Flourishing trade, wine grown in the British Isles and shipped to France [!] and the mighty cathedrals erected typified the period. Elsewhere, conditions weren't as salubrious. In the North American Southwest, drought brought to a close the civilisation of Chaco Canyon and toppled the great Mayan Empire. In Asia, the great Ankor Wat, built to symbolise a vast and rich realm, was abandoned to the jungle. China's peasant population, always at the edge of survival, was driven from their lands in many places by alternating extended droughts and torrential rainfalls stripping the soil. Even the Mongol Horde was prompted to move in what proved nearly catastrophic for Europe, driven by the need for grazing lands.

Enduring climate change has been a human consideration from the beginning. Even our evolutionary roots lie in the drying of Africa and the subsequent emergence of the savannah. In one sense, climate is what brought us the role of the one bipedal ape. The development of agriculture made us yet more vulnerable to shifts in climate, Fagan reminds us.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By C. Kollars on July 20, 2009
Format: Paperback
Since I read two of Brian Fagan's books, "The Little Ice Age" and "The Great Warming" together, I'll review them together too.

Fagan's expertise is at digesting the latest voluminous and obscure scientific and archaeologic research results, then boiling them down and portraying them in plain (and sometimes even poetic) English for the non-professional readers. You won't be sidetracked by academic debates, by data that's been stale for decades, by researchers that don't know when to quit writing, or by pesky boundaries between different academic disciplines.

Fagan is very careful not to go beyond the actual research results (in fact he's almost sqeamish about it). There aren't a lot of all-encompassing grand theories here. And there isn't much that couldn't be footnoted to a specific paper. In these books Fagan forgoes footnotes for other reasons, but you sense that if he wanted to he could footnote almost every sentence without ticking off the original researchers.

Fagan must be a serious sailor - there are occasional bits of small boat jargon nobody else would know (or use correctly). This is a plus that's neither common nor obtrusive; unless you have some familiarity with sailing yourself, you'll probably never even notice it. And the insight into and descriptions of things like Norse and Polynesian voyages are much deeper than you'd expect. This is the one area where Fagan seems to fill out and even extend his sources, confidently (and correctly in my view).

Fagan is very good at presenting to the layman abstruse research from seemingly disparate fields. If that's what you're looking for, this is the place to get it.

Now the bad news - I have some serious quibbles.
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