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Floods, Famines, And Emperors: El Nino And The Fate Of Civilizations Hardcover – February 4, 1999

3.8 out of 5 stars 18 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Before 1997, the name "El Niño" was unknown to most ordinary folks. Meteorologists, oceanographers, commercial fishers, and weather buffs knew of this periodic climatic anomaly, but to the everyday person on the street, a few degrees' difference in the Pacific Ocean's temperature was irrelevant. Then one of the most powerful El Niños in recorded history caused bitter freezes in Europe, brutal snowstorms and floods in western North America, and deadly droughts throughout the South Pacific. People sat up and took notice as a relatively tiny change in oceanic temperature resulted in death and destruction in many parts of the globe.

Brian Fagan examines the social effects of El Niño and other powerful weather phenomena in Floods, Famines and Emperors. He gives plenty of examples of how cultures have adapted to stressful weather and the ways in which climatic alterations have changed the course of history. From droughts in ancient Egypt to monsoons in India, the far-reaching effects of meteorology's most cantankerous kid have deeply affected the way humans live in the world. Illustrated with useful maps and diagrams, Floods, Famines and Emperors is a clear, fascinating look at an aspect of climate studies--and of El Niño--mostly ignored by science. --Therese Littleton

From Scientific American

The aberrant and often devastating weather patterns brought on by El Niño are by now familiar. According to Fagan, they have had a less recognized effect. "There is a strong correlation between unusual climatic shifts and unusual historical events." He cites the fall of the Old Kingdom in ancient Egypt, the Moche society of Peru and the Maya of lowland Central America as examples. Other societies--the Anasazi of the American Southwest and today's San foragers of southern Africa's Kalahari Desert--have survived the impact of severe climatic stress. Fagan asks pass, he answers, have decisive centralized leadership, or develop innovations that increase the carrying capacity of the land, or, if they can, simply pack up and move elsewhere. Those that fail are less adaptable because their thinking is too rigid for the circumstances. Fagan describes the mechanisms and effects of El Niños, La Niñas and other far-reaching meteorological events and then discusses how several societies have coped with them. Could severe climatic change topple a modern civilization? "No one force--overpopulation, global warming, or rapid climate change--will destroy our civilization. But the combination of all three makes us prey to the knockout blow that could."

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1st edition (February 4, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465011209
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465011209
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 7 x 10.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,404,382 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
As a professional meteorologist, routinely faced with questions on El Nino and La Nina, I found this book both interesting and enjoyable. Like other Fagan books, it was well written and easy to read.
Meteorologists and Climatologists will enjoy this book, with simple and historical treatments of Monsoons, ENSO, and the North Atlantic Oscillation. Those with a weather interest will enjoy this book, especially the first 100 page or so.
Finally, the book connects the climatological phenomena with civilizations. The climate impacted all civilizations and may have weakened them, contributing the their evolution or demise. These concepts are supported in the text and fit well with the concept on human evolution in Ian Tattersall's book "Becoming Human-Evolution and human uniqueness".
This book supplements some of the ice age material in the earlier Fagan book, "The Great Journey-The peopling of ancient America". This book is both easy to read and understand, well worth the cost.
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Format: Paperback
According to Brian Fagan, the phenomenon known as El Nino has abruptly entered our collective awareness. That's a good thing, since its effects have a long, and often disastrous reach. It is not, he contends, the only issue to consider in climate impact. It has been "over-hyped" by media. The issues go beyond freak storms and harsh droughts. Humans have confronted weather throughout their evolutionary history. How society copes with global weather impact is Fagan's real concern. He's collected a wealth of information in this well written account. There is much to learn from this book, which includes some intriguing
Comfortably divided into three major themes, Fagan opens with an explanation of El Nino's "discovery". What had seemed to be freak weather events proved to have an underlying pattern. The El Nino Southern Oscillation [ENSO] is an eastward moving body of warm Pacific Ocean water. The warmth blocks the flow of the Humboldt Current moving from Antarctica along the South American coast. Fish die or depart, with birds duplicating the pattern. Fagan stresses that the effect of that warm cell has global reach and has roots deep in time. Pharonic Egypt felt its impact, perhaps contributing, if not causing, social upheaval and even a new philosophy of rule by those absolute rulers.
How society and its rulers deal with abrupt weather change is the focus of the second part. As an anthropologist, Fagan is conversant with ancient societies. He examines the Andean Moche people who engineered extensive irrigation systems to catch feeble rainfall. With El Nino, rainfall changes from feeble to fabulous and the Moche watched their canals being flushed away.
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Format: Paperback
To be honest, I enjoyed this book far more than I anticipated. Fagan is a smart archaelogist, and does not reduce human history to weather; rather he shows how weather can influence politics, religion, agriculture, and economics. Fagan could have made this point more clearly: weather can sometimes be influential; it's not determinative.
Fagan offers a good direction for archaelogists and historians to head; more serious works would do well to take up Fagan's challenge to analyze historical weather patterns. It'll be a tough go, but well-worth the trouble.
One of the book's strongest chapters is Chapter 11, showing how French colonial rule in the Sahel helped to impoverish and starve peoples living there, while increasing desertification. Here, he echoes the theme of the vastly superior _Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino and the Making of the Third World_. This latter book, by Mike Davis, is one of the most important books of recent decades. Where Fagan fails to consider structural inequalities and human suffering as a result of El Ninos, Davis fully succeeds. The books make for some nice contrasts (I assigned both to my college students). Turn to Davis, after you've had fun with Fagan.
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Format: Paperback
The book I chose to read, “Floods, Famines and Emperors: El Niño and the Fate of Civilizations,” by Brian Fagan, deals with the phenomenon of El Niño and its impact on ancient civilizations and current societies. El Niño is a group of unusually warm ocean water temperatures that periodically develop off the Pacific coast of South America. El Niño is part of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which is the moving of atmospheric pressure and wind patterns across the Pacific. For the book, Fagan discusses all of this as he takes a humanities perspective on the issue with being an anthropologist, but still weaves in the scientific concepts to give the issue a more holistic view. His main point is that El Niño has been an instrumental force in global climate that is not isolated to the Western coast of Peru, but in one way or another has been the cause of weather phenomenon/natural disasters around the world.
This book was a fascinating read. I appreciated the approach Fagan took to uncovering this information through case studies at different places such as the Mayans and in India. He made the point of El Niño’s impact on the global climate, one that seems to be not talked about much or apparent to most people. Not only that, Fagan showed the interconnectedness of natural phenomenon with our everyday life. People may come to think that they can separate themselves from nature, but the example of El Niño shows that humans and their environment are in a complicated and interconnected relationship.
While I did appreciate the approach of Fagan’s writing, the execution of his writing was lacking. He presented himself as a knowledgeable scholar, but did not present the information in a coherent and accessible way.
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