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The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850 Paperback – Illustrated, November 26, 2019
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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."―South Florida Sun-Sentinel
"The Little Ice Age could do for the historical study of climate what Foucault's Madness and Civilization did for the historical study of mental illness: make it a respectable subject for scholarly inquiry."―Scientific American
"A nimble, lively, provocative book."―Booklist
"[A] highly readable and erudite analysis."―Guardian
"An engaging history.... A fascinating account of events both obscure and well known, including the French Revolution and the Irish potato famine, as seen through the lens of weather and its effect on harvests."―Foreign Affairs
About the Author
- Publisher : Basic Books; Revised edition (November 26, 2019)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 288 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1541618599
- ISBN-13 : 978-1541618596
- Item Weight : 8.7 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.6 x 1.05 x 8.3 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #66,591 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Picture reading a summary of the weather in the United States over the past 10 years, and you will have a very good idea of how this book reads: Some regions experienced extreme cold and snow during the winter, while other areas in the west were dry and sunny.l The springs were warmer than average, rainfall was heavy, and there were hurricanes and tornadoes in the south. Now stretch that out for page after page and see if your head does not begin to nod.
The thesis of the book is that, well, we can't engage in environmental determinism, because that is an academic taboo, but we can say that the climate has changed and that history has happened, and that there seems that there might be a connection. Not very compelling, is it? *Of course* changes in climate *cause* changes in human behavior and thus in history! If the area where you can or cannot grow food changes, then that will perforce change where people live and how they live, and that's history! Was the French revolution caused by the extreme poverty of French peasants, and by the fact that their overlords seemed to have no interest in how they produced the food they all needed? Who can doubt it? And does climate affect the ability to grow food? Obviously!
The one chapter that really hung together was An Ghorta Mor, about the Great Hunger in Ireland caused by the failure of the potato crop. For the first time in the whole book, the author slows down and focuses on a single region and a single period of time, rather than sweeping from decade to decade and place to place. And that works. But mostly you read things like, "Weather in northern Europe was extremely cold. The rivers in xyz froze over. New Zealand, meanwhile, was also cold, and there was famine in China." Just too broad to be of any interest to read.
Some people complain about the fact that the author tacks on comments about our current Global Warming controversy (if controversy it is) and appends a chapter at the end making a somewhat half-hearted argument that yes, global warming is real, it is man-made, and it might be bad. I really don't care by the time I get to that chapter, because he has already demonstrated to my satisfaction that the climate has changed many times and we don't really know why. If a Little Ice Age brings suffering, might a warm age actually ameliorate human life in some way? Maybe. Might it spur new technologies? Probably. This is hardly a screed telling me to give up my car and ride a bike to work. All the evidence herein suggests that mainly, we don't know, the patterns are irregular and hard to interpret, and that extreme cold is no picnic for human civilizations.
One other point that deserves mention is the choice to use metric measurements throughout the book. Ok, I get it, as Americans, we are the only ones who aren't very familiar with those measurements. But the intro gives false information about the relationship between kilometers and miles. And then throughout the rest of the book, I would have to mentally translate every fact: winters were 2 degrees C. colder, and the glaciers advanced 2.5 kilometers down into the valleys. Often, instead of absolute numbers, we are given comparisons, but all this just makes it hard for me to form a mental image of what it was like. New York was 2 degrees C colder than 10 years before, and there were 28 days of below-zero weather. (Is that below zero C? If so, isn't that pretty much what winter is?)
I really expected to be interested in the daily life of Europeans from 1300-1850 and how weather impacted them, but in the end, I didn't feel that I got that. Maybe it's because the facts are just so diffuse--no trend is obvious enough close-up to make much of a picture. But I think the author made many bad choices, giving us too many broad statements and not enough picturable narratives.
The book's major weaknesses are in Fagan's sourcing and Jack Scott's illustrated maps included throughout the book. Fagan lists many dates, statistics, and events, but only occasionally links these to sources. This is fine for general reading but contradicts the Scientific American review of the book, which characterizes it as a "historical study of climate." It is certainly rigorous and makes a strong argument, but any further study based on the content is challenging without more detailed references.
The maps also lack accuracy, sometimes confusing places with one another. For example, the map of Indonesia on pg. 168 mistakenly labels Lombok as Sumbawa, while labeling the tiny island of Mojo as Lombok, all important distinctions given that the chapter concerns the volcanic eruptions at Mount Tambora. Similarly, the map of Britain on pg. 136 has Glasgow where Edinburgh should be, while placing the real Edinburgh almost on the eastern shore. On the same map, the Rhine River incorrectly empties east of Utrecht into the Zuyder Zee instead of breaking up and emptying west of it in the real world. These editorial oversight, while objectively simple, really detracts from an otherwise engaging narrative.
I really enjoyed the added details the book provided although much of what happened was devastating to millions of people. That is really sad. After the 1850’s the warming trend helped. Now we need to help the planet to not get too hot. Through the book, though, it appears that we do not have enough control over nature to affect the ocean currents that influence weather patterns.
Top reviews from other countries
A few questions, such as global vs regional cooling / instability, remain unanswered, in my opinion. In addition, some passages do not seem particularly relevant. But overall, this book touches on a number of subjects that you wont see in accounts of battles, or the biography of kings. It is an easy read (don't be afraid of the science) and hence recommended as an opener on the subject.
The book begins with the story of the Norse wanderings - west along the upper Atlantic to Iceland, Greenland and beyond, and south and east through Russia. This is indicative of the climate that existed around 1000 in Europe and what could be achieved in these conditions. From there, we are transported through a potted history of Europe and how changes in climate impacted on the way of life there over the next eight centuries or so.
Not knowing anything about how climate works, I was impressed with the explanations and simple maps provided in this book; the author made it perfectly clear to a novice such as me how such things as the North Atlantic Oscillation index and the Great Ocean Conveyor Belt worked, and how they impacted on the way that life could be lived for so long in Europe. The writing throughout is entertaining as well as educational; and very readable. The narrative never palls, and the scientific information is presented within the narrative to form a seamless flow of fascinating information and analysis. This even goes so far as to talk about the advance and retreat of glaciers, including the Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand; very much closer to home for me than is Northern Europe.
A most fascinating book; and one which makes you think more about the climate and the impact not only that it has on us; but that we may now be able to have on it, and not necessarily in a good way. But this book is not only about climates; it is about life, and the way those of European descent have lived it, bound by the climate in which they found themselves, and the environment that climate created. Who knew that following the cod schools led fishing fleets further westward all the way to America, and that one of them founded "Martha's Vineyard"? The author is a Professor of Archaeology, and seems to have written quite a few books, including more on climate and climate change; this book is highly recommended, and I would happily search out some more of his works.
The result is a fascinating synthesis of climatology, history, sociology, and politics. It also sets the current extended warm period in rather more context than it normally gets in the press. I really enjoyed reading this book, which although about climate, sets people at the center of its story. I know quite a lot about European history, especially social and political history in the later part of the period covered. However, this book gave me a completely new perspective on the events of that period, giving me a much more rounded picture.