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Books: One Long, Hot Global Summer Volume 57 Number 3, May/June 2004
by Jennifer Pinkowski

Civilization arose during the Holocene, a geologic period that began roughly twelve thousand years ago and continues to this day. For the earth, it's the hot season--and it's only getting hotter, writes Brian Fagan in The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization (Basic Books: New York, 2004; $26). Fagan looks at the development of human society through the lens of global climate change, much as he did in his previous books The Little Ice Age and Floods, Famines, and Emperors. The Long Summer is a tale of retreating ice, drought, famine, and catastrophe--but also of adaptability, ingenuity, and persistence.

The Long Summer

The author of nearly two dozen scholarly and popular archaeology books, Fagan argues that as humans have organized themselves in increasingly complex ways, their susceptibility to large-scale devastation wrought by climate change has also risen. Ice Age hunter-gatherers were vulnerable to the vagaries of their harsh world, but they had a "flexibility, mobility, and opportunism" that allowed them to move on if their immediate environment became too difficult. As people formed villages, cities, and empires, they became rooted to environments that inevitably changed. If the small village of early civilization can be likened to a small sailing vessel on the sea, Fagan says, then industrial society is a supertanker plowing through deep waters. The latter can weather most storms, but those it doesn't will kill on an unprecedented scale.

The Long Summer is divided into three sections: from the end of the last Ice Age to about 10,000 B.C.; from early agriculture and animal domestication in the Near East around 8000 B.C. to the rise of city-states; and from the collapse of the Mediterranean empires in the early Iron Age to the Middle Ages, when temperate Europe thrived but the drought-stricken Americas thirsted. Oddly, for a book about the effects of the global climate, the civilizations of Asia and Africa are mostly ignored.

Fagan's writing is most evocative when it illuminates lives: the farmers of Abu Hureyra in the Jordan Valley watching the western skies for rain clouds; the Chumash of North America drying anchovies and cultivating acorns. He's less successful describing the processes of climate change and sometimes gets bogged down in meteorological descriptions.

Because Fagan's goal is to show the impact of climate change on the development of civilization, there is little discussion of other factors: politics, religion, or war, for instance. But he does include an intriguing thread in which spiritual development is linked to environment. Changes of climate were thought to be the work of the gods, and leaders were a population's connection to the divine. A spate of bad weather could topple empires. For instance, by the Middle Kingdom, Egyptian pharaohs downplayed the notion of infallibility, finding it safer to be considered divine stewards of their domain.

In the epilogue Fagan makes clear that he himself has lost faith in our time's stewards, whom he says aren't paying attention to humanity's contribution to global warming. Returning to the image of modern society as a supertanker powering through the ocean, he writes, "Few of those in command believe the gathering clouds have any relation to their fate or are concerned that there are lifeboats for only one in ten passengers. And no one dares to whisper in the helmsman's ear that he might consider turning the wheel."

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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