I turned the last page on this little gem early in the morning of October 26, 2012. I set it down, stretched a bit, and turned on the TV to the all-weather- all-the-time channel, to check on what to expect outside for the day. I tuned in to find their gregarious female morning reporter standing in front of some beach on the east coast of Florida breathlessly proclaiming that this might be the worst storm in recorded history. She was talking of Sandy, a rather average hurricane (max winds of about 80 knots) that was at the moment churning in the Atlantic over the northern tip of the Bahamas island chain (east of Florida’s coast, hence the waves crashing behind the intrepid reporter). Through all the contrived drama (the storm had really done nothing yet except hit the Bahamas pretty hard, something that is hardly remarkable even for the very limited range of our recorded weather history), I was finally able to ascertain that the storm was likely to travel north along the Gulf Stream until it turned westward and washed ashore somewhere around D.C., Philadelphia or New York. It had the potential to be heavily influenced by, or even merge with, a blast of cool air expected to arrive at about the same time as it did, which was in a few days. Oh the horror! A tropical cyclone and nor’easter conspiring to destroy Manhattan! Investment bankers might be washed out to sea! The prospect sent rivulets of crocodile tears streaming down my face.
Having just finished The Little Ice Age, I found it hard to be much impressed by the buxom, breathless weather babe’s comparisons. Fagan’s book, while focusing on the period from about 1300 ad to 1850 (the Little Ice Age), reaches well into the last millennium in its survey of weather and climate records, starting with the remarkable warmth preceding the Little Ice Age, called the Medieval Warm Period, lasting from about 800 ad to 1200. Weather records in the US rarely extend past a century and a half, and overall climate records are sparse, if not totally nonexistent. Things like the average day of the first and last frost, or the average winter snow cover, or the average freeze and thaw cycles of northern lakes and rivers, particularly the Great Lakes, simply weren’t recorded until relatively recently.
The record is much more complete in Europe. And the one thing that is immediately clear in a survey of weather conditions and phenomenon of only the last 1,200 years or so in Europe is that extreme weather events are rather common and not much paired to overall climatic conditions (average temperatures and rainfall, e.g.). There can be years of warm summers and mild winters in the midst of overall cool climatic conditions, and stretches of bitterly cold winters and cool, wet summers in periods of overall warm climactic conditions. Weather and climate are outrageously unpredictable and are routinely well above and below historical averages. So the Northeastern US hurricane-nor’easter combo might be unusual from our quite limited perspective of things. It surely is not much unusual over the course of a millennium, and would probably be considered more or less routine were the period since the end of the Great Ice Age about 18,000 years ago a part of the record.
Expand the view to reach double that period into the past, and much of North America and Northern Europe, including the British Isles, were buried under ice as much as a mile thick. Had there been weather forecasters back then, they’d likely be broadcasting from the front edge of approaching glaciers, not the howling seas, reporting on the day’s expected advance or retreat of the looming death represented by the glaciers. Imagine were glaciers steadily advancing today, grinding up valuable farm land in their relentless march. Then the hysteria surrounding weather events such as is seen today might be more readily justified. The worst of this storm won’t do much but inundate low-lying coastal areas (a quite frequent occurrence in Southern England and the Low Countries in Europe during the Little Ice Age), and perhaps blow a few trees and buildings down. Power will probably be knocked out for millions, but then that’s mostly because there are millions in the storm’s path. Nobody will starve. But weather-related starvation was a common thing for the whole of Fagan’s survey, up until the Irish potato famine of the mid and late 1840’s. After that, the climate warmed and agricultural practices generally improved enough that famine, when it occurred in the New and Old World, was mostly caused by human folly of some sort or another.
I don’t think Fagan intended that his book be a chronicle of the precarious, and often horrific, hand-to-mouth lives of Dark and Middle Age European peasantry, but long stretches read just like that. From the Great Famine of 1315 to 1321 caused not by cold, but by excessive rain; to the settlement in about 1000 ad of Greenland, and its abandonment four hundred years later; to the All Saint’s Flood of 1570 that swept away 100,000 and ruined crops for the rest, to the Great Storm of 1704 which preceded the bitter cold of 1708/09 that killed thousands of trees in France, for people barely able to sustain themselves during moderate seasons, climate-induced weather extremes and changes brought hunger, starvation and death, never mind the immediate casualties of the calamities, people who were inundated in a flood or frozen by “accident hypothermia” in a cold snap. The picture Fagan paints of life before agriculture finally turned the corner to bounty instead of scarcity is one of Hobbesian fantasy. Though European peasants had accepted life as sedentary agriculturalists, and traded the freedom of living in a state of nature for the security and comfort of submitting to the bonds of society, still, their lives were by any measure “poor, nasty, brutish and short.” (They at least were not solitary, the first adjective Hobbes used to describe life in the state of nature, for there were great multitudes of peasants and they suffered together when Nature unleashed her fury on their barely subsistent lifestyle). For the peasants, the Hobbesian calculus seems a Faustian bargain. They traded their hunter gatherer souls for the safety and security of sedentary agriculture, only to be ultimately condemned to a life of hellish misery and bare survival, if at all.
Though Fagan didn’t explicitly do so, it is worth noting that nothing of the magnificent structure of today’s advanced societies could be possible were the first problem of agriculture not already solved. Every skyscraper or subway system or electrical grid, etc., in New York and London and Berlin and Tokyo, etc., owe their existence to the bounty of modern agriculture. Without which the people could be fed, there would be no modern cities, a point Fagan’s archaeological heart drives home time and again, if only implicitly. It may or may not be accidental that agricultural production finally and reliably caught up with the needs of the population at roughly the same time the climate began warming again, in the mid-1800’s. That it did is certainly a necessary predicate to today’s way of life. It wasn’t even two centuries ago that a failed harvest meant famine; two failed harvests in a row meant starvation and death. It is hard to imagine today, in our chronically overfed condition, but the meaning of life back then really was, as I’ve often claimed, lunch.
In a book about climate change and the manner with which it has affected human history, it is a necessary dog whistle to the academy in which he exists that Fagan must issue a caveat that he is in no way endorsing environmental determinism in explaining how climate change affects human affairs. Environmental determinism is the notion that the vagaries of the environment determine the course of social and cultural development. Which, in the broadest sense, it necessarily must. The Antarctic still has no permanent human settlements for a reason, and the reason is its environment. Call it environmental determinism or not, the harsh Antarctic environment is the reason no humans permanently live there. The same could be said of, for instance, the moon or Mars. To say the environment determines the course of human development is almost tautological. But in an environment such as we mainly inhabit here on earth, between the Arctic and Antarctic circles, there are a great many possible solutions to problems of survival posed by the environment, and the possibilities increase the closer one gets to the equator. When every day is warm and with bountiful rainfall, the number of survival strategies with the possibility of success is far greater than the number of survival strategies available to people living at the terminus of an Alpine glacier. Generally speaking, the harsher the climate, the more deterministic the environment. Desert environments, for example, deterministically preclude spendthrift water usage.
Human genes and cultural memes operate as something like letters in a Scrabble player’s hand. They represent the possible solutions and strategies a player (the individual or culture) can employ to meet the challenges presented by the “environment” of the board. Genes are curiously more malleable than memes. The human genome provides for radically adaptive human behavior, and can change in response to environmental pressures. Memes (cultural practices) are less so. For example, Orthodox Jews who shun pork would have a difficult time adapting to some East Asian cultures (environments) where pork is a staple, without abandoning the no-pork meme. Beliefs die hard. Genes adapt. Europe had a great many disparate cultures all trying to solve basically the same environmental challenges. The various nations stressed to the limit by nature’s vicissitudes were genetic and memetic crucibles. Memetic strategies and genetic configurations that worked readily gained advantage over those that didn’t.
(But why is it so hard for smart people (the anthropology/archaeology/geography academy) to see that complicated systems do not resolve to simplicity just because their big brains are studying them? The resolution of survivability issues, such as climate change, has always involved an admixture of nature (genes and memes) and nurture (environment). How hard is this to see?)
Fagan ends his romp through a thousand years of climatic history by offering a bone to the anthropogenic global warming apologists. The book was published in 2000, so it was probably more or less a requirement to hew to the global warming catechism if he were to retain any sort of credibility within his academic community. But the litany of weather extremes and climate variations he catalogued before bowing to the global warming gods indelibly impressed upon me the awesome and inexplicable nature of Nature acting on its own imperatives. And it left me thinking that global cooling would be far more deleterious to the human condition than global warming ever might. An earth warm enough for humans to colonize Greenland in an era when colonies had to be self-supporting is not such a bad world in which to live. In fact, all things considered, if we humans have somehow managed to engineer an overall warmer world, we should rejoice. And we should try to figure out how we did it, so when the next Little Ice Age comes along, we could work to ameliorate the effects.
The Little Ice Age, though a bit dated, is an excellent and informative read. Brian Fagan is a knowledgeable and capable scientist, and has that rarest of gifts, the ability to weave a compelling narrative out of complicated and voluminous data.