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Posted September 22, 2011
Worth a read
There are those who would argue that terms such as "The Little Ice Age" (or the complimentary Medieval Warm Period - also the topic of other Fagan books) are passé and should be abandoned. The period 1300-1850 might be accurately termed the "Little Cool Period" but it was not an Ice Age - there was no growth in continental ice sheets and it was not uniformly cool, anyway. Despite the title, Fagan essentially makes their point in this 550-year historical romp. While this engaging history is full of climatic reference, Fagan lists so many climatic exceptions to the "Little Ice Age" rule that the climatic link gets lost. The author does in fact bracket the historical chapters with discussions that disdain climate determinism - so why the title and sub-title?
The book deals primarily with European agricultural (and a little economic) history from the Middle Ages to pre-modern with some brief asides (dealt with in more detail in other Fagan books on parallel topics) to the rest of the world. As with his other texts, Fagan scrupulously avoids mention of Malthus, even though this book could easily be subtitle "Neo-Malthusian Case Studies". Yes, climate played an enormous role in history, but was the effect of climate inevitable or was it because people were just stupid and obstinate in their agricultural ways? Perhaps the strongest argument made in this book is that altered agricultural practice (away from subsistence agriculture) and vastly improved transportation systems in some European countries rendered those countries somewhat immune to climate change.
So, while the book does a wonderful job of detailing the history of the period and the vulnerability of civilizations to drastic climate change, in the end, the text might play into the hands of climate-change-deniers by demonstrating how clever humans can be at getting over the climate challenge. In fact, in his closing remarks, Fagan muddies the water with a rather shallow discussion of alternative climate-change theory even though the scientific background for climate change was not the central point of the book. And, unfortunately the often cited North Atlantic Oscillation just doesn't merit the same place as ENSO does in the Pacific (as Fagan notes in his other books).
The Little Ice Age is still worth the read, one for its marvelous historical and climatic detail, but also for reinforcing the central point of human climate vulnerability. Perhaps the theme of human climatic vulnerability is one unavoidable fact that can move the political community away from climate-change inaction.
Richard R. Pardi, Environmental Science, William Paterson University
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Posted December 6, 2011
accessible, captivating, and informative
Brian Fagan's "The Little Ice Age" is an excellent entry into the intersection of climate and human civilization. His work is accessible, captivating, and informative. Fagan recounts how climate has effected human history over the past few centuries. While by no means is climate the definitive factor in understanding past events, it does add a level of necessary complexity. Though we often pretend that we humans are some how immune to the radical changes in the environment, Fagan reminds us that our past proves otherwise. This is a work that not only informs, but illuminates the problems of the present and our immediate future. I would have liked color illustrations and/or photos, and more in-depth exploration of some of the more significant historical moments Fagan discusses. Fagan also unwittingly falls victim to explaining certain events solely as products of climate change, a practice that he initially decries and calls out-dated. Overall, however, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 29, 2009
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