Reading this book by Brian Fagan was another exercise in replacing my general familiarity with an historical event with a more in-depth exploration. In this case the “Little Ice Age” that I’d run across in any number of other historical works.
This is a neat little book that tells its story well. I enjoy history books that are comprehensive in their approach, linking familiar periods of human “progress” with the natural forces that have had a very dramatic effect on that progress. In this case it’s the climate of the planet, and the wild roller-coaster like course that took a swelling human population for quite a ride in the five centuries between 1300 and 1850.
As the planet experienced a long warming trend after the last ice age, new lands opened up for cultivation and settlement. Crops became more plentiful, and populations rapidly increased. But sudden changes in weather patterns very quickly put millions of human lives at risk from starvation, challenging the governments and distribution networks of the time to effectively feed their citizens.
The implications for our own time are obvious, but this is not a book about the current “debate” over global climate change. Though reference is made to our current climate situation in the opening and closing pages, this is really a book about what happens to us humans when climates change and crops fail. It is a testament to our vital connection between weather, land and agriculture that nothing can sever. No matter how “modern” we are, we remain dependent on the rain, sun and soil for our very lives.
I appreciate the tone of this book, in that it clearly states the complexity of the global phenomena it attempts to describe. Based on the best available resources (which are not insignificant) it describes the natural history of this global “mini” ice age and it’s impact on (primarily) Northern Europe (stretching to the Viking settlements further west as well). It begins at the end of the long warming period (that allowed successful Viking settlement in Greenland) and ends with the potato blight (that led to the starvation of millions and the migration of millions more). In between we discover the first moment in history where the land-clearing activities of humans began to affect climate.
This book offers a unique perspective on the way that we humans live off the land in an age of huge, interdependent populations, and the ways in which the weather can change the tune we all dance to in a very short time. Worth a read.