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We've Been Here Before, and It Wasn't Pretty the First Time
[Rachel's Introduction: During the medieval ages, a great warming (similar to our own present circumstance) profoundly changed civilizations from the Norse to the Khmer. Archeologists call it the Medieval Warm Period, and it created a "silent and oft-ignored killer": drought.]
Author Name: 
By Andrew Nikiforuk
Book review of: THE GREAT WARMING: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations By Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury, 282 pages, $29.95)

While the Arctic melts and our glaciers disappear, one by one, like guests at a late-night party, Canada's political elites remain the only guys too drunk to recognize that the climate is changing. Let's face it: Global warming probably will never sober up Conservative or Liberal leaders as long as tar-sands taxes fill the federal treasury, lower the GST and give the loonie a petro swagger. And they are not the first group of rulers to ignore the weather.

During the medieval ages, a great warming similar to our fossil- fuelled meltdown profoundly changed civilizations from the Norse to the Khmer. Archeologists call it the Medieval Warm Period, and it served up a "silent and oft-ignored killer": drought. The dry-out even parched much of present-day Alberta.

In a book that reads like climate deja vu, well-known University of California anthropologist Brian Fagan shows that the Medieval Warm Period humbled political elites and demolished their well-engineered empires with equanimity.

Fagan says we're now entering another era of extreme aridity, and that the challenges of adapting to water shortages and crop failures won't be easy. Although elites can ignore the climate, Fagan says, the climate won't ignore them. It never has.

Fagan begins his tidy and fascinating climate fable with a look at how a great warming from the 10th to the 15th century really rearranged Europe. There, a rise of one or two degrees actually favoured abundant crops and even established wine industries in southern England and Norway.

Reliable harvests, however, encouraged much peasant begetting. Rising human population, much like a pine beetle epidemic, leads to unprecedented forest clearing. Forests, then as now "the mantle of the poor," served as a communal form of ecological insurance that provided game, herbs, firewood and grazing space for animals.

But during the great warming, Europeans chopped down their ancient forests to grow more meat, honey and flour. When the Little Ice Age came, along with the Black Death, Rinderpest and other climate-driven surprises, Europe lost a third of its population. There simply was no mantle for misfortune.

The medieval warming changed the global map for the Norse, too. Thanks to warmer weather, they rowed out of the fjords of crowded Norway and founded a number of Club Viking destinations. Thanks to favourable ice conditions, Club Viking even settled Greenland and explored the Canadian Arctic, where they encountered the Thule, an Inuit people on the move due to ice-free water. Trade in walrus ivory and iron made the two cultures temporary global partners until temperatures started to drop again.

But for much of the world, the great warming basically served up "megadroughts" and an ever-diminishing larder. In California, for example, sustained aridity killed off oak trees, source of the carbohydrate-rich acorn for the Chumash people. (Just prior to the Spanish conquest, aboriginals harvested 60,000 metric tons of acorns, a bounty greater than the state's current sweet corn production.) But drought reminded the Chumash that counting on acorns to provide 50 per cent of dinner could quickly translate into a crash diet.

Drought, the product of the tempestuous Pacific marriage between ocean and atmosphere, also emptied the pueblos in Chaco Canyon. While a decade-long dry spell pumped people, plants and animals out of the southwest of North America (as well as Alberta), it also dried up the lowlands of the Guatemala peninsula, taking down the Maya.

Jared Diamond, the author of Collapse, has covered this territory well, but Fagan adds some critical details. In a land of unpredictable rainfall, Mayan rulers constructed elaborate and huge water reservoirs in Tikal and other fabled cities, becoming "Lords of the Water Mountains."

The elites, who considered themselves divinely infallible, had no real sense of tragedy, and that's just when the climate served up a super drought. In the face of hunger and thirst, ordinary people abandoned their rulers, who squatted alone on blood-stained pyramids. The implosion of the Maya, Fagan says, "is a sobering reminder of what can happen when societies subsist off unpredictable water sources, and through their efforts, put more demands on the water supply than it can sustain."

Droughts also humbled Asia during the great warming. In northern China, the Yellow River basin (Huang He) has always made too much or not enough water for nearly half of China's people. The Medieval Warm Period delivered some spectacular droughts and mass famine. Thanks to industrialization and Maya-like water managers, China remains "even more vulnerable to catastrophe today."

Fagan, a veteran chronicler of how climate can undo a society's best- laid plans, cements his lucid and often surprising observations on this climate event with much scientific data collected from ice cores and tree rings. He admits that there is still much debate about what caused the great warming, and nobody really knows how hot it actually got. But no one doubts that the dramatic event turned a grape-like bunch of civilizations into raisins.

In his final chapter, Fagan explains why climate history matters, and it's not inspiring reading. Britain's esteemed Hadley Centre for Climate Change recently documented a 25-per-cent increase in global drought since the 1990s. Right now, about 3 per cent of the planet is drying up. Global warming will soon place a third of the Earth in extreme drought and force another half of the world's land mass to taste "moderate drought." Such abiding dryness will "challenge even small cities, to say nothing of thirsty metropolises like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Tucson." Even Las Vegas could lose a craps game or two.

But history in a virtual age remains an impoverished teacher, much like truth speaking. The good news, Fagan says, is that highly nomadic communities with diverse food supplies often read the weather signs and move. The bad news is that elites try to super-manage their way out of droughts, with disastrous results for ordinary people.

Fagan's account of how dry spells humbled the Khmer of Angkor Wat and probably propelled Genghis Khan out of the Mongolian steppes certainly won't move imperial mountains in Ottawa. But for ordinary readers, Fagan's book serves as another warning about a true marvel: It only takes a temperature change of a Celsius degree or two to rapidly unsettle the order of things.

Andrew Nikiforuk's next book, The Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of the Continent, will be published this fall.

Copyright 2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc.