Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations

By Rhodes, Lynn | Comparative Civilizations Review, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations


Rhodes, Lynn, Comparative Civilizations Review


Brian Fagan, Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations Basic Books, 1999

Brian Fagan, a well-known, prolific science writer and archaeologist, has written an insightful book bringing history, cultural survival and climate change facts together in a provocative work entitled Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations. Being in the field of environmental protection for 35 years, I found the book pertinent and thought-provoking. Although written in 1999, it is even more relevant today, in the age of the Anthropocene, where the balance of man, environment and sustainability (of both) is at risk and a matter of political debate about facts and supposition.

"Anthropocene" is a proposed term for the present geological epoch, from the time of the Industrial Revolution onwards, during which humanity has begun to have a significant impact on the environment. It is derived from anthropo- and -cene , coined by Paul Crutzen, born 1933, a Nobel-winning Dutch chemist.

I recommend this book not only for a general audience, but for scientists, environmentalists, archaeologists, planners, and developers as well as business leaders and scholars.

Fagan has attempted to appeal to both his general and scientific audience. In order to accomplish that, the writing style has a built-in tension between scientific, academic and personal story telling. More than one reviewer of this work lists this as a weakness. With the same observations of style, I found the same traits kept my interest.

Fagan shows us how the global weather patterns that result from the El Niño phenomenon reflect a long history of global weather patterns. He describes how civilizations of the past have been destroyed by such patterns when they were unable to foresee and/or adapt to changing conditions. Fagan does this in three parts.

§ Part One: The Christmas Child, which scientifically describes the phenomenon of El Niño and what scientists know factually about it, giving the reader a working knowledge of it. Having scientific data and tools to help evaluate climate history, relating to human civilization, helps us to understand and adapt.

§ Part Two: El Niños in Antiquity, tells a story of how past civilizations and human history have been impacted by El Niño. Of particular interest is how severe change affects aspects of society, such as how the government works and how society behaves and interacts. Fagan points out specific, limited ways in which society can respond or face collapse. collapse.

§ Part Three: Climate Change and the Stream of Time, discusses how social and cultural behavior today may be affected as compared to the past. Cultural and societal vulnerabilities and key areas of attention are described - such as population levels, government leadership or lack thereof, and balancing limits of finite resources.

One can see the later influence of Fagan's book on Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005). Both draw clear parallels between man and the environment; some are aspects which man may impact and some are not. Fagan's descriptions of relationships between populations, the carrying capacity of the earth and how governments operate, respond and react, underscore his message of how climate change plays a major role in cultural change. …

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