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

By Kaetz, Pat | National Forum, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

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


Kaetz, Pat, National Forum


BRIAN FAGAN. Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations. New York: Basic Books, 1999. 284 pages. $25.00.

Brian Fagan, a professor of anthropology at the University of California-Santa Barbara, has written a fascinating book on the relationship between climatic events that we are just now beginning to understand and the fate of various civilizations that pushed their environments too far. The book is not just an overview of the collapse of ancient civilizations, but a cautionary tale on how we are still overloading the carrying capacity of our environments, with possibly serious consequences for our own future.

Fagan begins with a solid overview of what we have learned about world climate in the past few decades, taking as his starting point the efforts of British colonial rulers to study and predict the Indian monsoons in an attempt to mitigate the effects of the massive famines that accompanied inadequate rains. It is a personal story for Fagan, whose grandfather served as a high official in the British Raj in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From there Fagan explores first the global effects of El Nino and the Southern Oscillation (referred to collectively as ENSO), and then those that accompany shifts in the ocean currents known as the North Atlantic Oscillation.

In the section titled "El Ninos in Antiquity," Fagan begins to explore the way climate change has pushed civilization in new directions. He demonstrates first how the end of the last great Ice Age about 13,000 B.C. and the long warm period that followed allowed for the rise of human population, the advent of farming (needed when old foraging methods proved inadequate to sustain the growing population), and ultimately the rise of cities, states, and powerful rulers.

Moving specifically to civilizations directly affected by ancient El Ninos, Fagan explores how the ENSO-influenced cycles of Nile floods helped bring down the Egyptian Old Kingdom (and how rulers of the Middle Kingdom learned from the errors of the Old Kingdom and thus prospered through 1800 years of climate fluctuations), and how ENSO also helped bring down the Peruvian Moche lords and the classic Mayan civilization. All of these societies prospered in times of plenty, but when extremes of flood or drought occurred, their rigid, topheavy social structures and insupportable population density left them unable to recover. …

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