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Book Review


Fagan, Brian. Floods, Famines and Emperors: El Niņo and the Fate of Civilizations (Basic Books: New York, 1999). 284 pp, $16.50.

      Over the past few decades, an ever-growing cadre of world historians repeatedly remind us that humans interact not only with each other but also with the diverse ecosystems in which they live. The tremendous interest generated among world history instructors at both the secondary and university levels in Jared Diamond's much-acclaimed and provocative works on global environmental history is certainly emblematic of this trend. The wide-ranging appeal of Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997) made it a national best-seller, garnered the Pulitzer Prize, and even paved the way for its adaptation into a television special on PBS. Diamond's latest book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), has also captured a readership that extends well beyond the confines of academia. Yet Diamond's works form only a small part of the growing literature on global environmental history. 1
     Another important contribution to this discussion is Brian Fagan's Floods, Famines and Emperors: El Niņo and the Fate of Civilizations (1999). Using the dramatic climatic shifts that accompanied the El Niņo years of 1982-1983 and 1997-1998 as his point of departure, Fagan combines recent scientific advances in the understanding of El Niņo events with archaeological data in order to highlight the role of climatic anomalies throughout human history. As this well-known archaeologist at the University of California-Santa Barbara notes in his preface: "Until recently, scientists studying ancient civilizations and those specializing in El Niņo barely spoke to one another. Now they work closely together, for they realize that this once-obscure Peruvian countercurrent is a small part of an enormous global climatic system that has affected humans in every corner of the world" (xiv). 2
     Fagan points to a strong correlation between climatic upheavals triggered by El Niņo events, such as droughts, famines, floods, and temperature extremes, and the collapse of ancient civilizations. Through his discussion of how ancient societies responded to these environmental challenges, Fagan weaves a sobering cautionary tale, reminding us that similar threats loom large in the twenty-first century. He warns that "societies already strained by unwise management of the environment," are often pushed beyond the "breaking point" by short-term climate events like El Niņos.  While "overpopulation, global warming, or rapid climate change alone will not destroy our civilization," Fagan argues that the combination of these stresses, "make us vulnerable to the forces of climate as never before" (xviii).

     Fagan's study unfolds in three parts. In Part One, he describes the scientific identification of El Niņo as well as recent advances in our understanding of its role in global weather patterns. El Niņos occur when warm water accumulates in the central Pacific and pushes eastward, interfering with the normal pattern of northeast trade winds. This allows unusually warm, humid air to invade the west coast of South America, reversing normal weather patterns across the Pacific. As a result, "the deserts west of the Andes can receive their average annual rainfall in a day, while the rainforests of Southeast Asia and Borneo turn as dry as tinder" (xiv). 4
     Until the 1960s, this phenomenon was considered a local counter-current, particular to the Peruvian coast. Although Sir Gilbert Walker's earlier efforts to discover the causes of late nineteenth-century monsoon failures in colonial India uncovered the swaying cycle of atmospheric pressure moving between the Pacific and Indian oceans, known as the Southern Oscillation, it was not until UCLA meteorologist, Jacob Bjerknes, demonstrated the intimate relationship between El Niņo and the Southern Oscillation (collectively referred to as ENSO) that the global importance of El Niņo became clear. As a result of this discovery, Bjerknes constructed a groundbreaking conceptual model of climatic cycles, connecting the "see-saw movements of the Southern Oscillation, the large-scale air and sea interactions that cause Pacific warming, and some much larger global telecommunications with climatic variations in North America and the Atlantic Ocean" (36). 
     While Part One provides the reader with a working knowledge of the global oceanic and atmospheric interactions associated with the El Niņo phenomenon, Part Two outlines how El Niņos and similar climatic anomalies in the North Atlantic have affected the course of human history. Here Fagan poses his central question: how do droughts, famines, and floods affect the institutions of a society and the legitimacy of its rulers? He begins by pointing out that while "we have long known that long-term climatic change profoundly influenced human evolution and history," relatively little attention has been paid to short-term climatic shifts (81). His first example analyzes how the end of the last Ice Age and the long warming period that followed dramatically changed the rules of human existence, encouraging humans to embrace settled agriculture. Ironically, while this fundamental human adaptation allowed for population growth, urbanization, and the rise of complex societies, these settled societies became more susceptible to short-term climate shifts. 
     Using case-studies from ancient Egypt, the Moche of Peru, the Mayans of Mesoamerica, and the Anasazi of the American Southwest, Fagan argues that there are only a handful of ways that societies can respond to short-term climatic crises: "movement or social collaboration; muddling from crisis to crisis; decisive, centralized leadership on the part of a few individuals; or developing innovations that increase the carrying capacity of the land" (xvi). While Egypt's Middle Kingdom pharaohs learned from the mistakes of their Old Kingdom predecessors, avoiding civilizational collapse through a combination of governmental action and technological ingenuity, Moche and Mayan rulers were trapped by inflexible governmental structures, rigid religious ideologies, and unsustainable population densities. By contrast, Anasazi society avoided collapse by simply disbanding its urban settlements and moving to escape unmanageable environmental conditions. Taken together, these examples convey a simple message: "The ultimate equation of history balances the needs of the population and the carrying capacity of the land" (97). According to Fagan, a society's ability to balance this equation, even in the face of severe climatic fluctuations, ultimately determines its sustainability or its collapse. 
     In Part Three, Fagan brings his polemical message full circle, reminding us that "the same relationships between carrying capacity, population, and the legitimacy of rulers and governments still operate today" (xvii). He scorns the commonly held delusion that "human innovation will always triumph, and that population, with its inevitable needs for food, space, and waste disposal, may therefore expand indefinitely" (xvii). Whether during the four centuries of the Little Ice Age, which spawned repeated subsistence crises across Europe, or in the drought-stricken African Sahel of the post-colonial present, Fagan documents how even in modern times human innovation has not always averted environmental disasters. Moreover, he demonstrates our technological advancement since the Industrial Revolution has only increased our vulnerability to both short-term and long-term climatic crises. Fagan's warning is unequivocal: "the Industrial Revolution has trapped us, through no one's fault, on an apocalyptic path that threatens our very existence" (260). He argues that despite the incredible technological advances of the past two centuries, much of the planet suffers from unchecked population growth, entrenched poverty, urban sprawl, deforestation, desertification, soil erosion, pollution, and other forms of environmental degradation, while the still unknown costs of human-created global warming loom large on the horizon. Fagan concludes with an impassioned call for sustainability, arguing that without an unprecedented level of global cooperation to curb our current shortsightedness humanity runs the risk of civilizational collapse on a global scale. 
     While I am loath to fault Fagan for his well-intended environmental advocacy or the ambitious scope of his work, the text is not without its flaws and idiosyncrasies. Fagan clearly intends to make his research accessible to both popular and academic audiences, creating an obvious stylistic tension. The text waffles between meteorological minutiae and globe-trotting personal anecdotes that read like scenes from an Indiana Jones film. Fagan's tendency to slip back and forth between ancient history and 'presentist' environmental advocacy compounds this unevenness. This also raises questions as to what drives the book's conclusions: historical reality or an overly deterministic initial premise. 
     Despite its flaws, however, Fagan's contribution to global environmental history should not be underestimated. Fagan's research on El Niņo and civilizational collapse preceded, and undoubtedly influenced, both Jared Diamond's Collapse and Mike Davis's Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niņo and the Making of the Third World (2001). In fact, at the undergraduate and graduate level, professors teaching upper division courses and graduate seminars on world or environmental history may wish to have students compare and contrast these three books. For example, it might be useful to take Fagan's pre-modern case-studies, the book's most original contribution, and compare them with the nineteenth-century examples in Davis's Late Victorian Holocausts. Though I would be wary of assigning this sometimes difficult book to freshmen or sophomore undergraduates or high school students, using individual chapters to supplement related content may prove fruitful. Whether at the high school or college level, Fagan's work may also prove to be an especially effective teaching tool in light of the troubling questions raised by the human failure to properly address the environmental challenges posed by hurricane Katrina, earthquakes in Pakistan, and the devastating tsunamis in Southeast Asia. 
Michael Christopher Low
Georgia State University

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