Read: “A Time of Warming”

22 Dec 2009

If the planet got a bit warmer, that might not seem so bad. That’s what people like Bjorn Lomborg would like us to think.

But as Brian Fagan’s latest book, The Great Warming, points out, even a bit of warming can throw societies for a loop.

He covers the Medieval Warm Period, a stretch around 800 to 1300 A.D., when temperatures rose a fair amount, but were still below the man-made rise of the 20th century. While some societies thrived, and England became a major wine-growing center, these climatic winners seem to be have the exception:

While Europe basked in summer warmth and the Norse sailed far west, much of humanity suffered through heat and prolonged droughts. A huge swath of the world, from much of North America through Central and South America, and far across the Pacific to northern China, experienced long periods of severe aridity….

Most societies on earth were affected by medieval warming, many of them for the worse.

The reason the warming was so bad was because it drove places that before were somewhat dry into outright drought. This was a ecological and societal tipping point, pushing conditions past what people could survive (at least in the numbers that had built up).

The experience of the Medieval Warm Period tells us that the silent and oft-ignored killer is drought….

[With coming climate change] we’re entering an era when extreme aridity will affect a large portion of the world’s now much higher population, where the challenges of adapting to water shortages and crop failures are infinitely more complex.

Some people talk about humanity becoming largely or totally vegetarian to reduce our impact on the planet. If that comes to pass—whether by choice or by necessity—we’ll be going back to how things used to be for much of the history of farming. Back in the Middle Ages, 80 to 90 percent of people were subsistence farmers, Fagan says, who grew “vegetables and herbs of all kinds [which] supplemented what was basically a meatless diet based on bread and gruel.” Yummy.

These vegetables were crucial for people’s resilience: “Their only protection against sudden frosts, storms, or drought was a diverse food supply based on far more than cereal crops.”


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »