Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative… Oscar Wilde


Floods, famines, and emperors : El Nino and the fate of civilizations  Brian Fagan  New York : Basic Books, c 1999  Hardcover. 1st ed., later printing. xix, 284 p. : ill., maps ; 25 cm.      Includes bibliographical references (p. 261-275) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

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In 1997 and early 1998, one of the most powerful El Niños ever recorded disrupted weather patterns all over the world. Europe suffered through a record freeze as the American West was hit with massive floods and snowstorms; in the western Pacific, meanwhile, some island nations literally went bone dry and had to have water flown in on transport planes.

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Such effects are not new: climatologists now know the El Niño and other climate anomalies have been disrupting weather patterns throughout history. But until recently, no one had asked how this new understanding of the global weather system related to archaeology and history.

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Droughts, floods, heat and cold put stress on cultures and force them to adapt. What determines whether they adapt successfully? How do these climate stresses affect a people’s faith in the foundations of their society and the legitimacy of their rulers? How vulnerable is our own society to climate change? In this book, archaeologist Brian Fagan speculates that short-term climate shifts have been a major — and hitherto unrecognized — force in history.

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He posits that El Niño driven droughts have brought on the collapse of dynasties in Egypt, El Niño monsoon failures have caused historic famines in India and El Niño floods have destroyed whole civilizations in Peru. Other short-term climate changes may have caused the mysterious abandonment of the Anasazi dwellings in the American Southwest and the collapse of the ancient Maya empire, as well as changed the course of European history.

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Of course at the end of the day all of this is conjecture and while it may cause us to think anew about certain historical occurrences it is neither exhaustive no conclusive in its evidence and is certainly not the basis for policy. An author by the name of Erik Durschmied has written two books, The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History and The Weather Factor: How Nature Has Changed History a suitable subtitle for books like this one might be How Stupidity about the Weather Threatens to Change History.

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