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

Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations - Brian M. Fagan I came across this book while browsing in our home library. Well, more accurately, sitting on a dining room chair staring at a loaded bookcase, glassy-eyed and drooling. When I first encountered the woman who is now my wife, one of her most attractive characteristics was that she was a big-time reader. And how! I really hit the mother lode there. She came with a dowry of many, many volumes. Sorry, no goats. And I might as well have worn a sign, “Will Put Out For Books.” She knew the way to my heart, and has continued to fill my bibliophilic needs. It’s been over ten years and many, many books shared, but I sometimes despair, because I can look at any of our ubiquitous bookcases and find dozens of books I would love to read, but I know I will never be able to read them all. Like catalogs, they keep arriving far faster than I can get to them. But that overwhelmed feeling is also mixed with one of being five years old and living in a candy store. So many treats! Which one will I try next? Floods, Famines and Emperors is one I plucked from a shelf.

When I read the sub-head “El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations” I knew pretty much what to expect. From The Golden Bough I knew that in primitive societies (and some not-so-primitive) the leader is associated with divinity and tolerated as long as he can demonstrate some sort of apparent control over the elements, most importantly, if he can keep his people fed. Droughts, floods and unpredictable weather make it hard out there for a king. Having also read Jared Diamond’s excellent Collapse, I had a head start on this work, having learned that there are several elements involved in the sustainability of a civilization, climate being one. So what was new in Fagan’s book?

First, he offers much more specificity on weather patterns. While I found it tough to keep track of all the details, they are pretty clearly explained. My tiny brain simply cannot incorporate all the input. Second, he goes into some detail about exactly what we know or suspect happened in particular societies that drove them to destruction. It is in these details that we appreciate the value of this work. In addition to a weather pattern primer, Fagan serves up case studies, describing extant geographic and meteorological conditions and societal structures, then showing exactly how certain changes in relatively short-term climate could affect the society’s ability to survive.

I found it particularly interesting that societal collapse was never the result of a single event, but occurred when problems and challenges accumulated beyond the ability or willingness of leadership to adapt to new circumstances. One of the worst approaches to coping with changing situations is rigidity. Think Republicans chanting “Tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts” as the solution to all societal challenges. They would have fit right in with the now disappeared Moche civilization of northwestern Peru.

Jared Diamond, in Collapse, approaches the demise of societies in a broader way almost a decade later. Fagen is more interested in looking at the specifics of how El Nino has affected societies. It is a very interesting and informative read, particularly if you have not yet read Collapse.