Book Review: The Long Summer

The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization, by Brian Fagan. Four out of five stars. Like most of Fagan’s works, this is an eminently readable overview of what we know from history and archaeology; in this case, about how climate affected civilizations across the globe over thousands of years. But the book tends to derail any time he comes near comparing things to the modern era; in particular, the strident tones whenever he brings up global warming. Given Fagan gives evidence in the text itself that Earth has been warmer in the past, you get the distinct impression he’s ignoring the evidence of his own research to spout the approved party line. Sad.

Most of the book, however, is very interesting climatic history, intriguing to anyone who’d like to put in some real-world reasons for a sudden advance or retreat of an Evil Empire in their fiction. For example, the Mount Tambora eruption of April 1815 killed at least 12,000 people directly, another 44,000 nearby through famine from ash-fall, and created clouds that led to 1816 becoming the “year without a summer”, ruining crops across the world. The bad weather also led to Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein. Any one of those ought to be enough reason to kick off a necromantic Army of Darkness.

Table I on page 13 ought to give you plenty of story-background ideas all on its own, comparing what happened when on the different continents, and pointing out that Europe didn’t have forests prior to about 12,000 BC. Before that, it was tundra. Like Siberia. Brr. Table II on p 98 goes from hunter-gatherers to the unification of Egypt.

The book covers great chunks of time; the last Ice Age, how the Americas were probably settled, how thinly Europe was populated at the time, and how many times farming and nomadism stopped and started various places based on how wet and how predictable the weather was. There’s enough detail given on everything from the earliest farming on the Nile to the agriculture of Tiwanaku in ancient Peru to give you a decent grasp of what climate was doing, and what humans were doing to adapt to it at any given time. Great stuff – until you hit the last chapter. *Wry* You’d think Fagan doesn’t like the modern era that allows him to make a living writing archaeology.

The really annoying things is that if you look at the book’s own collected data on the temperature of the planet over time, you can see Earth was significantly warmer than the present at about 7,000-8,000 years ago. And about 120,000 years ago, and 240,000 years ago, and 330,000 years ago. (Graphs p. 24-25, among others.) I defy anyone to say humans caused global warming then. And in fact Fagan proposes that those warming periods were all caused by Earth’s orbit shifting to get more sunlight. Yet the Holocene is supposed to be different because it’s ‘more stable and warmer over a longer period’.

…Except right from the Vostok ice core data you can see 1) it isn’t warmer than those peaks and 2) past peaks of temperature range about 10-25,000 years at a time. The Holocene is only 12,000 years old. Well within the range of past parameters.

I’m not saying Anthropogenic Global Warming isn’t possible. I’m saying that the degree of modern era warming we see falls within known past conditions.

AKA if someone suddenly filled the Dead Sea to the brim with ordinary salt water, and you tried to say this was “an unprecedented sea level”, I would point you right at the historical excavations showing its past sea level. And wait.

If Fagan had stuck to his original argument – that large civilizations are increasingly vulnerable to climatic shifts, and ours is the largest ever – it would have been a much stronger book. As it is, dragging in AGW and the associated Death and Disaster memes makes the book turn from arguing the evidence to arguing from emotion. I detest that.

I recommend reading the rest of the book, and skipping the epilogue.

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25 thoughts on “Book Review: The Long Summer

  1. Ah, political views… ruining good literature since the inception of writing.

    The sad thing is, he probably wouldn’t have been able to publish as easily as he apparently did if he’d not leaned on that subject.

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  2. Hmm, I’m in the market for something new to read, and this sounds interesting. Especially since one of the things that irks me the most about most climate change arguments I’ve heard is that they all seem to take an extremely tiny set of data (the last two hundred years or so, when the earth is billions of years old) and act like it’s gospel. (Again, not saying it’s impossible that humans are damaging the environment with carbon emissions, just that the *obvious cherrypicking* annoys me. Where’s the rest of the data to compare the post-industrial era to? 🤔) I’d really like to know more about historical climate shifts than “The meteor wiped out the dinosaurs and then the earth got Really Cold”, so thanks for the recommendation!

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  3. I noticed that we would be about the right time for hundred year spirits for WWI production. Japan has more bits of WWII production hanging around, and twenty years from now is a good time to write an advanced level of future technology.

    Anyway, eventually thought of UXO item spirits.

    I’m at the low sleep place where I have nothing useful to say, etc… I have no home to file this idea with, and figured folks here might appreciate.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Whatever the cause of our current temp increase, I like some of the efforts to mitigate human pollution factors that are gaining popularity. I’m pretty sensitive to pollution, so public awareness that smoggy air is bad is personally useful. My area does a pollution forecast during some seasons, which can be really useful for planning activities and medication around my asthma.

    Aside from that, I love some of the green tech advances. In particular….solar panels on parking lots! I tell you, I’d be happy to see that become more widespread. Provides shade for the cars, and power for the place needing the parking lot. When you’re coming out to a car that’s been sitting in 100 degree weather, the difference between a shaded car and a car in full sun is pretty significant, even if both are still hot. I’ve also seen some very interesting advances in solar roofing tiles that look almost normal. They’re still too fragile for my tastes, and as they’re solar, need to be cleaned too often to be practical if you really want it to be useful, but it is an interesting advancement that might be useful once it gets refined a bit further.

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    1. Yes, but you really want to look into solar tech before installing it. A lot of it uses rare earths and breaks down after a while, creating a new pollution problem. Some researchers are looking into ways to hydrolyze water into hydrogen gas using sunlight and less harmful chemicals; it might be a better way to go for some power needs.

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      1. Yeah, that’s part of why I’m not opting in to a lot of the current solar stuff. But with the increased interest in power other than just burning coal/oil, more stuff is getting researched, which hey, options! And eventual advancements of those options into better options!

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  5. Yeah, mostly I attribute a lot of the discourse to the fact that some people don’t want to admit that Mother Nature has been taking care of herself long before humans showed up. Well, and sometimes I’ll tell people that it’s just the Earth’s version of menopause.

    At that point they’ll generally laugh and leave me alone. So, score. What I wanted.

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      1. If all the periods of glaciation since the australopithines were the result of nuclear wars, then warmer periods are a lack of nuclear wars. Nuclear wars are potentially under hominid control, so the choice not to have a nuclear war is a choice of warmth. XD

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    1. That was basically used in the Lensman series. Atlantis was destroyed in a nuclear war, and that’s both what changed the weather/terrain to what it is now, and what caused the loss of knowledge that made modern people think Atlantis was myth instead of legend.

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  6. Not quite the topic at hand, but it does involve history, and the evolution of our diet.

    https://blog.longnow.org/02020/03/16/the-archaeobotanist-searching-art-for-lost-fruit/

    Also, a very interesting analysis of how our metabolism and dietary needs still reflect our past evolutionary development, but unfortunately, it appears to be only available in German…

    Detlev Ganten and Thilo Spahl published the book “Die Steinzeit steckt uns in den Knochen” (The Stone Ages is still in our bones)

    The issue isn’t that the climate change most of the researchers are forecasting has never been seen before in Earth’s history. And no, climate change is not going to destroy all life on Earth, barring truly extreme changes that make life on the surface problematic for surface-dwelling animals. For all that, even if Earth were to become more like Venus in a few hundred years, there’s all sorts of extremophiles that are likely to survive.

    The issue is, modern human civilization wasn’t around to see what conditions were like, and our societies, infrastructure, and economies have been built on a certain climatological paradigm that is apparently in the process of significant change in the next decades.

    Things like sea level rise is having a real impact on low lying coastal communities (hello, Miami, New Orleans,
    Houston is low lying as well I believe..), where there is now often water flooding in residential areas during high tide, especially when the winds are from offshore.

    Places like Bangladesh are going to be massively screwed, parts of the city are already below sea level, and only some leaky sea walls are keeping the waters at bay…

    The polar ice caps, Greenland Ice Sheet, and most glaciers are all shrinking, and all that fresh water has the potential to disrupt the ocean currents which depend on changes in temperature and salinity to keep going.

    And while we wouldn’t be living through “Day After Tomorrow” conditions, all the usual weather patterns will then go out the window, and likely the forecast models for weather predictions all have to scrapped. And that would have hefty consequences…

    But hey, I prefer Hope-punk to Doom-lit. I’m many of you will be eye rolling, but the notorious Michael Moore has released his new movie to YouTube. “Planet of the Humans”. He’s firmly rooting for Humanity to actually face up to the challenge of climate change, and not just shrug their shoulders and let come what may…

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    1. Things like sea level rise is having a real impact on low lying coastal communities (hello, Miami, New Orleans,
      Houston is low lying as well I believe..), where there is now often water flooding in residential areas during high tide, especially when the winds are from offshore.

      Problem:
      floods have a lot of different factors, ranging from the obvious ones like previous flood prevention measures no longer being taken and changes in record keeping to less obvious ones like subsidence.

      Nearly a century after tectonic plate theory became accepted, folks still forget that land isn’t solid. /shrug

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s not a problem, because Satellite surveys with radar mapping, and using gps beacons can tell you what the ground is actually doing, in relation to mean sea level in the affected areas. They’ve actually been able to discern that the Pacific NW has been undergoing a clockwise (iirc) rotation, for instance, thanks to hundreds of GPS beacons being tracked over the years.
        Certainly sea level rise is actually fairly complex in its effects, depending on a number of factors.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sea_level_rise

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      2. Please do not link Wikipedia for stuff; that’s basically saying “check google.” Yes, it can have decent citations, but it also leads to as in this case you appealing to satellites (mid-90s) while the page is claiming a century-long rise. You know which exact part you’re looking at– I don’t, but if I try to go to wikipedia I’ve got to formulate what you’re saying and then respond to it.
        *********
        There is a lot of cool stuff; if you’re interested in the Pacific oddness, check this out:
        https://wattsupwiththat.com/2020/03/04/study-shows-rapid-sea-level-rise-along-atlantic-coast-of-north-america-in-18th-century/

        They were fiddling with salt marshes to track what the ocean was doing in that area and found it went up by an inch some years.

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    2. The paradigm whose change is a problem for modern civilization is not anything to do with deeper patterns in solar variability.

      It is the damned animists.

      The theoretical work underlying modern technology was done by people who had beliefs, and those beliefs took the place of, displaced, animistic thinking. That permitted levels of analysis incompatible with animism, and optimizations which many moderns are simply incapable of.

      The modern habit of thought has two crippling weaknesses. One is an animism of curves fit to data, and of regulations. Another is a more traditional animism, believing in nature spirits entirely divorced from physically measurable reality.

      Future generations will be prosperous to the degree that they crush and marginalize people who share your thinking.

      There is no Humanity. There are groups of humans, but no purpose common to all of them.

      Appeals to common purpose are simply fraud by those who know that they will never be seriously asked to deliver. (The case of the PRC and the Paris accord is pretty much proof that there is no one who seriously thinks delivery by all parties is a thing that will happen.)

      There is no moral obligation to answer that fraud with anything nicer than lethal force.

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      1. It seems like I had a rather ugly mood developing before I ever saw the comment. Attempting to address the points made, and to speak civilly meant being less direct than I would have preferred.

        1. Mystics can be trained as competent engineers if they are first rigorous enough to know that they are mystics. Moderns who are mystics and unaware make for dangerous engineers, no matter how many courses they take. A shift to a less obvious and less commonly recognized form of mysticism could easily have real human costs. I’m certain that the forms I have in mind have had significant realized costs.
        2. The lack of seriousness about China’s carbon emissions makes the whole carbon control effort a falsehood.
        3. At this point, enough is known about Michael Moore’s methodology with ‘Bowling for Columbine’ that, while still effective for true believers, it is weak for even a neutral audience. Consider Jim Jones saying ‘the Kool-aid is fine, have some’.
        4. The potential human welfare impacts from climate and weather are trivial compared to what other humans can do.
        5. Thiemo may well be innocently repeating conclusions from inside the information control of the German government. Germany isn’t a south Pacific island nation with a population of five thousand, it has fluid mechanics experts. The German government can find out many things about the limits of the state of the art in fluid mechanics by simply asking. It is vastly unlikely that the German government’s choices in this are innocent.
        6. When someone is willfully and maliciously lying to you in order to cause you and yours serious harm, you?
        7. Unlike the people I know in RL, even a worst case Thiemo is unlikely to have the information to firebomb my home in the middle of the night. Why be tactful about how unpersuaded I am, and about how many of his assumptions I enthusiastically reject?

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      2. This appears to be part of the argument about definitions of terms, and the tritely wrong “science and religion/science and magic/etc are mutually exclusive” claims. In this argument, mysticism is defined as the belief/action that one follows a set of rules of “do X ritual, get Y result”, without true understanding (or care for understanding) of the _why_ of it (which even lets you fit “supernatural” in, at least under a lenient interpretation of its definition). And the argument goes, that much of modern society is based on mysticism, not actual understanding (even if a scientist discovers the “why” of it, the average end-user couldn’t care less about that, just “what’s my ritual to get warmed food quickly?”).

        Satoyama is thus extending that to argument of malice, that certain groups have a vested interest in perpetuating this form of mysticism, for their own advantage (or at least others’ detriment), and that this angers Satoyama.

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      3. As a side point, while they wouldn’t define it in terms of mysticism, those in engineering fields (who have good teachers) generally consider this the basic difference between what is expected of an engineer vs what’s expected of a technician. A technician is trained “push these buttons this way for this result, and that way for that result”, but doesn’t need to know more than the operation of their machine, and how to recognize a good result. The engineer may not know how to operate any specific machine (each brand/model/etc is slightly different, they don’t have time for that), but they need to know how and why all the choices are made to design the part that the technician will be making.

        A good technician is mystic. He’s knows all the proper rituals, and can perform them precisely and accurately. A good engineer may know the rituals, but what’s more important is that he can re-create the rituals from first principles. An engineer who only knows the rituals, but thinks he knows how to re-create them is _dangerous_, and is the usual cause of warning videos about “don’t do this stupid thing, that no one thought anyone with this level of education would do, until some idiot earned his darwin award.” Or worse, like how you described Kibaou once, “but when he messes up, he gets _other_ people in trouble.”

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  7. Secrets of the Dead has a new episode about “Building Notre Dame,” and there’s a nice little disquisition about the Medieval Warm Period. (Not by that name, not in a detailed way.)

    It’s nice to see everything in such detail, but it’s very bittersweet after the fire.

    The architecture’s good but the theology’s a bit spotty (ie, there’s a really bad explanation of indulgences and cathedral fundraising, or they did a bad job of translating from French). You notice that they never mention “indulgences” as being a motive for going on the Camino; it’s always “reparation for sin” and that’s okay. However, there’s several earlier Secrets of the Dead about cathedrals, and the one about Beauvais talks quite a lot about the theology, and the attempt to reproduce the proportions and decorations of the Jerusalem Temple or the Ezekiel mystical Temple, in a different idiom.

    But there’s a really large amount of Watching Medieval Construction Techniques from the ground up, which is what I signed up for. Also, there’s a really nice bit that was shot at the Abbe Suger’s famous chapel. (But they never even mention his name, because now he’s supposedly just a moneybags. The tides of academia wash in and out.)

    Liked by 1 person

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