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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Coping with Climate Changes

Air Date: Week of

Anthropologist Brian Fagan discusses climate change in a historical context, suggesting that there are things to be learned from our ancestors.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Spanish colonists in Peru 4 centuries ago were the first to write about El Nino. They called the weather phenomenon anos de abundancia, years of plenty and heavy rainfall. Only recently have modern social scientists and historians begun to appreciate how climatic events like El Nino have shaped the fate of many civilizations. Brian Fagan, an anthropologist, has written a new book: Floods, Famines, and Emperors. By using advanced scientific data and ancient writings, he says, a much clearer picture of the history of climate change is beginning to emerge.

FAGAN: The results are extraordinary. We can see, for example, that the very sharp, sharp, thousand-year cold snap about 11,000 years ago had radical effects on people in the Near East, and probably was one of the triggers of the first agriculture in the world. We're beginning to see these patterns for what they are, immensely important driving forces in history.

CURWOOD: In your book, you look at a number of ancient civilizations, and you say things change and not for the better, often, not because of an opposing army, not because of a plague, but because the climate changes. Could you tell us a bit about these ancient civilizations and what your research shows about the effect that comes from climate change?

FAGAN: I think there's one very important point to make right at the beginning. And that is that weather doesn't cause civilizations to collapse. It is one of many factors which can lead to social change, changes in which people live, the power of one civilization as opposed to another. It is a factor that we've tended to underestimate. But having said that, it was a very powerful factor indeed. For example, the Moje, a civilization which developed in the first millennium AD in a desert river valley on the plains, coastal plains of Peru, and this desert plain is one of the driest places on Earth. And these rivers are fueled by runoff from the Andes. And in this valley, the Moje developed an elaborate civilization, but there was a spoiler in this. Periodically, there were extremely strong El Nino events. These El Nino events brought exceptionally heavy rainfall, catastrophic floods, and literally could wipe out, in the course of a few days, the irrigation systems of centuries. And the result of all this was that they were hit with a serious whammy on one occasion, in about I think the fifth century. Then, when that happened, they moved right upstream to where the mountain river debauches into the plain, set up new irrigation systems, and about a century later they were hit with another big El Nino and the whole thing fell apart.

CURWOOD: Is this like rebuilding there along the coast of California?

FAGAN: Yes, to some degree. We are exceptionally vulnerable. We persist on building beach houses right on the waterfront. Regularly these get wiped out. We have much better flood control measures than we did even 20 years ago. The big difference between previous El Ninos and the one we just went through was that it was so well forecasted that a great deal of money was spent clearing flood channels, preparing people, getting caches of sandbags. And there's no question that the damage that we had, certainly in Southern California, was much less than it could have been.

CURWOOD: Humans are very adaptable, but how can we adapt when there's not very much land and an awful lot of people?

FAGAN: That's one of the interesting things I learned from doing this book. The most adaptable and flexible people in the world are foragers, people who live from hunting and from gathering plant foods. In Africa, among farmers, for example, you find subsistence farmers don't have all their land in one place. They have a mosaic of different types of land. And they also have powerful kin ties which link them with people in other areas. So they can send cattle there to avoid cattle disease. They can receive seed in bad years from neighbors and so on. So there is, are strategies of risk reduction. Ours is a very different society. We are sedentary. We're crammed into dense cities and towns. Relatively few of us live in the country. And we are fed by sophisticated distribution systems. This is a very, very vulnerable situation, at least in theory, because we are all in the same basket, and we do not have the ability to move, we do not have the ties of kin and so on, which helped us before. The rules have changed. At the same time, there are many more people, so it's going to be very much harder to deal with an absolutely catastrophic change like serious global warming.

CURWOOD: Is it too pessimistic for me to draw or infer from your book that we're in a lot of trouble?

FAGAN: You are being pessimistic. I would also agree; we are potentially in trouble. The warning signs are there. I think the big issue for the next 50 years is, are we going to have a longer-term enough vision to think about these issues and act on them, disregarding the petty interests of nations? Because if we don't, we really are going to be in trouble. Oddly enough, I'm optimistic that in fact we will, because society is becoming more global, and I think one of the benefits of this will in fact be a much more universal look at environmental problems. I mean, conferences like the Kyoto conference of recent years are immensely important. They don't produce much yet. But I think future generations of them may well do so.

CURWOOD: Brian Fagan is the author of Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations. Thank you for joining us.

FAGAN: Thank you.



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