The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850


February 28, 2003

Teaser: By Brian J. Fagan, Basic Books, 2001, Hardcover, 272 pages, $26.00

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It has been observed that historical accounts tell us as much about the time they were written as the time they are writing about. The protagonists of Brian Fagan's history of world events between 1300 and 1850 are not the usual heroes and scoundrels that people most history books. Center stage in this account is the weather, a major climatic event that sent the world into a five hundred year mini-deep freeze.

The Little Ice Age is an "investigative history," one that purports to reveal the hidden forces that drive the ebb and flow of historical events. Today we are awash in conspiracy theory which posit shadowy and usually diabolical powers pulling the strings of history, perhaps reflecting a sense people have of alienation and loss of control over the economic and political institutions that do so influence our lives.

This is not to suggest that Fagan's account is bogus. Fagan is a scholar of the first order and his account is based on solid evidence, as far as it exists, and his conclusions are reasonable. The godfather of this genre of history is William McNeill, whose seminal Of People and Plagues was published in 1974. For McNeill disease is the hidden force that drives history. More recently, in Jared Diamond's comprehensive, Guns, Germ and Steel (W. W. Norton, 1997), geography determines history.

By comparison The Little Ice Age pales. Unfortunately, an editorial decision was made to organize Fagan's book thematically. So we have, for instance, a chapter on how a medieval warming trend spurred Viking exploration of Greenland and North America. A chapter on how the innovations English farmers brought to agriculture in response to deteriorating weather conditions contributed to the Enlightenment. Another on how French farmers' conservatism in the face of these same climatic events played a role in the French Revolution. And a strange penultimate chapter on the Irish potato famine in which the potato blight is the villain, responsible for many deaths and massive emigration (shades of McNeill?).

The result is that there is no systematic account of either the causes or course of The Little Ice Age. An opening chart provides a rough correlation between climate and major events but within the body of the book there is no history, per se, of fluctuations within this larger event so that dates become a bit of a jumble. As to causes, in chapter 3 there is a discussion suggesting the small changes in Earth's axis affected long-term global temperatures; chapter 7 has a comparable discussion on the how sunspot cycles affect weather; and in chapter 10 the role of volcanic eruptions is considered. While Fagan is certainly correct in his assessment that our understanding of the complex factors driving long-term weather trends is in its infancy - meteorologists have trouble predicting three days ahead - a single chapter bringing together all that is known would have better grounded the more thematic chapters. Disappointing, as there is the potential here for a truly breakthrough book.


Peter Nevraumont

Peter N. Nevraumont is publisher of Nevraumont Publishing Company where he has produced books by many prominent scientists, including Donald Johanson, Niles Eldredge, Ian Tattersall, Lynn Margulis, and R. McNeill Alexander.

Prior to that he was a reporter for Women's Wear Daily (now W), an editor at Macmillan Publishing, Managing Editor of the Columbia University Forum, an assistant producer at Universal Pictures, National Director of Advertising and Promotion at Films Incorporated, and Vice President at Ruby Street.

Peter lives in the Wall Street area of New York with his wife, Ann Perrini.