Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Book review: The Great Warming

The Great Warming by Brian Fagan, Bloomsbury Press, NY, 2008

Epigram: Drought is the "silent elephant in the room" of Climate Change Science 
why cynics might hope those who pray for warmer winters will have their prayers answered.

Dr. Fagan has done it again in his sequel to The Little Ice Age. This book is an original, pleasantly readable, contribution to the data base of activists who search for intellectual ammunition in the "Climate Wars" and the "Sustainability Wars".

It's subject matter is the Medieval Optimum, the warm (Europe) period which preceeded the Little Ice Age of the 14th century. This period, being a generally warmer one, is highly relevant to the present Global Warming (GW) "debate" as it provides us with a climatological "analog" to where the world now appears to be heading.

This is either a book to confirm the despairing in their desperation and cynicism or a goad to the activist. It reveals the degree to which precipitation - and particularly the lack of it, drought - will probably be the critical issue, not temperature rises, in the next several decades. Fagan, in this well documented text, demonstrates how civilizations rose and fell, prospered or declined with the rains. In drier cycles, like the Medieval Optimum in parts of Asia, Africa, N. and S. America, deserts and arid zones become "pumps" expelling animal and human populations into neighboring regions. Major geopolitical shifts such as the spread of Islam result from these migrations. Other regions, China, the Mayan empire,.. suffered internal stresses and dislocations leading to their collapse and / or reconfiguration in a new human ecological equilibrium with the altered environment.

Fagan's book is a fascinating read and provides much food for thought. He argues that modern industrial societies with their massive and concentrated populations are actually far less resilient than earlier human cultures. Where for example are large numbers of "environmental refugees" going to migrate in the crowded earth of today? Do we have enough arable land left to feed a growing population when GW disrupts traditional agricultural practices and systems? Fagan cannot answer these questions of course but he sheds new light on a public policy (non)debate that too often degenerates to the name slanging infantilism of the ad hominem tirade. Fagan reminds us that we are, in reality, dealing with serious issues..

For me, personally, this book reinforces my belief that we have waited too long to employ "bridging technologies" - cheap oil and natural gas, energy efficiency, simple solar technologies (passive solar, solar thermal..) - to transit smoothly to a green, "business as usual", future. Our heel dragging has assured that the transition to the emerging "New Economy" - Post Peak Petroleum - will be anything but smooth or "business as usual". We better get used to ideas like "economic contraction", "deglobalization", "re-regionalization"..

Transtion Initiatives argues, perhaps a bit hopefully, that the transition may be to a better, more humanly fufilling and saner world:

In retrospect, Dr. Fagan's book will likely be seen as one of a growing number of contributions to the emerging paradigm of the "New Economy" (post peak oil).

1 comment:

  1. This is an old review. It was written when I still actively argued against Climate Change "scepticism" and for renewable energy production. This was before the 2008 subprime mortgage crash in the USA and the subsequent Great Recession into which the world has been plunged.

    Things have changed a lot since autumn 2008 of course. The speculative bubble in USA housing prices popped because of a spike in oil prices in the summer of 2008 (up to about $ 140 / bbl). Aside: economists knew the housing bubble would pop long before it actually did! Economist Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, wrote in his book "Freefall" that as early as January 2008, economists KNEW the house price speculation bubble would pop: the question was merely WHEN and HOW..

    Peak oil prices in the first half of 2008 popped the house price speculative bubble in the fall of 2008? Yessir! Yuppie boomers who couldn't afford to live in the pricey conurbs were conned by booster real estate agents and shaky fianancing schemes to overextend themselves to purchase "the Good Life". Cheap oil made that life too expensive: the first wave of mortgage defaults began in the spring of 2008, fragilizing the financial system for the Big Crunch of fall 2008.

    As a general principle, once peak oil prices set in, the battle for either green technology or fighting climate change become somewhat moot. It takes money to build new, green energy technology, which implies a healthy economy which, alas, is now impossible due to higher oil prices. Reason: investors require a return on investment or they won't invest. They cannot be assured of a return if "marginal" (new reserve) oil prices exceed about 90 to 100 dollars per barrel.

    It is interesting to note that during our current Great Recession, despite a depressed economy, oil prices are hovering between about 95 to 115 dollars / bbl, depending on the reservoirs. Peak oil, contrary to what "sceptics" might claim does NOT mean "we are running out of oil". It simply means that easy to exploit oil reserves are depleted, only expensive oil remains.

    Today, I have basically dropped out of the climate wars and while I still promote green energy, energy efficiency and moderate lifestyles, the emphasis has shifted from the global, international scale to the local / regional one. As the French say: Sauve qui peut! Everyman (every community, every region) for himself.

    Larger units of government or social organization are still useful but we urgently need to rebuild local / regional autonomy - sufficiency - resilience as much as possible. The survival of "civilization" depends on it! Reason: in the near future, peak oil (and other resource short falls) will destructure, destroy much of the higher level infrastructure we now take for granted. We must get used to counting more on ourselves and our neighbors..