392 pages, illustrations
When we think of "climate change," we think of man-made global warming, caused by greenhouse gas emissions. But natural climate change has occurred throughout human history, and populations have had to adapt to the climate's vicissitudes. Anthony J. McMichael, a renowned epidemiologist and a pioneer in the field of how human health relates to climate change, is the ideal person to tell this story.
Climate Change and the Health of Nations shows how the natural environment has vast direct and indirect repercussions for human health and welfare. McMichael takes us on a tour of human history through the lens of major transformations in climate. From the very beginning of our species some five million years ago, human biology has evolved in response to cooling temperatures, new food sources, and changing geography. As societies began to form, they too adapted in relation to their environments, most notably with the development of agriculture eleven thousand years ago. Agricultural civilization was a Faustian bargain, however: the prosperity and comfort that an agrarian society provides relies on the assumption that the environment will largely remain stable. Indeed, for agriculture to succeed, environmental conditions must be just right, which McMichael refers to as the "Goldilocks phenomenon". Global warming is disrupting this balance, just as other climate-related upheavals have tested human societies throughout history. As McMichael shows, the break-up of the Roman Empire, the bubonic Plague of Justinian, and the mysterious collapse of Mayan civilization all have roots in climate change.
Why devote so much analysis to the past, when the daunting future of climate change is already here? Because the story of mankind's previous survival in the face of an unpredictable and unstable climate, and of the terrible toll that climate change can take, could not be more important as we face the realities of a warming planet. This sweeping magnum opus is not only a rigorous, innovative, and fascinating exploration of how the climate affects the human condition, but also an urgent call to recognize our species' utter reliance on the earth as it is.
"Urgent in tone [...] Offering hindsight as well as foresight, McMichael makes a strong argument for sustainability."
– Publishers Weekly
"This is a book to inspire thoughts of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse – famine, plague, war and death – and how we rarely stop to realize that they ride on the winds of environmental change [...] Those who scoff at climatologists' predictions should take a look at historians' accounts."
"The book's goal is not to make predictions but to motivate change, which McMichael does by bringing into focus humanity's sensitivity to fluctuations in the natural climate system throughout history."
– Science Magazine
"[Climate Change and the Health of Nations] lucidly, and at times lyrically, chronicles 200,000 years of human history through a climate lens."
"[McMichael] deftly traces the great environmental 'undercurrents that shaped the fates of civilisations, their cultures, ideologies, and power structures'. He calls for an extraordinary civilisational response. McMichael is optimistic about the world's 'mega-problem'. He tells the story for the first time of 'the historical interplay between climate change, human health, disease, and survival'. It is a magnificent treatise. It demands our attention. And action."
– The Lancet, Richard Horton
"The writing is clear, unadorned, and engaging. The scholarly reach is breathtaking [...] This splendid book is a call to action [...] And if we are successful, as we must be, Tony McMichael's contributions will live on as a vital part of that legacy."
– EcoHealth, Howard Frumkin
"This sober, forceful history anticipates the potential cataclysms to come, in a world that, because of man-made emissions, is warming at an unprecedented rate."
– New Yorker
"Not just another climate polemic, this is a grand (not grandiose) examination of the interplay between global climate, civilization, agriculture, populations, economies, and policies, in a broad historical framework [...] An invaluable resource."
– CHOICE Reviews
List of illustrations
2: A Restless Climate
3: Climatic choreography of health and disease
4: From Cambrian Explosion to first farmers: how climate made us human
5: Spread of farming, new diseases, and rising civilisations: Mid-Holocene Optimum, 6,000 BCE to 3,000 BCE.
6: Eurasian Bronze Age: unsettled climatic times
7: Romans, Mayans and Anasazi: the Classical Optimum to droughts in the Americas, 300 BCE to 1250 CE
8: Little Ice Age: Europe, China and beyond
9: Weather extremes, famine and disease in modern times (1800- 2000 CE)
10: The Holocene climate: fickle friend and foe
11: Facing the Future
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Anthony John McMichael (1942-2014), was Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University. He previously was Professor of Epidemiology at the ANU and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.