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Academic & Professional Books  History & Other Humanities  Environmental History

Climate Change and the Health of Nations Famines, Fevers, and the Fate of Populations

New
By: Anthony John McMichael(Author), Alistair Woodward(Editor), Cameron Muir(Editor), Judith Healy(Preface By)
370 pages, b/w illustrations, b/w maps
NHBS
A grand synthesis of environmental history, this book charts the many and complex links between climatic changes and the health of people.
Climate Change and the Health of Nations
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  • Climate Change and the Health of Nations ISBN: 9780190931841 Paperback Jun 2019 Usually dispatched within 5 days
    £16.99
    #243578
  • Climate Change and the Health of Nations ISBN: 9780190262952 Hardback Feb 2017 Usually dispatched within 5 days
    £29.99
    #234396
Selected version: £16.99
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

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.

Contents

List of illustrations
Preface
Acknowledgements

1: Introduction
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

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A grand synthesis of environmental history
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 23 Jan 2019 Written for Paperback


    When a history book leaves you reeling, you know that it has done its job properly. Climate Change and the Health of Nations is a grand synthesis of environmental history, charting the fate of civilizations and the links between climatic changes and the health of people. It is also a book that almost wasn’t.

    Anthony J. McMichael was an epidemiologist associated with various renowned academic institutes during his life and advised the IPCC on the link between climate change and health. With the manuscript for this book accepted for publication, he suddenly passed away in September 2014. Alistair Woodward and Cameron Muir took up the torch and saw the book through to publication.

    There is obviously increasing concern what future climate change will have in store for humanity and the planet at large. And there is no shortage of dire predictions of more frequent extreme weather events, sea level rise, impact on agriculture, and the risk of disrupted food production accompanied by conflict and unrest. This is not mere idle speculation or hypothetical model forecasting, says McMichael. Our past is littered with episodes where natural climatic changes caused all sorts of misery. The key to understanding what might come next lies in an understanding of our past.

    The first few chapters give the reader all the relevant background knowledge needed. McMichael introduces the various mechanisms that cause longer and shorter-term climate fluctuations, from Milankovitch cycles to decadal oscillations such as El Niño. The result, as I mentioned in my review of The Oceans, is a fiendishly complex system of feedback loops. He gives an overview of the various direct and indirect health impacts that climate change can have and provides a short history of the rise of humans and the beginning of agriculture (see also my review of Against the Grain). McMichael speaks of the Faustian bargain we unwittingly made by transitioning from nomadism to farming. Palaeopathology has documented how our health suffered due to our change in diet (see Built on Bones, or my review of Evolution’s Bite), but this new sedentary lifestyle also made us more vulnerable to climatic changes.

    The centrepiece of the book is his synthesis of some 11,000 years of environmental history. Starting with early civilizations in or near the Nile Valley, he walks us through the civilizations of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Hittites, and, in the Indus Valley, the Harappans. For most of these, the lack of written records means that we have pieced together their history from archaeological and palaeoclimatological data. We have a far more detailed picture of the rise and fall of Roman, Mayan, and Anasazi civilizations, and, later, of the Little Ice Age (ca. 1300-1850), the eruption of Mount Tambora, and the Irish potato blight. Throughout, McMichael summarises how droughts, floods, or changing temperatures are linked to famines, the spread of diseases, mass migrations (whether as climate refugees or as groups hell-bent on conquest), and, ultimately, the fate of empires.

    Now, there is a vast literature on the link between climate and human history, so this book necessarily takes a bird’s eye view. Next to the academic literature, you could build a small library with more popular books. What sets this book apart is the synthesis of this vast and fascinating topic, making it a good starting point, and its explicit link to health and disease. Off the top of my head, the only other book that does something similar is Climate Change and the Course of Global History, but McMichael’s background as an epidemiologist and his work for the IPCC position him very well to tell this story.

    One of the things I liked was the author's caution throughout the book. So, when he mentions the possible impact on our very early history of the Toba eruption (see my review of When Humans Nearly Vanished) or the question whether the Black Death in 16th-Century Europe was actually caused by bubonic plague (see for example Return of the Black Death or Biology of Plagues), he gives a brief overview of why these ideas are considered controversial. When, in the final chapters, it comes to forecasts and lessons for the future, he is similarly moderate. Never before has our population reached such large numbers, and to see comparable levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide we have to go back tens of millions of years in palaeoclimatological records. So, without downplaying the important lessons that history holds for the future, in some ways the future is not like the past.

    The dumb thing is, even though I am familiar with all the individual pieces McMichael lays out here, the way it is brought together and puts time into perspective still gave me near-vertigo. Clearly, no empire ever looked much ahead or entertained the idea of their demise until it was almost upon them. McMichael highlights how evolution, always aiming to help organisms survive the now, has left us poorly equipped to plan for the longer-term. While the full story of most civilizations has spun itself out over many centuries, our “Great Acceleration” and the growth of the world’s population from 1.5 to 7+ billion people took just decades (see The Great Acceleration).

    Even if, for the sake of argument, human-induced climate change was not on the menu, have we, through our technological advances, created a robust society able to weather climate fluctuations far into the future? Or have we mindlessly expanded to the maximum carrying capacity allowed by our environment? I think we all know the answer to that. It is a tall order to look at the totality of the picture revealed here and remain as optimistic as the author – though his mindset does not take away from the urgency of his message.

    The only minor quibble I have with this book is that some of the sourced illustrations were designed with colour in mind and have here been reproduced in greyscale, limiting their usefulness. That notwithstanding, Climate Change and the Health of Nations is a fascinating and thorough synthesis that shows how history holds many valuable lessons for those willing to listen. The book is also a fitting testament to McMichael’s long career, and Woodward and Muir, as well as the publisher, are to be commended for making sure this book saw the light of day.
    Was this helpful to you? Yes No

Biography

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.

New
By: Anthony John McMichael(Author), Alistair Woodward(Editor), Cameron Muir(Editor), Judith Healy(Preface By)
370 pages, b/w illustrations, b/w maps
NHBS
A grand synthesis of environmental history, this book charts the many and complex links between climatic changes and the health of people.
Media reviews

"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."
Maclean's

"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."
Nature

"[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

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