Book review – Climate Change and the Health of Nations: Famines, Fevers, and the Fate of Populations

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.

climate change and the health of nations

Climate Change and the Health of Nations: Famines, Fevers, and the Fate of Populations” written by Anthony J. McMichael and edited by Alistair Woodward and Cameron Muir, published by Oxford University Press in February 2017 (hardback, 370 pages)

Anthony J. McMichael was an epidemiologist associated with various renowned academic institutes during his life and advised the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the link between climate change and health (see this obituary for a fuller description of his many achievements and contributions). 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.

“Our past is littered with episodes where natural climatic changes caused crop failures, famines, warfare and the demise of civilizations.”

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: A Deep History, 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: A Deep History of the Earliest States). 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: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death, or my review of Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins), 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, warfare, mass migrations (whether as climate refugees or as groups hell-bent on conquest), and, ultimately, the fate of empires.

“McMichael speaks of the Faustian bargain we unwittingly made by transitioning from nomadism to farming.”

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 from the likes of Jared Diamond (see Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive) and especially Brian Fagan (see The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization, The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, and Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Niño and the Fate of Civilizations). Early eras are covered in, for example, Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos, but there are also excellent books on Roman civilization (see my review of The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, & the End of an Empire), the Little Ice Age (see The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850 and my review of Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age Transformed the West and Shaped the Present), and the impact of the Tambora eruption (see Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World and Tambora and the Year without a Summer: How a Volcano Plunged the World into Crisis).

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: A Rough Journey, 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: The Catastrophic Explosion of the Toba Volcano) 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: The World’s Greatest Serial Killer or Biology of Plagues: Evidence from Historical Populations), 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.

“even though I am familiar with [this topic], the way it is brought together and puts time into perspective still gave me near-vertigo.”

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: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene Since 1945).

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 (see also my review of Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want it Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future). 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.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own however.

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Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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