Elaine Graham-Leigh recommends five books to add to Counterfire's Lockdown Library
How much influence does the environment have on human societies? Do natural disasters, climate change, famines, and plagues change the course of history, or are they just footnotes, unpleasant to live through, perhaps, but ultimately separate from political or economic developments? Here are five suggestions for navigating this question.
1 Steven Mithen, After the Ice. A Global Human History 20,000-5000BC, (Phoenix 2004), 622pp.
Starting at the peak of the last ice age, Mithen looks at how the warming climate shaped the development of human civilisation across the world. I don’t always agree with his conclusions (he is unfair, I think, to the classless societies of Anatolia like Çatal Höyük), but it’s an authoritative and engaging study. Most importantly, in contrast to what can often be dry studies of human prehistory, Mithen tries to get at ‘the day-to-day experience of those who lived through global warming, an agricultural revolution and the origin of civilisation’.
2 Brian Fagan, The Little Ice Age. How Climate Made History 1300-1850, (Basic Books 2000), 246pp.
The existence of the little ice age doesn’t mean, as some climate change deniers make out, that our current climate crisis is not real or not anthropogenic. Fagan’s study of the effects of climate change on medieval European society manages to avoid environmental determinism to highlight the dialectical relationship between human societies and short-term climate change. He also provides some of the clearest explanations I know of the factors determining Europe’s weather. If you’ve ever wondered what the North Atlantic Oscillation Index is, this is one for you.
3 John Waller, A Time to Dance, A Time to Die. The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518, (Icon Books 2008), 267pp.
Especially at the moment, we’re used to thinking of epidemic diseases as external events that happen to societies. Sometimes, though, epidemics can be expressions of the damage that class societies do to their members. This is a fascinating account of the dancing mania that hit Strasbourg in the summer of 1518, which at its height saw hundreds of people dancing in the streets until they dropped and sometimes died.
4 Gillen D’Arcy Wood, Tambora. The Eruption That Changed the World, (Princeton University Press 2014), 293pp.
The eruption of the Tambora volcano in 1815 is best known for having caused the 1816 ‘Year without a Summer’ which formed the backdrop to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. D’Arcy Wood makes a convincing case for far-reaching effects ‘from Indonesia to India, from China to the Alps, from the Arctic wastes to the villages of Ireland’ and in so doing, exposes the fragility of capitalist systems in the face of sudden environmental change. The ‘Seven Sorrows’ of Tambora are a cautionary tale.
5 Rebecca Skoot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, (Pan Books 2011), 431pp.
A bit of a change of pace for the final recommendation. A problem with so much discussion about diseases and scientific discoveries is that it can be impersonal. It’s the sort of thinking that can end up with pronouncements that coronavirus should be allowed to ‘move through the population’ so that we end up with herd immunity for that part of the herd that survives. Skoot’s fascinating and readable book puts the individual back into the story of the scientific breakthrough, recounting the life and early death of the woman, Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells became one of the most important tools in medicine. It’s also the story of a black family living through almost a century of American racism and mistreatment by the medical establishment.
Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and her latest book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is out now.
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