Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans

Brian Fagan is one of my favorite authors. I was first introduced to his books in college. They were the text books in the prehistory courses I took for my major in archeology. More recently, he has been writing about the effects of climate change on human history. He has a talent for writing about complex subjects like climate change so that they are comprehensible to the lay reader without “dumbing down” the material.

With his most recent book, he has returned to the subject of prehistory with a comprehensive overview of the first anatomically modern humans, who he refers to as “Cro- Magnon” after the rock shelter where the first remains were discovered. Cro-Magnons are best known as the people who created the magnificent cave paintings in Europe.

When Cro-Magnons migrated into Europe from the Near East, it was already inhabited by the Neanderthals, relatives but not direct ancestors. Dr. Fagan refers to the Neanderthals as the “Quiet People” because they lacked fluent speech. They also lacked symbolism, religion, art and innovation. Their way of life was unchanged for hundreds of thousands of years. Unable to compete with their more advanced cousins, the Cro-Magnons, the Neanderthals gradually died out.

The Ice Age was not uniformly cold. There were periods of warmth when vegetation and animal populations changed. The Cro-Magnons were experts at adapting to the changing conditions, hunting large game when it was cold and smaller game when it was warm. The tools they left behind reflect the constant innovations that made them so successful. Their art, musical instruments and burials reveal their rich spiritual life.

The Cro-Magnons spread out all over Europe, hunting, foraging, constantly adapting to changing conditions for tens of thousands of years until the next wave of migration swept into Europe: farmers from the Near East. Did the Cro-Magnons die out like the Neanderthals before them? DNA tells us no. 85% of Europeans are direct descendants of Cro-Magnons.

“Cro-Magnon” offers the latest theories developed from hundreds of years of archeology devoted to European prehistory. The information is presented in a very readable form. No prior knowledge is needed by the reader. All specialized terms are explained. Brian Fagan has done it again, taken a vast and complicated subject and produced a book that is both educational and engaging.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do about It

Thanks to the efforts of Al Gore, most people are aware of their carbon footprint and ways that they can reduce the size of their footprint. But how many of us know that we also have a “foodprint”? Anna Lappé introduces us to this important concept in her book, Diet for a Hot Planet.

Thanks to the factory farming of crops and animals, the very food we eat is contributing to the problem of global warming. The production of chemical fertilizers and pesticides fill the air with greenhouse gases. The resulting degradation of topsoil from the use of chemical fertilizers not only decreases the soil’s ability to store carbon, but also releases the carbon formerly stored in soils into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide.

And then there is livestock. Livestock which is fed the majority of the corn and soy beans raised in a miasma of chemicals. Livestock which produces waste in such quantity that it has to be stored in manure lagoons which leach into the soil and foul the groundwater, or flooded out in storms, pollute the surrounding countryside.

The most frightening statistic in the book is that ruminants (livestock that eats grass such as cows) produce 27% of methane emitted globally. Methane is a more dangerous greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide that we are all so fixated on. Factory farming of livestock produces more greenhouse gases than all of the cars, trucks, buses, trains and planes together in the entire world.

Having made her argument about the deadly cost to the environment of factory farms, Ms Lappé offers a solution. She introduces us to New Forest Farm, an organic farm that practices mixed agriculture where diverse crops are grown together in the same fields as opposed to the monoculture favored by factory farms. Mixed agriculture keeps the soil and the farmer’s pocketbook healthy. If one crop fails or underproduces, other crops grown in the same fields continue to produce both a harvest and an income stream, while enriching and replenishing the soil.

This is the one part of the book that I found disappointing. Ms. Lappé gives the impression that the concept of mixed agriculture is a new and extraordinary idea. It is, in fact, a very ancient idea. Native Americans practiced this kind of agriculture for thousands of years before their way of life was wiped out by Europeans. Think “Three Sisters” (corn, squash and beans) in North America. In Central America, it is known as “milpa” and still practiced in some areas. Farmers plant a dozen different crops together in the same fields. Some milpa fields have stayed fertile for over four thousand years.

Ms. Lappé then addresses the argument that organic farming is not as productive as factory farming. She rightly points out that organic farming is more productive. Then she goes on to discuss the dangers of genetically modified plants. I was impressed by her calm, matter of fact tone on this hot button topic. So many authors, both for and against GMOs (genetically modified organisms), tend to get a little shrill when discussing their views.

The last part of her book is the most valuable. She gives her readers, no matter where they live in the USA, the resources and tools they need to reduce the size of their own and their communities’ “foodprint”. She impressed me once more with the realistic solutions she offers and the level of detail, depending on how involved people would like to be in the process. Books on climate change tend to either offer sweeping generalizations or solutions that are too impractical for the typical man (or woman) on the street.

Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury USA