Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature

Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature

Erudite, wide-ranging, a work of dazzling scholarship written with extraordinary flair, Civilizations redefines the subject that has fascinated historians from Thucydides to Gibbon to Spengler to Fernand Braudel: the nature of civilization.

To the author, Oxford historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a society's relationship to climate, geography, and ecology are paramount in determining its degree of success.

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So Armesto proposes his own counter-thesis: Though he struggles throughout the book to avoid any kind of determinism, he goes on to admit in his concluding argument that geography, in the broadest sense, the palpable realities of the planet, the exigencies of nature, the soils and seeds, the winds and waves has shaped the world presented in these pages. This forms his principal argument of the book, and it takes shape only at the very end, catching the reader by surprise, after lulling him into the belief that civilizations are a chaotic emergent phenomena of complex human interactions. The Europeans, he argues, were always backward in terms of technology, especially sea-faring tech, in comparison to China, India and even the Ottomans,.While they had trade across the Mediterranean (inherited from the Romans), the Atlantic was largely an unexplored territory even while the Indian Ocean had established itself as the preeminent, busiest and most profitable trade route in history. Armesto claims that the Indian Ocean was so busy and so rewarding that it used up all the available resources (ships) in its own internal trade and the rich nations there had no reason to risk the treacherous voyage to the Atlantic and to Western Europe. The Western Europeans on the other hand, wanted to be in on the high-return trade of the Indian Ocean and was willing to take risks, and over time they decoded the cipher that is the Trade Winds of the Atlantic and eventually learned how to link the two wind systems (trade winds and the monsoon) when Vasco da Gama finally reached Calicut. In pursuit of the kind of advice Lazarillo de Tormes got from his mother, the relatively poor reach out to the relatively rich in the hope that something will rub off This along with Columbus linking Europe to the New World set in motion the period in which Atlantic took over as the oceanic center of trade, catapulting all the countries on its rim (Armesto calls them the Rimlands) first into financial security, then trade dominance, then imperial eminence and finally into a common civilizational bowl. This western civilization coalesced into a single gel and then set about trying to remake the rest of the world in its image, borne by the new-found winds, and fueled by missionary zeal; infecting the coastal regions first and gradually encroaching inwards.

Published just after the Millennium as a sort of popular pot boiler, no doubt making excellent use of material derived from editing various Times' historical atlases and his research on his own 'Millennium', the idea behind Fernandez-Armesto's book has some experimental merit. What the Argentian-born academic tries to do is to limit the chronological bias of history by exploring what civilisation means in terms of human mastery of the environment. Overall, I like his conservative but humane approach to history as a complex system where good and bad things arise from each other, mostly beyond the control of anyone, rather than a story of inevitable or automatic progress and individual heroism.

Thus the book is a history of civilizations, not one civilization; and it is also about the power and ambition of mankind that he uses to tame geography, ecology, climate and other animals to form cities.

Just as I would rather live strenuously and die soon than fester indefinitely in inert contentment, so I should rather belong to a civilization which changes the world, at risk of self-immolation, than to a modestly "sustainable" society. As for the previous statement about going on a "cosmic binge", it's one thing to say that shit happens every few thousand years, like asteroid strikes or volcanic eruptions, and therefore if our societies last that long they're about as sustainable as it realistically matters (although even that would be kind of pushing it in my opinion) but glorifying the most insanely wasteful and unjust lifestyles and mocking those who are happy to live simply is completely nuts.

However, one wonders if some of his assertions are perhaps solely his own rather than verfiable as "fact." The overall premise of the book is fascinating in my opinion -- that is that civilization is a continuum measuring man's relative bending of nature to his needs (or conversely bending himself to limits imposed by nature).

Fernandez-Armesto is an excellent writer, and though this is a dense, long book, his style makes reading a joy.

This book is interesting and fun, but it very assiduously avoids making any points explicitly - the author frames it as a fun intellectual adventure he undertook without any real agenda, and this is felt throughout. That's great, and it gave the book a really nicely romantic and foreign feel while thoroughly avoiding Orientalist notions.

  • English

  • History

  • Rating: 3.89
  • Pages: 560
  • Publish Date: June 4th 2002 by Free Press
  • Isbn10: 074320249X
  • Isbn13: 9780743202497