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Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the…

Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature

by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

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A potpourri of insights into what makes a Civilisation, but lacks a unifying theme.
Read Mar 2004 ( )
  mbmackay | Nov 29, 2015 |
The subtitle for Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's amazing book references culture, ambition and nature. These ideas are all central to his history of civilizations, but as he states near the end of the book it is a "book of places". That is an overriding theme that is underscored by the many diverse civilizations that he discusses. 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. Although, the author argues in his introduction that cities are not a necessary condition of civilization no matter how frequently they have been associated with the rise of civilization in history. Like all history the book presents an empirical argument with examples of civilizations from grasslands and forests, arid and rain-filled climates, highlands and ocean-based areas. It is a tribute to the intelligence and adaptability of man that civilizations can be found in places as disparate as the Andes and the Aegean; the Euphrates and post-glacial European forests; the Indus, Yellow, and Yangtze rivers of Asia; and other places. The result of Civilizations wide-ranging, through time and geography, ruminations and revelations is a book that is informative and thoughtful. Undoubtedly controversial at times, it is an exciting read for anyone interested in the ability of man to create and mold the world into civilizations. ( )
1 vote jwhenderson | Apr 19, 2011 |
A decent book, but it's just uninspiring. The author has clearly aimed this book for a broad public by adopting a very simple and non-analytical approach to world history, grouping civilizations by climate. His wide range of examples is fairly entertaining but most of his generalizations are completely obvious to any person with a little bit of background in history and geography. Maybe this text would be best suited for an introduction to young students in world history.
  thcson | Apr 30, 2010 |
Civilization > History/Human geography/Human ecology/Nature > Effect of human beings on/Ambition > History
  Budzul | May 31, 2008 |
This book studies the largish topic of civilizations by the way in which environmental conditions shape its processes. Since in large part civilization is basically a reshaping of nature "in our own image," as the author says, this approach is able to draw interesting comparisons and contrasts between cultures in different times and places which more chronologically or ideologically focused studies are unable to do. Fun to peruse.
  mike.vaneerden | Sep 12, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 074320249X, Paperback)

"Civilization" is a tricky term, one that means many things to many people. For some, it denotes great buildings, canals, codes of law; for others, it offers a contrast between one group and another, with the advantage always going to the more "civilized" bunch against the "barbaric," "savage," or "primitive."

All such distinctions, writes Oxford University historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, are arbitrary and laden with subjective value; they speak to unscientific notions of progress, to hidden agendas. What matters, he continues, is the extent to which a culture has developed means to separate itself from nature: "Civilization makes its own habitat. It is civilized in direct proportion to its distance, its difference from the unmodified natural environment." A culture such as the ancient Han Chinese, the medieval highland Maya, or the Renaissance Venetian, then, is highly civilized inasmuch as its members dammed and diverted rivers, drained lakes, stripped forests, and built monumental structures to celebrate their achievements; people content or resigned to "live off the product and inhabit the spaces nature gives them" are markedly less so by virtue of that accommodation.

No culture, Fernández-Armesto writes, is inherently exempt from becoming civilized; nor, he adds, does "civilized" equate to "good." In exploring history as a branch of historical ecology, he sometimes abandons his thesis, intriguing and provocative as it is, to engage in a wide-ranging survey of the world past reminiscent of (but much better-written than) Toynbee and Durant, touching on the ancient Greeks here, the herding peoples of the African savanna and Central Asia there, the Moundbuilders of prehistoric North America and the hunting peoples of the Arctic there. Unlike many standard textbooks, his narrative manages to offer something new wherever he turns. Allusive and learned, his book repays close reading--and should inspire plenty of argument along the way. -- Gregory McNamee

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:15 -0400)

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"Civilizations connects the world of the ecologist and geographer to a panorama of cultural history. In Civilizations, the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not merely a Christian allegory, but a testament to the thousand-year-long deforestation of the trees that once covered 90 percent of the European mainland. The Indian Ocean has served as the world's greatest trading highway for millennia not merely because of cultural imperatives, but because the regular monsoon winds blow one way in the summer and the other in the winter." "Seventeen distinct habitats serve as jumping-off points for a series of set-piece comparisons; thus, tundra civilizations from Ice Age Europe are linked with the Inuit of the Pacific Northwest; and the Mississippi mound-builders and the deforesters of eleventh-century Europe are both understood as civilizations built on woodlands. Here, of course, are the familiar riverine civilizations of Mesopotamia and China, of the Indus and the Nile; but also highland civilizations from the Inca to New Guinea; island cultures from Minoan Crete to Polynesia to Renaissance Venice; maritime civilizations of the Indian ocean and South China Sea. Even the Bushmen of Southern Africa are seen through a lens provided by the desert civilizations of Chaco Canyon."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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