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Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  266 Ratings  ·  27 Reviews
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 i
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Paperback, 560 pages
Published June 4th 2002 by Free Press (first published January 1st 2000)
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Riku Sayuj
Mar 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Riku by: Petra X

The eloquent historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto has clearly meant this book to be a counter-proposal to the geographic determinism espoused by scholars such as Jared Diamond. And for the most part he does an admirable job of convincing the reader that ‘civilization’, as defined by him, is a truly random and almost inevitable accretion wherever human societies develop. Even though he agrees that geography has always been a vital factor in any civilization’s progress, thus providing ammunition for
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Tim Pendry
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.

There is a dull introduction for fellow-profession
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James
Apr 14, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, anthropology
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 a ...more
Andy
Dec 18, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
A superb and enlightening book. The author contrasts and compares different cultures and civilisations, not by their time period, religion or other more conventional groupings, but rather by the type of environment that they inhabited - e.g. plateau, tropical rainforest etc. The book was a real eye-opener for me in terms of learning about societies that I hadn't heard of before and in changing the way that I think about how societies develop and succeed. The book is broadly of the same genre as ...more
Dave
Sep 30, 2015 rated it did not like it
This guy is one of those writers who says such stupid things that the few good things he has to say can't make up for it. While he shows some respect for indigenous cultures and doesn't necessarily consider "more civilized" to be the same as "better" societies, and says that things like happiness and health are better gauges for a society's success, he still says things like this:

"The world is a place of experiment-- an expendable speck in a vast cosmos. It is too durable to perish because of u
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Bill O'driscoll
Jun 27, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Masterful work by the brilliant British historian that groups various civilizations not by time period or continent by the type of environment in which they formed. Not quite "geography is destiny," but close. F-A regards "civilization" precisely as humanity's attempts to control the environment, and he's very much a "two cheers for civilization" sort: obviously in love with culture and in awe of achievements like transoceanic sailing passages, but pretty clear-eyed about the destruction humanit ...more
Mark
Mar 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
This book was very interesting, and different, all for the way the author categorizes civilizations- not necc. by their contiguous geography nor chronology (although he does work through eras as well) but they are organized by ecological similarity- Ice & snow, desert, alluvial valleys,, highlands, oceanic, etc. And it works really well. I took my time reading it, each chapter is well compressed so that you can read it, as I did, in little chunks throughout the day, without becoming too bogg ...more
Adam
Feb 16, 2011 marked it as abandoned
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. So while there are takeaway points - history is complex and much of what you know about it is burdened with value judgments that impair deduction from it; the term civilization should be defined on a spectrum, revealing many examples with broadly diverse histories; environment shapes ...more
Neal Shah
Nov 28, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, non-fiction
A fascinating book based on a simple thesis: "civilization" should be seen as a cultural (including technological) adaptation to a society's natural environment. This definition broadens the term considerably, allowing Fernandez-Armesto to explore a much wider range of societies than the "high cultures" normally found in these kinds of general histories. It makes it all the more exciting when he presents the more familiar civilizations in this context, as it simultaneously drives home the sophis ...more
Timothy
Apr 08, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
I found this book both captivating and difficult -- the author is a skilled writer and wonderfully evocative with his description, emotional language, and sense of placing everything in it's context. 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 t ...more
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Born in 1950, Felipe Fernández-Armesto was raised in London by his Spanish born father and British born mother both active journalists. As a historian, he has written numerous books on a variety of subject from American History to the Spanish Armada. He currently serves as the Principe de Asturias Chair in Spanish Culture and Civilization at Tufts University and Professor of Global Environmental H ...more
More about Felipe Fernández-Armesto...
“Great Britain, for instance, is too big and too diverse to be home to a small-island civilization, but in modern times the English—though not, I think, other peoples of the island—have cultivated what might be called a small-island mentality: all their most tiresome history books stress, sometimes in their opening words, that their history is a function of their insularity. They still write and read histories with such titles as Our Island Story and The Offshore Islanders.4The conviction that their island “arose from the azure main” and is like a gem “set in the silver sea” resounds in national songs and scraps of verse which they hear repeatedly. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the English invested heavily in naval security. They created the cult of the “English eccentric”—which is a way of idealizing the outcome of isolation. They have projected an image as “a singular race, one which prides itself on being a little mad.” 1 likes
“People have traditionally talked about civilization “spreading” from place to place and not happening by other means. This is the result, I think, of two forms of self-deception. First of these is self-congratulation. If we suppose—as people throughout history have regularly supposed—that the way we live represents the climax of human achievement, we need to represent it as unique or, at least, rare: when you find a lot of examples of something that you expect to be unique, you have to explain the effect as the result of diffusion. Yet, in reality, civilization is an ordinary thing, an impulse so widespread that it has again transformed almost every habitable environment. Peoples modest enough in the faceof nature to forgo or severely limit their interventions are much rarer than those, like us, who crush nature into an image of our approving. The attitude of these reticent cultures should therefore be considered much harder to explain than that of the civilized. The second self-deception is belief in what might be called the migrationist fallacy, which powerfully warped previous generations’ picture of the remote past. Our received wisdom about prehistoric times was formulated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Europe was enjoying her own great imperial age. The experience of those times convinced self-appointed imperial master-races that civilization was something which descended from superior to inferior peoples. Its vectors were conquerors, colonists, and missionaries. Left to themselves, the barbarians would be mired in cultural immobility. The self-perception of the times was projected, almost without utterance, onto the depiction of the past. Stonehenge was regarded as a marvel beyond the capabilities of the people who really built it—just as to white beholders the ruins of Great Zimbabwe (see page p. 252 ) seemed to have been left by intruders, or the cities of the Maya (see page 158 ) to have been erected under guidance from afar. Early Bronze Age Wessex, with its chieftainly treasures of gold, was putatively assigned to a Mycenean king. The sophistication of Aegean palace life (see page 292 ) was said to have been copied from the Near East. Almost every development, every major change in the prehistoric world was turned by migrationist scholarship into a kind of pre-enactment of later European colonialism and attributed to the influence of migrants or scholars or the irradiation of cultural superiority, warming barbaric darkness into civilized enlightenment. Scholars who had before their eyes the sacred history of the Jews or the migration stories of Herodotus had every reason to trust their own instincts and experience and to chart the progress of civilization on the map. The result was to justify the project of the times: a world of peoples ranked in hierarchical order, sliced and stacked according to abilities supposed to be innate.” 1 likes
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