In The Earth Transformed Peter Frankopan turns the climate into a historical character whose relationship with the other characters—us—needs rescuing from obscurity. He aims to “expand the horizons of how we look at history” and to “reinsert climate back into the story of the past,” not by interpreting floods and droughts as evidence of divine displeasure, as our ancestors did, but by using the latest climate science to learn more about ourselves. In one of the qualifications and caveats that are among the book’s strengths, Frankopan notes that while regions with volatile weather developed cosmological systems based on grumpy “moralising gods,” the early Chinese did not quarrel with their gods to the same extent, perhaps because there was less to quarrel about, “climate conditions being more benevolent and predictable” there than in Egypt or Babylon.
The Earth Transformed is the first climate history I’m aware of that takes in the entire human past, from the origins of Homo sapiens to Vladimir Putin’s quip that global warming will save Russians money on fur coats. Frankopan is Professor of Global History at Oxford. He is also a prodigious synthesizer and interpreter of other people’s research, as he showed in The Silk Roads (2015), a history of the trading routes that crisscrossed Eurasia and the goods, ideas, and diseases that traveled along them. The two hundred pages of notes to The Earth Transformed—which Frankopan has shorn from the enormous volume and posted online on compassionate grounds—refer the reader to a huge number of papers that have mostly been written in the past twenty years, some as recently as 2022. A multidisciplinary effort is underway to improve our understanding of the natural world and its interactions with humanity, the fruits of which were, until The Earth Transformed, not easily accessible to the layperson.
“For example,” Frankopan writes of the science on which his account is based, advances in infrared spectroscopy have revealed new information about
social change…at the confluence of the Shashi and Limpopo rivers during the twelfth century. Isotope data from human burials and from pig teeth in what is now Papua New Guinea help shed light not only on settlement patterns but on proportions of marine foods that people were eating more than 2,000 years ago. And new technology has helped identify the mineralisation process of seeds preserved in refuse pits and cesspits in ‘Abbāsid-era Jerusalem, providing support for hypotheses about the westward diffusion of crops in the early Islamic period.
Historians such as himself, he goes on, “are living in something of a golden age thanks to a rash of new evidence and new types of materials that help improve [our] understanding of the past.”
After beginning with the dispersal of our African ancestors across the Red Sea and into Arabia some 85,000 years ago, Frankopan divides history into epochs of a few thousand years, which become shorter and shorter as we career toward the cliff edge of anthropogenic climate change. It’s an epic story, and the pattern that emerges of people cultivating narrow bands of relatively hospitable land only to be pushed back by droughts, drops in temperature caused by volcanic eruptions, and periods of volatile weather caused by the El Niño–Southern Oscillation is one of hope and enterprise followed by catastrophe, after which humankind, that tenacious species, gets up, dusts itself off, and has another go. Frankopan writes of the first colonization of the Americas, perhaps as far back as 37,000 years ago, that “waves of groups may have arrived and simply have died out time and time again, until conditions improved to enable more successful, long-term settlement.”
The Holocene—literally “an entirely new era,” in effect mankind’s period of domination of the world—was made possible by the onset of warm, stable weather around 11,700 years ago after the last glaciers receded. The greening of the Sahara around 7500 BCE has been attributed to a change in the tilt in the earth’s axis, though a southward shift of the Mediterranean precipitation system may have been a factor. (The Earth Transformed is a reminder that we don’t always know such things with certainty.) Recent studies show that five thousand years ago carbon dioxide was being pumped into the atmosphere, perhaps in part because of deforestation and tilling of the soil—the beginning, according to some scientists, of the anthropogenic transformation of the earth, though in this case with arguably benign consequences, for the extra emissions may have averted a new glacial period.
Human beings fitted the weather into beliefs that also involved God and themselves. The Shangshu, one of the foundational texts of Chinese political philosophy, tells us that excessive rains indicate a lack of discipline on the ruler’s part and that gales are a sign of his foolishness, while heat suggests that he is lazy. In the middle of the seventh century BCE Akkullanu, astrologer to King Ashurbanipal of Assyria and evidently a spin doctor of some audacity, reassured his employer that the recent diminished rains and failed harvest were a “good omen for the life and wellbeing of the king my lord.” Should the king take “the road against the enemy, he will conquer whatever [land] he will go to and his days will become long.”
If we weren’t better informed than our ancestors, there wouldn’t be much point to writing history. Frankopan tells us that the drought that around 2300 BCE helped wipe out the Mesopotamian empire of Akkad, which was believed by Akkadians to have been caused by the emperor’s defiance of the gods, was in all likelihood caused by the North Atlantic Oscillation, a modern term for the balance of sea-level pressure between the Azores and Iceland, though solar variability may have been involved. I find it disconcerting that a catastrophe attributed to a specific cause by those who experienced it can be known by us, at such a fantastic remove, to have been caused by something so different, while the effects of the tragedy are poignantly recognizable to any human being in any age. “The large arable tracts yielded no grain,” writes the author of “The Curse of Akkad,” the closest thing we have to an eyewitness account; “the inundated tracts yielded no fish, the irrigated orchards yielded no syrup or wine…. People were flailing at themselves from hunger.”
Thanks to Frankopan and his prolific use of the sources—sixty in the short chapter on Akkad alone—we also know that imperial overreach and an extortionate tax burden (“The Curse of Akkad” speaks of vast quantities of agricultural produce, livestock, and exotic goods arriving at the imperial city) also had a part in the empire’s collapse. It wasn’t long, he writes, before “questions about the threats of overpopulation, of fragility and of the risks posed by interdependence…started to concern thinkers, priests, administrators and rulers.”
Frankopan notes that Buddhism made inroads in Korea and Japan precisely when a dust veil created by volcanic eruptions was at its most impenetrable. In almost one thousand European cities between 1100 and 1800, anti-Jewish pogroms were most likely to happen following an average drop in temperature of one third of a degree Celsius or more during the growing season. Causalities like this are the historian’s delight, and occasionally Frankopan gets carried away, such as when he links the Brexit vote of 2016 to the “major natural disaster” that severed Britain from continental Europe eight millennia earlier. A tsunami didn’t create Boris Johnson.
A lesson of climatic history is that the prosperity that people fight wars to achieve can be more damaging than the wars themselves. According to ice core data from Greenland and Russia, during the first two centuries of the Roman Empire there was a quadrupling of lead pollution, perhaps caused by the expansion of mining in newly acquired territories, while the forests of what is now Tuscany were felled to build villas of “Persian magnificence”—completely over the top, in other words. Every brick, coin, tile, glass, and iron tool dating to the Roman period was manufactured using heat from the burning of timber. At Rome’s peak “more lead particulates were trapped in the ice of Greenland than in any other era before the start of the industrial revolution.”
One of Frankopan’s case studies concerns the drought that affected large parts of Mesoamerica in the mid-ninth century and that historians have long considered responsible for the collapse of the Maya civilization and its important city of Tikal. But he warns against ascribing a single cause to any major historical event, and while changes in solar activity, volcanic eruptions, or a combination of the two led to a drop in annual rainfall of up to 70 percent in the region, conditions were exacerbated by human-made problems such as the felling of trees to plant crops and heat lime kilns.
Furthermore, the Maya people’s dependence on maize—a good harvest was a sign of a good ruler—was also ill-judged, for, as Frankopan tells us, yields of the crop typically decline by as much as one percent for each day that the temperature exceeds 30 degrees Celsius. Their drinking water, or what remained of it, was contaminated because of their use of cinnabar in dyes and paints, which is high in mercury and “would have been washed off buildings…leaching into reservoirs on which the city depended.” Pronounced changes in climate, he concludes, were not unusual in Mesoamerica. What made the difference between collapse and survival was human choice.
A tricky question is whether our ancestors were more protective of the environment than we are. Nature-based belief systems such as the Dao (“the Way”), which declared that “Man takes his law from the Earth; the Earth takes its law from Heaven; Heaven takes its law from the Dao,” would suggest so, while the Epic of Gilgamesh warns that drought follows deforestation. In ancient India the Vedas urged people not to pollute water or harm trees, and the emperor Ashoka issued a proclamation protecting “parrots, mynas, aruna, ruddy geese, wild ducks, bats, queen ants, terrapins, boneless fish, tortoises [and] porcupines.” But doesn’t the existence of such injunctions suggest the damage was already done? Modern spoliation may be a consequence less of our particular disregard for the environment—a feature of all sedentary societies—than of our enhanced destructive abilities.
Frankopan insists that history isn’t made up of sensational watersheds. Change takes longer than we imagine and has vaguer results. But I found myself searching for a moment when the earth of his title ceased to dominate us and we got the upper hand—the mother of all pyrrhic victories, as the climate emergency shows. The decades around the turn of the sixteenth century, when European and Ottoman cartographers mapped the world and nations started competing with one another to build extractive global empires founded on consumerism, would appear to be a candidate.
Compared to the premium acres dotted around the globe that were annexed by European joint-stock companies and commercialized through mining and cash crops, the expanses of contiguous steppe, mountain, and desert that China’s Qing dynasty conquered in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were worth little. The threats that the Qing army had to deal with were numbingly modest:
None prompted revolutions in military technology or tactics, and what is more, none led to administrative, social or economic reform, or to investment in innovation, productivity or industry, which were so instrumental in the rise of the west.
Under the Qing, forests were cut down and much land was converted to agriculture, but the exposed hillsides eroded and soil was dumped into the country’s canals on such a scale that the cost of “maintaining” (i.e., dredging) the network quintupled in the century after the 1730s, eventually accounting for as much as 20 percent of government spending. Such inefficiencies left the Qing “badly placed to deal with the global competition that emerged in the nineteenth century.” And thus Europe “overtook what had long been much larger and more established economies of Asia.”
In 1989 Francis Fukuyama argued in “The End of History?” that humanity had reached “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Anyone who has read Fukuyama’s article and later accounts of Western exceptionalism and achievement—Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011) and Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (2018) spring to mind—might not be surprised if at this point Frankopan’s tone turned self-congratulatory. But climate histories tend not to have happy endings, and Frankopan doesn’t distinguish between what some historians depict as the unshackling of human potential and the catastrophic failure to restrain human appetites that the unshackling entails. They are one and the same, and the message of The Earth Transformed is that the imperialism, entrepreneurship, and consumerism that were essential to the rise of the West may indeed be ending history, only not in the way Fukuyama had in mind.
When King James I of England ordered twenty beaver hats in 1603, he started a craze for beaver fur that “in short order…led to beaver populations in most parts of Europe being all but hunted to extinction.” Something similar happened to elephants, whose ivory was in demand for piano keys and billiard balls, and to whales, a source of oil for lighting and lubricants. Caribbean islands that were planted with the sugar that transformed European diets ended up looking like “reverse tonsures,” in the words of one environmental historian, “shaved bald but for little tufts of forest left on their mountain crowns.” The only advantage to the desecration, according to Eric Williams, one of the region’s most eminent historians, was a decline in profits that eventually facilitated the abolition of the slave trade on which the plantations depended.
All the while the weather misbehaved. In the late sixteenth century the Spanish Armada, an invasion fleet bearing down on England, was destroyed by exceptionally violent winds, while China suffered its worst famine in a century and the Sahara expanded by three hundred kilometers—all apparently linked to what we now know as the Little Ice Age. In the summer of 1783 there was “a constant fog over all Europe,” in Benjamin Franklin’s words, “and a great part of North America…the rays of the sun seemed to have little effect towards dissipating it.” In 1815 the eruption of Mount Tambora, in what is now Indonesia, caused 1816 to be known as “the year without a summer” and inspired Mary Shelley, who was vacationing near cold, dark Lake Geneva, to come up with the idea for Frankenstein, in which “celestial anomalies, lightning strikes, thunder and storms feature prominently.”
Frankopan’s later chapters, with titles like “Fashioning New Utopias” and “Reshaping the Global Environment,” are full of men playing God. “When we ask the mountain to bow its head,” Mao declared, “it has to do so! When we ask the river to yield the way, it must yield!” In 1958 Mao declared war on “the four pests,” which led to the slaughter of almost two billion sparrows in addition to hecatombs of rats, flies, and mosquitoes. The Soviet Union’s forced settlement of Kazakhstan in the 1950s involved diverting tributaries from the Aral Sea, with the result that by 2010, 87,000 square kilometers of the world’s fourth-largest lake were dry, “with wind spreading 45 million metric tons of salty and contaminated dust each year and creating dust plumes that can reach 400 kilometres in length and 40 kilometres in width.”
Anyone who concludes that the thousands of years of climate instability Frankopan chronicles mean that the current spasm is nothing to worry about should think again. The rate of global warming in the coming decades is expected to be around sixty-five times as high as it was during the last major deglaciation. Most of the fossil fuels burned throughout history were burned since the first episode of Seinfeld aired. Like the Maya and the Akkadians we have learned that a broken environment aggravates political and economic dysfunction and that the inverse is also true. Like the Qing we rue the deterioration of our soils. But the lesson is never learned.
Recent surveys of programs shown on British television found that “climate change” and “global warming” were mentioned fewer times than “Shakespeare,” “gravy,” and “motherfucker.” But Frankopan the historian doesn’t seem interested in the psychology of denialism, which is one of the most fundamental of human traits and helps explain our current inability to come up with a response commensurate with the perils we face. “At the approach of danger,” Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace of the advance of Napoleon’s army toward Moscow,
there are always two voices that speak with equal power in the human soul: one very reasonably tells a man to consider the nature of the danger and the means of escaping it; the other, still more reasonably, says that it is too depressing and painful to think of the danger, since it is not in man’s power to foresee everything and avert the general course of events, and it is therefore better to disregard what is painful till it comes, and to think about what is pleasant. In solitude a man generally listens to the first voice, but in society to the second…. It was long since people had been as gay in Moscow as that year.
There’s a lot of gaiety now, of the skittish, febrile, self-centered kind. To take the example of aviation, a particular interest of mine, in a single hour a private jet can emit two metric tons of CO2, half the total emitted by the average nonairborne global citizen over a year. The pandemic precipitated a surge of demand for these pernicious capsules of hedonism and exclusivity, and my guess is that if offered a ride in one most people would say yes.
The Earth Transformed successfully exposes our presumption in assigning to ourselves the position of protagonist. It forces me to own up to my own failure to pay more than cursory attention to nature in my own history books. Yes, wind fills sails, rain washes mosque domes, and the first frost persuades the besieging army to go home, but such details are included less for their intrinsic significance than because they offer a variety of settings for the play of human impulses and desires. Thanks to Frankopan and the specialists he cites, the triumphalist procession of steles and slabs and coins that have formed the building blocks of history will give way to a deeper consideration of what constitutes a historical source.
By placing inanimate phenomena on an equal footing with human beings under the rubric of “integrated” history, The Earth Transformed also hints at the inevitable next expansion of the definition of “protagonist,” this time to include artificial intelligence. As AI builds up its log of activities, it will enter the field of historical inquiry, with the difference that AI, unlike cyclones or melting ice caps, will write history as well as star in it. One’s view of these changes depends on disposition, age, and comfort zone. It is possible to feel sympathy for James Howell, a seventeenth-century historian writing at a time of acute climatic volatility, when he marvels at “the strangest revolutions and horridest things…that have befallen mankind, I dare boldly say, since Adam fell…. The whole world is off the hinges.”
Again and again the hindsight that Frankopan exploits so intelligently forces us to look afresh at things we thought we knew. Should it complicate our view of the Black Death if we learn that as a result of the scythe it took to the world’s population, evidence of metal production and atmospheric lead dropped to undetectable levels in ice core samples from the period—the only time they have done so in at least the last two thousand years? Should our opinion of the Soviet Union change now that we know its collapse resulted in an enormous reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions? Under what circumstances would it be forgivable, in light of the significant drop in global temperatures caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora, to entertain the thought that what we need now is a really good volcano?