“Three things exercise a constant influence over the minds of men,” wrote Voltaire in the mid-18th century: “climate, government and religion.”
The latter two would take no young historian by surprise — classic topics in almost any essay question. Climate, on the other hand, might seem a curious addition to Voltaire’s list, given that we tend to think of climate change as a modern preoccupation.
While the unprecedented speed of change in the contemporary world is remarkable, so too is the fact that the acceleration is primarily due to human behaviour and consumption patterns. Without further action to reduce greenhouse gases, there will soon be more carbon in the atmosphere than there has been for millions of years.
As the influential writer David Wallace-Wells has put it, about 85 per cent of the burning of carbon-based fuel has been carried out since the end of the second world war — while more than half has been since the first episode of Seinfeld was broadcast, or since Boris Becker won his third and last Wimbledon title.
While energy demands and the emission of vast quantities of greenhouse gases have had impacts on atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, the degradation of the natural environment from other sources has been brutal too. Pollution from particulate matter caused by the burning of fossil fuels, of rubbish or simply from the wear and tear of car tyres, was responsible for an estimated 10 million premature deaths in 2018 around the world. Then there is the plastic debris that has been present in every major ocean basin for over a decade, with surveys of the Arctic finding an average of 40 microplastic particles for every cubic metre of seawater.
We have reached the point where scientists are warning not only that we are facing a mass extinction event, but that one is already under way. Can history — and not only human history — help us frame a response to the climate concerns of the modern age?
Anxieties about the fragility of ecosystems are as old as time. The story of the Creation is central to the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and all focus closely on ideas of abundance, stability and divine beneficence. Defying God’s instructions, meanwhile, resulted not only in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, but left them and their descendants — all humans, in other words — at the mercy of droughts and floods, of hunger and suffering.
It was a similar story in many belief systems: angering God or the gods provoked punishments that usually brought environmental consequences. The “mandate of heaven” that gave imperial rulers across multiple Chinese dynasties the authority and legitimacy to rule was in part linked to notions of morality — but was most bluntly manifested (or otherwise) by benign climatic conditions: rulers who enjoyed divine favour were blessed with predictable rains and golden sunshine; those who did not were punished with violent storms that washed crops away, or no rainfall at all.
Projected maximum summer temperature for parts of the US, France, Italy and Spain
Or there were more dramatic punishments, such as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which were so riven with sin that God chose to rain burning sulphur from heaven, leaving the cities with “dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace”.
This was one way of explaining a cosmic airburst, or dense smoke rising from the land like smoke from a furnace, dating to around 1650BC, which flattened the city of Tall el-Hammam in the southern Jordan valley: the city’s massive four-metre-thick walls were destroyed, as was much of the palace complex. Heating reconstructions suggest that temperatures exceeded 2,000C, with all settlements within a 25km radius abandoned for centuries, partly because of the effect of the hyper-salinity of the soil following an airburst-related influx of salt — something which in turn might explain the story of Lot’s wife, who was said by the Book of Genesis to have been turned into a pillar of salt.
Events such as these betrayed the efforts of those living thousands of years ago to make sense of climatological shocks. It is certainly the case that there is much to be learnt from the impacts of volcanic eruptions, of solar activity, of the eccentricity of our planet’s orbit and of shifts in the El Niño–Southern Oscillation.
However, when it comes to vulnerability, the principal sources of risk in every period of human history — and not just in the present day — have come above all from the problems caused by overexploitation and unsustainable consumption habits. One good example comes from the role played by cities in history.
The earliest urban settlements — in regions such as Mesopotamia, the Nile and the Yellow and Yangtze rivers — brought about the evolution of political and religious hierarchies, concepts of private property and land ownership, and the development of writing systems and laws, all of which allowed elites to extend and concentrate their powers. This made cities and their populations the focal point for historians; it also meant that both were vulnerable to supply shocks, whether as the result of conflict, of demand exceeding supply or of adverse weather patterns that could produce shortages that in turn fuelled inflation, social unrest and, in the worst cases, the spread of large-scale death from famine and disease.
Mobile peoples, whose role in history has not so much been underplayed as overlooked, were hardly insulated from such shocks: indeed, on occasion on the steppes of central Asia, losses of livestock to unusual spells of cold weather could result in the deaths of millions of animals that were the source of protein and textiles as well as of status and power. In the early seventh century, the nomadic confederation of the Turks collapsed just as it was on the point of creating what would have been one of the largest empires in history. Instead, that achievement was claimed 700 years later by the Mongols — who succeeded in tying together lands that spanned from the Pacific deep into central Europe.
Cities, though, stimulated competition for labour. Some of the earliest cities — such as Shimao in what is now China, or Babylon in what is now Iraq — had defences far larger than any hostile force could possibly breach, with Herodotus describing Babylon’s walls as being more than 20 metres thick and 100 metres tall. While impressive walls may have been an ostentatious expression of an individual city’s magnificence, it seems likely in many cases that the role played by walls was not to keep people out, but rather to keep them in. Remodelling nature to suit human needs required workforces to plant, cultivate and reap the crops that were essential for the city’s inhabitants; so too was preventing rivals from being able to harness labour resources for their own ends.
It was a similar equation when it came to coerced labour in other periods, in other parts of the world. For example, when European efforts to create a plantation complex in west Africa came to nothing, attention switched to locations in South America, the Caribbean and the southern part of the US — and to locations with climates and soils that were ideally suited to the growing of cash crops such as cotton, sugar and tobacco, all of which required significant labour input.
This owed much to the serendipity of past major climatic change: during the Cretaceous period, 145-66mn years ago, the world was warmer and sea levels higher than they are today. In the southern part of the US, massive chalk formations were uplifted from compressed plankton and other sea life that died out as the world cooled and sea levels dropped. This resulted in extremely fertile rich, dark soils that proved ideal for intensive agricultural production. What was sought was manpower at the lowest possible price. This in turn drove coercion, suffering, inequality and racial prejudice — and the shape of global politics. It was simple, wrote Daniel Defoe in the 18th century: without enslaving people in Africa there would be no sugar; if no sugar then no islands; if no islands then no continent and no trade. And with no trade, there would be no empire.
There is a neat parallel with the distribution of the world’s major hydrocarbon deposits, whose significance skyrocketed with the oil revolution of the 20th century and centred the Middle East and Russia at the heart of geopolitics — with consequences that are acutely obvious today.
That ecological and climatological lottery was pivotal in history. For example, the bulk of the coal that powered the Industrial Revolution was formed from plant debris in the Carboniferous and early Permian periods around 300mn years ago caused by a massive fall in atmospheric CO₂ levels. By chance, in the case of China, coalfields were located far from the population centres that needed them — unlike the UK, whose deposits were cheap to exploit and easy to transport to London and other cities that blossomed as a result. By 1850, 18mn people in Britain were using as much energy as 300mn in China.
Understanding the role that the natural environment has played in shaping human history goes further still: land and soils that are better suited to less intensive forms of agriculture, such as wheat-growing, required lower levels of input as well as generating smaller profits, with the result that such terrains prompted the better distribution of rights among the population and have tended, over the course of history, to be more egalitarian.
And, of course, perhaps most important of all has been the way the Earth has been transformed by the exploitation of resources. These have changed over time, sometimes because of shifting tastes, sometimes as a result of the emergence of new technologies — which have themselves often been linked to the availability of commodities that could be extracted from flora and fauna. In the late 1890s, only 145 hectares of rubber trees had been planted in what is now Malaysia; by the first world war, almost half a million hectares had been cleared to plant hevea seeds from the Amazon in order to meet demand, above all in Europe and the US.
Or there was the rush for ivory, used in everything from toothpicks to billiard balls to piano keys, all of which were much sought after in homes that were becoming increasingly prosperous in the 19th century; or whale oil, which was a prime source of lamp fuel; or guano — bird droppings — which had almost miraculous qualities as a fertiliser. These remodelled the world we live in, spurring conflict such as the War of the Pacific (1879-84). Or there was the massive migration of the past 200 years, which included perhaps 100mn people during the 19th and early 20th centuries — mirrored by population movements in the present day, above all in Asia, where the past three decades have been the largest period of urbanisation in history by far.
All these played a part in the remoulding of the way we live and of the natural environment that forms our home. Higher levels of exchange stimulated not only trade but also the dissemination of ideas, enabling advances in the sciences as well as in the humanities. Faster ways of travelling and communicating brought the different corners of the world together, and in doing so paved the way for globalisation — and the consequences this has brought, both good and bad, in recent decades.
Some economists focus on the upsides of globalisation, such as higher literacy levels, lower maternal deaths and infant mortality, greater access to clean water and education. But the most significant downside has clearly been the transformation of the environment in ways that are not so much unsustainable as posing a risk to life. The most worrying, of course, is global warming. Some researchers say that a quarter of the land area of the US, currently home to 100mn Americans, will be exposed to maximum summer temperatures of just over 50C, as will parts of Italy, Spain and France.
We are on a path to a future in which hundreds of millions of people are at risk in densely populated regions of south-west Asia, in south Asia in the Indus and Ganges river valleys and in eastern China as a result of the “wet bulb” effect, which makes the fittest humans unable to tolerate more than a few hours of exposure even under shaded and ventilated conditions.
In the UK, energy infrastructure is highly exposed to even modest rises in sea levels, with all the major power stations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in coastal locations. As we saw in the summer of 2022, the evaporation of major rivers in Europe was so acute that river traffic was not able to move; or there is China, where the worst heatwave in 60 years resulted in hydroelectric shortages — and the forced closure of factories, including those operated by key suppliers to Apple and Intel.
The threats to our own existence are not limited to reckless exploitation of resources. The development of weapons of mass destruction with the capacity to destroy cities and kill on an epic scale — and which would also bring about dramatic changes to atmospheric conditions, making survival difficult for those not directly affected by a missile strike — is just one reminder of the fragility of our own existence, with life on Earth hanging on the push of a button.
And, of course, we should not forget nature’s own power and its capacity to shape the future of all life on Earth, including our own. Competition for resources that spills into confrontation, famine and disease are part of a constant cycle of survival and adaptation that affects all species.
There lies the rub: looking back at millennia, at millions of years of history, can provide important perspectives on how the past has shaped the modern world. It can also provide some lessons and pointers about how past episodes of change have been navigated, successfully and otherwise.
Being prepared for supply shocks provides one example: supply chains can and do break down quickly under moderate pressure from disruptions that include disease, political instability and, of course, climate impacts. What matters in such moments is the capacity to absorb pressure, which can of course be best alleviated by independence of supply — above all of food and energy — and by having stockpiles and reserves in place in advance. As Benjamin Franklin put it, by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.
If that brings back echoes of the problems caused by the recent pandemic, then so too does the importance of political decision-making. In times of stress and collapse, the distribution of welfare has been key. One reason England prospered in the 17th century and beyond was because parishes were given the responsibility for looking after the poor — something that devolved risk from the political centre, encouraged communities to look after each other, and broke down big problems into small, local ones.
There is a reason why empires rise and fall, why cities come and go, why institutions work and why they fail. With the challenges of tomorrow starting to arrive today, there can be no better time to be thinking about how to understand them — so we can try our best to come up with solutions, ideally as quickly as we can.
Peter Frankopan is professor of global history at the University of Oxford. His new book, ‘The Earth Transformed: An Untold History’, is published by Bloomsbury
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