Some 4,300 years ago, Naram-Sin decided he was a living god. King of Akkad, he ruled the first empire that had united diverse peoples and landscapes across modern-day Syria, Iraq and Iran. Yet within a couple of generations, everything fell apart. Scientists have discovered that the collapse of his empire coincided with severe drought in the region and beyond, all the way to India and China. Did climate change bring down Akkad?
Setting the tone for his monumental history of humanity’s interactions with the environment, Peter Frankopan resists simplistic answers. True, the drought posed a serious challenge. Then again, collapse wasn’t universal, earlier droughts didn’t have similar effects, and adaptive strategies such as crop diversification offered a way out.
These complexities form the central theme of The Earth Transformed. Even as climate events magnify existing problems, outcomes depend on human responses: “Climate was part of the problem . . . where problems already existed”, writes Frankopan. The real question is why some societies withstand such pressures while others fail.
Frankopan’s account leaves no doubt that the biggest environmental shocks tested human resilience to its limits. In the sixth century AD, reduced solar activity and volcanic eruptions lowered temperatures, which boosted a concurrent pandemic of bubonic plague. Around 800 years later, a rerun of this deadly mix caused renewed cooling and famine, culminating in Central Asian droughts that triggered a chain reaction from starving rodents and roving Mongols to the spread of the Black Death across Eurasia.
A later cooling phase from the 16th to 18th centuries, known as the “Little Ice Age”, likewise shrank harvests and revived epidemics. Yet once again, outcomes varied. So with the mega-drought that had disrupted the Classic Lowland Maya civilisation in Central America a millennium earlier; a host of other weaknesses contributed to its downfall, and adjacent areas began to flourish.
In a further turn away from catastrophist narratives, Frankopan, professor of global history at the University of Oxford and best known for his sweeping challenges to Eurocentric visions of the past, directs much-needed attention to how certain kinds of climate change promoted growth rather than decline. Civilisation rests on the stabilisation of the Earth’s climate after the end of the last Ice Age that made food production and sedentary life possible. In less dramatic fashion, the Roman Warm Period around the beginning of the Christian era fostered development from Mexico to China, and the Medieval Warm Period of the 10th to 13th centuries offered a fruitful respite from earlier calamities.
Frankopan draws on rapidly expanding bodies of scientific evidence for environmental conditions, such as tree rings, cave deposits and ice cores, and relates them to intersecting drivers of climate change from solar activity to atmospheric oscillations and volcanic eruptions.
Yet his mission is even more ambitious. Not content with exploring how our fortunes have been shaped by climate, he also seeks to explain how “our species has transformed the Earth to the point that we now face such a perilous future”. The book tackles this question by delving into the global history of food production, mining, state building, urbanisation, slavery, industrialisation, scientific progress and much else besides. Thousands of endnotes, available online, support his argument without encumbering the narrative.
The author succeeds in mastering a seemingly impossible challenge, distilling an immense mass of historical sources, scientific data and modern scholarship that span thousands of years and the entire globe into an epic and spellbinding story. Humanity has transformed the Earth: Frankopan transforms our understanding of history.
Up to the 15th century, the narrative weaves back and forth between exogenous climate shocks and the expansion of human land use. The balance shifts towards the latter once we reach the European conquest of the Americas, and invasive modifications of the environment take centre stage. People and resources traversed the oceans, with uneven consequences. Whereas the Old World benefited from American maize and potatoes, the New World was much more profoundly transformed by imported crops, animals and deadly diseases.
An empathetic chapter on the colonial exploitation of nature and people, epitomised by slavery and the plantation economy, makes for harrowing reading. Frankopan tracks human interventions on an ever-growing scale, as vast forests were turned into grasslands and the exploitation of rubber, whale oil and guano was joined by that of coal, oil and gas. The resultant acceleration of industry finally put humans in the driver’s seat: greenhouse gas emissions played an important role in a global warming phase from the 1890s to the 1940s.
Modern development made it seem both possible and desirable to defeat, dominate and control nature in the name of progress. In the heyday of colonialism, aggressive environmental transformation came to be regarded as a requisite of further growth. These aspirations crested around the middle of the last century, as western capitalists and Soviet and Chinese communists eyed evermore grandiose schemes from weather control to the use of nuclear weapons to reshape the environment. “Man must conquer nature,” Mao Zedong decreed.
From the 1960s, public opinion began to shift as issues such as air and water pollution, insecticides, conservation and the “population bomb” grabbed headlines. Scientists became more vocal about ozone layer depletion and greenhouse gases. Yet not long after awareness of these hazards entered the mainstream, the demise of the Soviet Union increased access to fossil fuels and China entered a phase of rapid economic growth. Globalisation boomed and emissions soared; wallets bulged while the Earth suffered.
Frankopan takes us through dire statistics about aquifer depletion, topsoil erosion and the loss of forest and ice cover. All this has put us “on the edge of ecological limits” — and that, as he rightly stresses, is a first. We face not only the first episode of genuinely planet-wide climate change in millennia but also the first one we have brought upon ourselves. Yet it is not just the challenge of human-made climate change that is of recent origin; so is the expectation, unique to the modern era, that future technology can master this challenge and continue to reshape nature.
It is hard to come away from this book without a strong sense that our recent history has already set us on a path to geoengineering as a future weapon against global warming. The extraordinary exploits of the industrial age have instilled a sense of false security that may be hard to erode.
These unprecedented breaks with the past make us ask what this multi-millennial history is for. It surely signals that old-style historiography has had its day. We can no longer focus on the actors — us — without paying attention to the state their stage — nature — is in. But can such environmentally integrated histories teach us anything useful for the future?
Frankopan’s global survey shows that through the ages, civilisations that were exposed to environmental shocks often failed to appreciate the true scale of the challenges they faced and didn’t adapt as needed. Then again, some of them always did. As both options once again lie before us, history warns us that we have blundered far too many times to be complacent now. Judging by past performance our future is a toss-up.
The Earth Transformed: An Untold History by Peter Frankopan, Bloomsbury £30/ Knopf $40, 736 pages
Walter Scheidel is a historian at Stanford University and author of ‘Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity’
Peter Frankopan will be appearing at this year’s FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival. More details at oxfordliteraryfestival.org
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café