The Earth Transformed by Peter Frankopan review – history through a different lens

From volcanoes to man-made climate change, the author of Silk Roads shows how closely our environment shapes civilisation

Do you have a personal eruption plan, if you don’t mind me asking? This is the term used to describe how one intends to get away in the event of a volcano going off. Even if you don’t live near one – such as the underwater Kolumbo volcano near Santorini, which has recently been scanned to reveal a filling magma chamber – really big eruptions can have planetary consequences, through the climatic effects of the ash they pump into the atmosphere. Indeed, though we worry more about asteroids or nuclear winter, volcanoes have probably been responsible for more of the abrupt climatic shifts in our species’ history than anything else. Unfortunately, the historian Peter Frankopan writes, “almost no investment of time, planning or funding has been spent on the potential implications of major volcanic eruptions” in our own time. Whoops.

So runs one urgent message of this rich and fascinating book, which sets out to tell the story of Homo sapiens from the point of view of how we have suffered natural ecological disasters, and engineered our own in turn. Humanity has survived historical swings in climate more severe than global heating presently threatens, including the “megafloods” that occurred during the thawing of the last ice age (ancestral memory of which arguably inspires the Old Testament and other sacred texts); a volcanic eruption that blotted out much of the sun for a few years in the sixth century might have influenced the Norse myths. Genghis Khan could perhaps thank unusually heavy rains in Mongolia for his military success (they increased the amount of pasture for his horses), but his armies also spread the Black Death everywhere they rampaged. Agriculture in turn has transformed the planet, Frankopan shows, as well as the development of global trade in spices, cotton and enslaved people, and even the transplantation of tomatoes and potatoes from the Americas to Europe. Introducing a disquisition on the latter root, Frankopan does not hesitate to write: “The humble potato changed the world.”

This is one of those books that aims to tell the whole story of everything from a cute new angle, so inevitably there are longueurs where the focus on climate is temporarily forgotten and a few pages of potted history or comparative religion take over. A mini-essay on the geopolitics of oil in the 20th century cannot compete with specialist books on the subject, for instance Helen Thompson’s brilliant Disorder, while those interested in the climatic effects of nuclear tests will find more detail in Serhii Plokhy’s Atoms and Ashes. And because every subject is special, it can end up feeling as though none is. “The period up to c3000BC was one marked by considerable ecological and demographic change,” we learn, which is to say that it was, in those respects, exactly like every other period in history. “All around the world,” we learn to not very much surprise later, “the period from c800 to c1200 was one of profound change.”

Much of this is speculative, but then so is all narrative writing about the past, even when one is not explicitly doing counterfactual history. Climate change, we are told, “has been suggested” as one reason for the decline of some cities and the growth of others; drought, flood, and disease no doubt often had as powerful an effect as the edicts of kings, if not more so. Still, while a volcanic eruption did not make Cleopatra’s life easier, “other factors explain the sequence of events that ended with the Queen’s death in 30BC”. This kind of hedging is to be applauded, since it is the opposite of what dishonest writers of sweeping nonfiction habitually do, forcing everything to fit their neat scheme.

What then shall we do now? The author’s list of potential remedies for our present carbon emissions includes the obvious (clean energy) and the less-often hymned (teach cows to use latrines), some of which we might hope to be as effective as Pope Pius V’s 16th-century excommunication of a plague of locusts in St Peter’s Square. Such measures might, Frankopan hopes, mitigate “the unsustainable way that we live in the twenty-first century”, though no one has ever lived sustainably: they all died.

Indeed the book does end up implying that our real problem is, simply, other people. To say, for example, that the “green revolution” of the mid-20th century – the advances in agricultural technology led by Nobel prize-winning Norman Borlaug which, it is usually estimated, saved hundreds of millions from starvation – was “counterproductive” because it didn’t also solve political problems is rather odd. But then there are hints that Frankopan might belong to the more misanthropic end of the green spectrum. He disapproves of cities, which indeed consume many resources and emit much waste, even though living in a city is more energy-efficient than not. Geoengineering – trying to change the climate technologically on a planetary scale – is obviously dangerous, though, and anyway a supervolcano might soon do the same thing for us, only too effectively, with accompanying tsunamis and crop failures. Meanwhile scientists are forecasting the return of El Niño later this year, sending global temperatures “off the chart”.

It is hard to feel sunny about all this, and The Earth Transformed ends in a vision not so much pessimistic as quasi-apocalyptic, hoping at the very best for a future Edenic age in which a far smaller number of humans now live in harmony with nature. How such a mass global depopulation is to be achieved in non-murderous ways is left as an exercise for the reader.

The Earth Transformed: An Untold History by Peter Frankopan is published by Bloomsbury (£30). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Steven Poole

The GuardianTramp

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