Hurdling along the abyss, humanity in the Anthropocene seems to be reaching the point of no return. A new book tells our global history from the beginning to the foreseeable collapse. The questions asked are: How did we get there? And what mistakes did we make on the way?
The Earth Transformed. An Untold Story
By Peter Frankopan
Bloomsbury Publishing 2023
By literally zooming in from the stratosphere and beyond, we are invited to join Peter Frankopan on a terrifying tour of what we as species have achieved since the beginning of our history. The book explores three avenues. The first goal is to reinsert climatic changes as a much-overlooked critical theme. The second is to tell the story of our human interaction with the natural world and show how our species exploited, moulded and bent the environment to its will. Thirdly, this book aims to expand our horizons in order to advocate a truly global history.
On the way, Peter Frankopan aims to show how traditional history is always written by “civilised people” about “civilised worlds”, that is by “people living in cities”. Meanwhile, the pastoralists, nomads and peasants – in short the people, who usually are better posited to grasp our fragile world – are left out; and who – by the way – usually fare better whenever natural catastrophes hit us, be they climatic, pandemic or the result of unsustainable ways of living.
“So, I have set out to examine environmental history and to understand more clearly what the past tells us about human behaviour, about anthropogenic change in the natural world and about how extreme weather events, long-term weather patterns and climatic change have influenced and impacted history. I have wanted to assess why we seem to have arrived at the edge of a precipice where the future of our species – as well as those of a significant part of the animal and plant worlds – is at risk”, Peter Frankopan writes.
The book builds on a careful examination of what is called “climate archives” – such as information gathered from growth tree rings, build-up of mineral deposits in caves, and bubbles trapped in ice-cores from Greenland. Exploring these proxies, we are told how solar activity and volcanic forcings have contributed to the volatile history of mankind. But also how people, from time to time, might grasp propitious circumstances to foster growth, ultimately crossing the sustainable threshold.
A Case: The Romans
One such story concerns the Romans, who were lucky to live at the right time of history during the so-called Roman Optimum, a humid, warm and fertile period creating favourable living circumstances on the shores of the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, this led to critical overexploitation of the only sources of energy available – forests, firewood and land to feed domesticated animals. Never before have the ice-cores in Greenland trapped so much lead indicative of mining and metalworking before the 19th and 20th centuries, nor were the animals – draft oxen or horses – as large again until the Early Modern period
However, when climate changes began to take their toll at the end of the 2nd century, the crafty Romans entered a period of decline, which accelerated in the 4th century as the Huns fled from the mega draughts on the Eurasian Steppe. Overrun by Germanic people pushed in front of the nomads, the Romans emptied their pockets to pay for mercenaries. In turn, these soldiers took their newfound wealth out of circulation by literally sacrificing it in bogs and lakes back home beyond the limes. At the end of the 5th century, the Western Roman Empire defaulted, leaving the centre stage to the so-called successor kingdoms, which based their wealth and power on their rural hinterlands. Later, in the next century, volcanic forcing and the Justinian plague added to the downturn. Estimates vary. However, a downturn of app 3-4 ºC in northern Europe has been documented. Times were frosty, and cattle, on average, in the Early Middle Ages lost 10-20% of their newly gained Roman size. The large cities were some of the other “victims” in this period. They lost their power and attraction until better times arrived at the turn of the first millennium. “The descent into what scholars used to refer to as Dark Ages resulted not from chaos and indiscriminate bloodshed but from the splintering of the state and the disappearance of centralised authority that previously glued the western provinces together”, Frankopan writes.
On the other hand, the downturn did not affect the use of iron, which became an important status symbol – wielded as an axe or fitted as a coulter to the plough. The Early Middle Ages was also a vibrant world inhabited by large landowners, pitiful peasants and enslaved people cultivating rye instead of wheat and barley. Indeed, the world was transformed during the 6th and 7th centuries.
The question remains, however, what were the cause and the effect? Peter Frankopan carefully notes that we should never reduce this untold story to simple questions of brutal climate shifts. As far as they survived, people acted more or less resiliently and found new ways of organising their lives, as numerous case studies during the last decade document.
Arguably, however, looking from afar through a cosmic telescope and upholding a truly global perspective, the history of climatic shifts cannot be left out of the equation when dealing with the history of mankind. Thus, “this book is not about what will happen in the future…its aim, rather, is to look at the past and to understand and explain how our species has transformed the earth to the point that we now face such a perilous future”, writes Peter Frankopan in the introduction.
Nevertheless, this book is about our future. Will our grandchildren survive our present political petrification? Will new technologies set their mark? Will people in the mega-cities of the 21st century lose out? The answer is probably yes. However, the real question will be whether we succeed in depleting the last pitiful remains of our wild surroundings before this happens. Will anything be left to our survivors to live off. This question is raised – although not answered – at the end. Perhaps, the next book?
The Earth transformed is a splendid book. Painted with large strokes on a broad canvas, we do not get to ponder all the details. What we get, however, is the outline of solid stage on which we may see the unfolding of a truly global history.
This book should be mandatory reading for all teachers still members of “the society of putting one thing on top of another”.
Icelandic horses posing in front of a volcano spewing ash. © Sugurdur Brynjarsson/Dreamstime
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Professor Peter Frankopan is Professor of Global History at Worcester College. He is also Stavros Niarchos Foundation Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research and Senior Research Fellow (Worcester College) His main interest is the history of the Mediterranean, Russia, the Middle East, Persia, Central and Southern Asia, and on relations between Christianity and Islam. He specialises in the history of the Byzantine Empire in the 11th Century, and in the history of Asia Minor, Russia and the Balkans. He works on medieval Greek literature and rhetoric, and on diplomatic and cultrual exchange between Constantinople and the islamic world, western Europe and the principalities of southern Russia.