Review: ‘The Earth Transformed’ unveils the environment’s role in humanity’s story

Peter Frankopan’s The Earth Transformed: An Untold History offers timely insights into how humanity’s success is intrinsically linked to the environment – and how easily it can be taken away
<p>When Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted in Iceland, 2010, it caused immense disruption to air travel across Europe. As Peter Frankopan explores in <em>The Earth Transformed</em>, volcanic eruptions have the potential to bring far greater destruction on humanity. (Image: Olivier Vandeginste / Alamy)</p>

When Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted in Iceland, 2010, it caused immense disruption to air travel across Europe. As Peter Frankopan explores in The Earth Transformed, volcanic eruptions have the potential to bring far greater destruction on humanity. (Image: Olivier Vandeginste / Alamy)

In his hugely ambitious new book The Earth Transformed: An Untold History, historian Peter Frankopan tries to tell the story of how humans have been shaped by, and shape, the environmental niche they inhabit. This is hard to do, even in 650 pages, the tale begins 4.5 billion years ago with the formation of the planet. What the book turns out to be is a journey through a huge number of stories, with Frankopan as an able guide directing our attention to a player often overlooked in the way we tell our history – the natural stage on which it is set.

In his telling of the history of our species, Frankopan brings to the fore the massive geologic, cosmic, and subterranean factors that created the niche in which we survive. As the opening chapters explore, we have existed for a mere fraction of the lifetime of our planet, and this existence would have been impossible before huge transformations had happened, including five mass extinction events and the failure of all other hominid species.

How climate determined humanity’s fate

Earth Transformed book cover - Peter Frankopan
The Earth Transformed: An Untold History, by Peter Frankopan is published by Bloomsbury

For most of the history of our species, beginning about 300,000 years ago, we could survive on only small portions of our planet, with many habitations failing in the face of environmental pressures and interrelated political problems.

Frankopan tells us how the flourishing of humanity over the last 10,000 years was only possible because the Earth’s climate settled within temperatures that provided relatively stable weather patterns, and enabled the cultivation of grains. This allowed us to build cities, trade, make laws – and pay taxes, which laid the groundwork for recording our thoughts and written history.  

A striking feature of The Earth Transformed is early evidence of humanity’s understanding that our survivability is intrinsically connected with how we treat the natural environment. As Frankopan writes, “The writer of ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ [an epic poem dating from around 2100 BCE], for example, counsels that drought follows deforestation… when Gilgamesh kills Humbaba, the forest god, whose murder stands as a metaphor for deforestation of Mesopotamia and humans’ simultaneous encroachment and lack of respect for the natural world.”

Rise and fall of empires

Frankopan excels in his use of pithy quotes and examples, spanning geographies from South America, through South Asia (“‘Live in complete harmony with nature,’ advises the Yajur Veda, a Vedic Sanskrit text dating back 3,000 years”), Southeast Asia, and China. More striking, however, is how he showcases how climatic conditions helped or hindered human endeavour. For example, he cites the first 300 years of the Roman Empire’s expansion as a period of “unusually low levels of volcanic activity, few extreme weather events and predictable climate patterns”. This was also a time of stability in the Mississippi basin, and in Central America in the Teotihuacan Valley, where human habitations expanded. But when the weather turned colder and crops failed around 500 CE, stable empires quickly found themselves in trouble.

He does not, to his credit, try to ascribe the rise and fall of empires as entirely due to climatic conditions, instead explaining how multiple crop failures, floods, or long droughts created added stresses on already unequal and hierarchical systems. Nonetheless, there is a striking evocation throughout the many chapters of The Earth Transformed of the global power of volcanoes. For example, Frankopan writes that the 431 CE eruption of the Ilopango Tierra Blanca Joven volcano in modern-day El Salvador “likely… resulted in a global cooling of around 0.5˚C”. Such cooling lowered food production, heightened political instability, and sometimes led to the overthrow of regimes.

Many intriguing examples of humanity’s early impacts on our global environment are also to be found. Discussing the effect of the bubonic plague in the 14th century, whose impact is greatest known in Europe, but actually had a much wider impact as recent research reveals, Frankopan writes: “So great was the demographic and economic collapse that metal production and atmospheric lead dropped to undetectable levels in ice-core analysis – the only time they have ever done so in at least the last 2,000 years.”

Now, the disaster that could wipe humanity out is ourselves

Nonetheless, his focus on these connections is sometimes a little overstated. For example, he ascribes the famine during China’s Great Leap Forward (1958-62), in which at least 30 million people died, to Mao Zedong’s ‘Four Pests’ campaign. The four pests that were targeted were rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows, and the everybody, young and old, was directed to eliminate them. The destruction of sparrows, which eat agricultural pests, led to huge crop losses. But this was only one factor behind the famine. As Yang Jisheng writes in Tombstone: The Great Famine, China was still exporting grain during this time, and the greater failure was irrational quotas created to please Mao, which were collected despite people starving to death.

This points to a certain weakness in the book. With the huge scope of what he is trying to tell, Frankopan can only refer to certain conclusions based on research. A lay reader, with less specialised knowledge, may not be able to fully assess the analysis presented.

Nonetheless, the book is full of intriguing and unusual details. For example, there is the top-secret US project GROMET, which was supposed to alleviate drought in India in 1966-67 by inducing rain artificially. Frankopan tells us how this was approved by the Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, but never carried through because the 1967 monsoon brought normal rainfall.

A lesson humanity has forgotten

The Earth Transformed does a very good job of lucidly showing the importance of climatic, environmental, and weather patterns in affecting the course of human history. In doing so, it successfully returns us to the position of our ancestors thousands of years ago, who knew their precarious survival hinged on managing their relations with their environment. It is a lesson that humans seem to have forgotten. But as Frankopan’s book points out, it takes just one major natural disaster – the type that may have fallen out of human memory, but which is fairly common in the lifetime of the planet – to turn it all into ash. 

The big change, as Frankopan emphasises at the beginning and end of The Earth Transformed, is that now, the disaster that could wipe humanity out is ourselves. Although the book is about the Earth’s natural environment as an actor in human history, large sections – devoted to slavery and the supercharged extraction of resources in the colonial era – are more about the boundless cruelty and stupidity of humans. In a baroque touch, he adds how a ‘connection to nature’ was strongly propagated by Hitler and the Nazis, who portrayed themselves – among other things – as an ‘ecological civilisation’. In reality, the Nazi state spent practically nothing on environmental protection, and saved its energies for the elimination of people it considered not part of the “natural order”. A horrific example of how ‘environmental consciousness’ can be manipulated for atrocious ends.

For those focused on the climate crisis, it may feel as though the chapters devoted to human-induced climate change due to carbon-fuelled growth come too late in The Earth Transformed. And yet, as a history of humanity this is useful to note. Even with warnings to deal sensibly with our environment embedded in our oldest, most evocative texts, we have still managed to drive ourselves almost to self-immolation before confronting the fact. Tremendous forces, exerted over billions of years, created for us a bubble of survivability. In our flourishing, what we have reached for is a pin to burst that bubble.