In the Long Run of Human Civilization and Climate Change, We’re All Dead

Peter Frankopan’s epic history of humanity and the environment offers sweeping perspectives on anthropogenic climate change, but little hope of resolving it.

"The Harvesters" from Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "Cycle of the Four Seasons," 1565. (VCG Wilson / Corbis via Getty Images)

It is a sign of our apathy or despair about the near future that historians are bidding to take over public discussion of climate change from the scientists. Peter Frankopan’s sprightly and voluminous The Earth Transformed: An Untold History became the second best-selling nonfiction title in the United Kingdom shortly after its publication, beaten to the top spot only by The Ultimate Air Fryer Cookbook. The actor Hugh Bonneville voiced the BBC radio adaptation — a perfect match for this urbane jeremiad.

The book-buying public’s anxieties about global heating, which flare with every disastrous weather event, are establishing a market for grand explainers, which Frankopan might well fill. He lately retweeted a photograph of New York City shrouded in wildfire smoke with the hashtag #earthtransformed, suggesting that his book could explain why such scenes “will be the new normal.”

A professor of global history at Oxford University, Frankopan is the celebrated author of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, a world history that rightly questioned the Eurocentrism of the genre. Now he has gone one better, with a history of climate change that decenters hominids, setting the Anthropocene against a backdrop that extends from the Earth’s formation four and a half billion years ago to the hot summer of 2022.

Chasing the Melancholy of Climate Change

The Earth Transformed is a scientifically literate and stupendously footnoted intervention in the ever more fashionable field of eco-humanities. The industry with which scientists have assembled an archive from ice cores and pollen counts is allowing for an increasingly precise discussion of past climates — with the caveat that great uncertainty remains about variations between and within regions and over the plausibility of various explanations for shifts in temperature.

Historians, archaeologists, and literary critics are among those using this archive to investigate the relationships between humans and their climate. These inquiries often reflect a gloomy resolution to locate the origins of the Anthropocene in their own period of expertise. Yet as fears grow about the future consequences of global heating, scholars also want to play Cassandra: stressing the social damage that weather anomalies can do and sketching the doom of polities that exhausted the ecosystems on which they relied. Prizing as they do traces of human consciousness, they have also wanted to find evidence of people developing a melancholy awareness of the climate’s effects on them or their effects on the climate.

Amitav Ghosh has memorably pointed to the problems of literary form such projects raise. It is not just that stories about climatic change move more slowly than the lifespans of individual humans or even whole societies. Humanists love to unpick the tangled web formed by the aims and interactions of people. Yet we cannot ascribe intentionality to climate — even if it is easy enough to anthropomorphize the planet — and it responds to and alters human activities in ways few understood in the past.

The result is human and natural narratives which appear incommensurable even when they intersect. Ghosh initially made these arguments about literary fiction, but they bedevil the writing of history too. In The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, his own essay in that genre, he traced a direct line between the Dutch freebooters who bloodily conquered the sixteenth-century Banda Islands in the hunt for spices and the rising sea levels that threaten them today.

But even these homicidal protocapitalists could not have envisaged that they were kick-starting the extractive processes that ended in anthropogenic climate change. If anything, historical investigation weakens the confidence with which we might want to moralize about climate change by decoupling intentions from outcomes.

Frankopan’s awareness of such problems improves his book but at great cost to its shape. While The Earth Transformed is billed as an account of how environmental and climatic change has affected past civilizations, it repeatedly concludes that such effects were not decisive — and even often insignificant. We still often lack compelling evidence that the sudden falls or rises in temperature recorded for some locations can be extrapolated to a global or even regional scale. A term such as the “Mediterranean climate” hides great variation, making it difficult to conjure mega droughts or cold snaps protracted or widespread enough to break empires.

Frankopan is perceptively skeptical about the feedback loops which scholars create between such events and the often fragmentary historical evidence for their impact. A handful of despairing cuneiform tablets does not make a megadrought; ancient letter writers who complained incessantly of ill health might have been following epistolary convention rather than accurately reporting the spread of malarial climates.

The same wishful use of sources affects the interpretation of more richly documented periods. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Hunters in the Snow (Winter)” looks like a vivid illustration of the Little Ice Age, which supposedly condemned early modern Europe to decades of poor harvests. Yet its companion painting, “The Harvesters” is a glowing vision of agricultural abundance. When we then return from Bruegel’s ambiguous oeuvre to the scientific data for an ice age, it turns out to be patchy.

The Primacy of Politics

The need to tread tentatively boosts Frankopan’s determination to stress the primacy of politics in the rise and fall of empires. Now and again, he ventures a TED Talk Eureka about environmental interventions in human affairs, such as the observation that the tsunami of 5000 BC, which submerged Doggerland and cut off the British Isles from the continent, ultimately fostered the exceptionalism which led to Brexit.

Yet he is wary of the climatic determinism pioneered by the Baron de Montesquieu, which soon lapsed into the chauvinistic assurance that Westerners from cool climates would prevail over torrid Africa and steamy Asia. Nor does he believe in the ecological “collapses” that haunt the works of Jared Diamond. Empires fragmented because rulers feuded with their families, lost control of their bureaucracies, or overextended themselves.

Such loss of focus could open the door to ecological risk, because well-run polities insulated themselves against climatic fluctuations, procuring food from their peripheries or other powers in times of dearth or creating water works to sustain large cities and irrigate fields during droughts. When imperial tribute faltered or canals silted up for lack of maintenance, then arid spells or flooding rivers loomed larger as problems. For Frankopan, climatic shocks exacerbated rather than induced the disintegration of empires: they were the backcloth to the drama, not its actors.

His skepticism about the shaping power of the environment tends to except outbreaks of disease. The real sting of climate shocks for Frankopan, especially sustained falls in temperature, is that in depressing agricultural production they made hungry people prone to epidemics. This is a book written in the shadow of COVID. The far-flung trade routes which Frankopan once presented as romantic avatars for the frictionless exchange of modern times are now vectors for disease. Connectivity has become a synonym for fragility.

The menace posed by the Mongols was not an antipathy to urban life but their taste for eating marmots and wearing their skins, because these animals were a reservoir for Yersinia pestis. Here again then, human actions unleashed environmental horrors: the Black Death. Frankopan shows how Western colonization of the New World was a form of germ warfare, no less disastrous for being unwitting and often recoiling on the colonizers.

Slavers brought deadly malaria from West Africa to the West Indies and the southern United States, where it became endemic. The wages of sin turned out to be death for European colonizers. Unfortunately, the slavers just doubled down on their trade: they imported ever more West African people who they believed — with only partial justification — to enjoy immunity from malaria. They brought their shipping to a pitch of satanic efficiency, literally cheapening human life in the process.

Frankopan’s repeated emphasis on sheer contingency in the interplay between states and the environment makes for a distended and episodic read, especially when coupled with his laudable determination to do equal justice to every quarter of what was for centuries a weakly connected globe. His surveys do generate many rewarding surprises — in the light of our self-serving tendency to pin global warming on Chinese power stations, it is illuminating to discover here a long history of Chinese environmentalism, with emperors taking responsibility for the prosperity of their ecosystems and threatening their subjects with harsh penalties for killing wildlife or clearing forests.

Yet when Frankopan tries to stamp unity on his disparate tales of resilience and fragmentation, the analytic payoff is usually weak. Almost every era becomes a “time of change” for the world. Fair enough: but what would a time of global stasis look like?

Under the Volcano

If The Earth Transformed is not quite Hamlet without the Prince, then readers must navigate hundreds of pages of ceaseless flux before anthropogenic climate change steps on stage. This huge prologue diminishes the significance of the problem. Indeed, Frankopan’s narrative starts with the ringing affirmation that “we should all be grateful for dramatic changes to global climate”: the billions and millions of years of fluctuations which produced a world favorable to our rapid spread.

He shows that the emissions that caused humans the greatest problems for most of their history have not been greenhouse gases, but the clouds of ash belched out by erupting volcanoes, which veiled the sun, caused temperatures to fall, and inhibited the crucial growth of plants. Even now, as the global thermometer creeps upward, Frankopan muses that a further, necessarily unpredictable spate of eruptions could cancel out all the anthropogenic change that has occurred to date, leaving its survivors to worry about global chilling.

Despite such skeptical flourishes, Frankopan is in no doubt that for the last hundred and fifty years or so the world has had one climate, whose temperature has been rising because of our emissions of greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide. He gives a strong if familiar account of how the fateful resort to fossil fuels took place as part of a broader phenomenon of ecological overreach by Western empires.

In Britain, the mining and burning of coal expressed the same determination to surpass ecological limits, which denuded Canada of its beavers to make hats and stripped South American islands of guano for fertilizer. A small island with a growing population and a ravenous consumer society needed millions of ghost acres: land in its colonies and in the United States which was terraformed to produce wheat, beef, tea, rubber, and more. Through a stroke of “providence” — matching the submersion of Doggerland, perhaps — Britain had the huge deposits of inorganic energy to hand, which its manufacturers needed to produce cheap goods located close to its industrialized cities.

Fossil Power

The consolidation of imperial might also required fossil power: the British staked out coaling stations around the globe and shuttled troops around India on steam trains. Empire determined who profited most from the transition to carbon intensive development: the British joined the Americans in scrambling to secure Middle Eastern oil wells after World War I. While there has been an exponential intensification in fossil fuel usage since then, these asymmetries have only deepened. The Pentagon is the world’s largest institutional consumer of petroleum: hardly surprising, when the training run of a TopGun jet consumes six liters of jet fuel a kilometer.

Although this account echoes Andreas Malm in dovetailing the development of the fossil fuel economy with existing frameworks of imperial exploitation, it lacks Malm’s forensic determination to fasten the responsibility for our warming world on Western powers. Frankopan primly laments the wasteful perversity of capitalism — the fifty billion dollars of unworn clothes in the closets of the United Kingdom, the hundred billion plastic bottles pumped out by Coca-Cola per year. Yet he is quick to remind us that Communist and postcolonial societies emulated and sometimes surpassed the ecological irresponsibility of the West.

Notwithstanding Joseph Stalin’s brief attempt to go green — 1948’s Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of Nature — the USSR eradicated its forests and dried out the Aral Sea, condemning millions to breathe in clouds of toxic dust from its bed. Chairman Mao had two billion sparrows harried to death in a bid to boost agriculture, which merely unleashed a wave of insect pests. India’s government inherited from the British a counterproductive obsession with damming and diverting rivers.

Frankopan also reminds readers of the stubborn disconnection between capitalism’s impact on the climate and most people’s awareness of it. He notes that since the mid-twentieth century there have been intermittent, often successful campaigns to reduce the flagrant vandalism of ecosystems: the air in America got much cleaner, at least until the growth in forest fires; the hole in the ozone layer has closed. Yet he emphasizes that mid-century American and Soviet research linking greenhouse gases to planetary warming did not capture people’s attention in the way warnings about pesticide usage or overpopulation did.

It was extreme cold rather than heat which obsessed opinion formers. They fretted that glaciers were growing; the specter of nuclear winter rightly terrified them. When Americans did turn down their thermostats and limited their freeway speeds, it was in response to price spikes during the OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) crisis rather than from an ambition to shrink carbon footprints.

Although Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House roof, Americans did not enjoy his sermons on the need to reduce consumption. Even today, popular concern about warming gets lost in cultural static. More than half of all the carbon fuels ever burned may have occurred since the first episode of Seinfeld, but Frankopan wryly notes a recent semantic study of the UK media which found that “climate change” is mentioned ten times less than “cheese” and only twice as often as “motherfucker.”

There are then ample grounds for Frankopan’s doubt as to whether the international targets to stall anthropogenic warming agreed upon in the last decades of his epic tale will be met. How much will such a failure matter? Although he rehearses the disasters likely to ensue from global temperature rises above 1.5 degrees, his doomsday scenario is oddly muted. It will get too hot to dance in the nightclubs of Ibiza; the Mediterranean diet may disappear when olive groves turn to desert; and outdoor cricket matches will be impossible. But life will go on, even if, in the more extreme scenarios, it will involve much less human life.

In the introduction to The Earth Transformed, Frankopan recalls his terror as an ’80s child about the prospect of nuclear war. The memory of his misplaced dread about an apocalypse that never was disposes him to be almost cheerful about humanity’s prospects of muddling through the changes it has unwittingly caused. The study of tradition, said the second-century Greek historian Polybius, showed that environmental disasters “have often befallen mankind and must reasonably be expected to recur.” Yet people always grow back “as if from seeds.”

Frankopan finds this an “admirable” and “broadly correct” statement of the “long view.” His own perspective is even longer and wider than his Greek predecessor’s, but its hale optimism sounds no less bleak. Historians love to adduce contexts and perspectives for our wicked problems; it is just a shame that these seldom help, or even console us.