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Reading Peter Frankopan's Ambitious Planetary History

Desertification, village of Telly, Mali. Photo Ferdinand ReusCC BY-SA 2.0


The 24 main chapters of The Earth Transformed: An Untold History by British historian Peter Frankopan cover a longer period of history--from “the creation of our planet around 4.6 billion years ago” until late 2022--than any book I’ve read (it begins with a series of excellent maps, the first one displaying the Pangaea Supercontinent of 200 million years ago). Its introduction and conclusion focus on the problems of present-day climate change; Frankopan stresses that all his extensive historical research on human interaction with the environment has left him concerned about our climate future--and humanity’s fate within it.

How concerned? This sentence from the introduction sums it up nicely: “We live in a world teetering on the brink of disaster because of climate change.” And parts of that book’s section sum up as well as I’ve seen our present climate predicament:

Human impact on the natural environment has been devastating almost everywhere, in almost every way, from water contamination to erosion, from plastics entering the food chain to pressure on animal and plant life that has reached such a high level that the most recent United Nations report talks of declines in biodiversity at rates that are unprecedented in human history, and that threaten an erosion of “the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

Or this 2019 quote from António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations: “Every week brings new climate-related devastation . . . . Floods. Drought. Heat waves. Wildfires. Superstorms.”

In his conclusion, Frankopan writes that the summer of 2022 was especially alarming—“Record heatwaves in Europe, the worst drought in many decades in Africa, nearly eight times the average rainfall in Pakistan . . . flash floods in Death Valley in the USA (caused by massive rainfall in three hours)…. the highest-ever recorded rate of rainfall in South Korea . . . the wettest year in Australia's modern history,” extremely high winter temperatures in Paraguay and in South Africa, “and a long and severe drought in China that followed the hottest summer on record, which was called the most severe heatwave ever recorded anywhere and was unparalleled in world climatic history.”

Yet, he marvels, many people continue to deny or minimize human-caused climate change. He does not deny, however, that there has been some progress in various countries, and he stresses that our past and present climate problems have been solvable—if only the collective will coalesces into action. He also mentions hopes that some people have in geoengineering including cloud seeding. But he cautions us that human modification of natural weather systems risks (as one scientific 2015 report indicated) “significant potential for unanticipated, unmanageable, and regrettable consequences.” In a recent Apple TV + eight-part fictional series called “Extrapolations,” a character played by Edward Norton in Episode 4 expresses similar sentiments: “We've treated this planet like an all-you-can-eat buffet for 250 years since we started burning fossil fuels. And changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere is not going to fix it.” Cloud seeding could lead to “changes in rainfall patterns that lead to crop failures and floods [and] . . . extreme weather events leading to mass migrations, social unrest, stress on infrastructure.”

Frankopan also indicates the possibility that future unknown events, like nuclear war, could greatly alter our climate, and concludes that the “biggest risk to global climate comes from volcanoes”—he often mentions the historical climate effects of volcanoes, especially their role in decreasing temperatures (see here for more on that effect). Regarding one volcano, occurring in what is now Indonesia in 1257, he writes that its effects “were global,” affecting such far-away areas as England and “the western flank of the Americas.”

Frankopan believes that generally “we ignore climate and long-run climate patterns or changes altogether when we look at history.” But his new book “attempts to integrate human and natural history,” including climate changes, believing “it is fundamentally important if we are to understand the world around us properly.” Using a wide variety of sources--212 pages of endnotes are available on the publisher’s website--he connects environmental changes to all sorts of historical developments including migrations, plagues, living arrangements, political structures, and religious beliefs. For example, he writes that “three of the most lethal pandemics” of the last 2,000 years followed “warmer springs and wetter summers [that] produced the bacterium that caused bubonic plague.” And, at the end of Chapter 12, “the fundamentals of ecological equilibrium and environmental sustainability underpinned the cultural, political, socio-economic, diplomatic and military histories of individual kingdoms, states or regions. Reliable food and water supplies were central at all times.”

At times, however, several pages may elapse without any mention of climate or the environment, as Frankopan details various political, social, or cultural developments in widely varied parts of the earth including Asia, Africa, and the Americas. As important as he thinks climate has been as a historical factor, he attempts not to overstate its significance. For example, in Chapter 9, he writes, “cities were far more lethal [because of unsanitary conditions] than changes to climate patterns.”

His first chapter is entitled “The World from the Dawn of Time (c.4.5bn–c.7m BC).” In this period before direct human ancestors (Homo-) existed, the author tells us that for about “half the earth’s existence, there was little or no oxygen in the atmosphere.” Still long before humans appeared, periods of extreme warming and cooling existed and one stage “brought about the extinction of 85 per cent of all species. . . . The single most famous moment of large-scale transformation in the past, however, was caused by an asteroid strike that impacted the earth 66 million years ago on the Yucatan peninsula” in Mexico.

In Frankopan’s second chapter, “On the Origins of Our Species (c.7m–c.12,000 BC),” he states that the timing of Homo sapiens’s origins is disputable: “Our own species may have started to emerge as distinct from Homo neanderthalensis [Neanderthals]. . . . though this is a matter of fierce debate.” Humans first appeared in Africa and then dispersed to other continents, for example, “into South-East Asia, China and beyond, reaching Australia by around 65,000 years ago.” “Most scholars date the arrival of the first modern humans in the Americas to around 22,000 years ago.”

The author intersperses these human movements with accounts of climate-change effects--besides volcanoes, he details all sorts of other causes of changes such as El Niño and La Niña. For example, “agriculture may not have been impossible before the Holocene,” a “long period of warmer, stable conditions” that began roughly 10,000 years ago, “but it suited conditions perfectly after its onset.”

Chapters 3 to 24 deal with a time span more familiar to historians--12,000 BC to AD 2022. But the book’s title, The Earth Transformed: An Untold Story correctly indicates that it is also unique. Not a history of some portion of our planet, but a global history (i.e. of the earth). And “untold” because no previous history has integrated the human and environmental journeys together over such a long time span.     

Although Frankopan pays sufficient attention to the Americas and his native England, the part of the world he is most familiar with is the Eurasian Steppe, which runs from the Balkans to the Pacific Ocean. Two of his previous books, The Silk Roads (2017) and The New Silk Roads (2020), deal with that area. Here, in Chapter 8, he writes. “Some 85 per cent of large empires over more than three thousands years developed in or close to the Eurasian steppe.” Among other observations he makes here is one that greatly affects demographics, a topic he often mentions: Tropical climates often provide “a crucible in which infectious diseases could flourish.”

Later on in Chapter 13, “Disease and the Formation of a New World (c.1250–c.1450),” he returns to the Eurasian steppe when he considers the Mongol conquest of many areas. And he writes that it may have “created a perfect environment” for the spread of plague. In the late 1340s, the Black Death spread across “Europe, the Middle East, North Africa,” and probably other parts of Africa, killing “an estimated 40-60 percent of the population.”

Frankopan is not only a global and environmental historian, but also one quite critical of European and Western imperialism and racism, from the time of Columbus to the present. Considering the world around 1500, he writes, “what drove the next cycle in global history was the pursuit of profit,” mainly by Europeans. He also mentions the “‘Great Dying’ of the indigenous populations of the Americas which was caused by violence, malnutrition and disease.” Later, dealing with the half century after 1870, he states that “the dovetailing of evangelical ideas about racial superiority, religious virtue and capitalism was a core element of the way that Europeans, and the British above all, saw both themselves--and the rest of the world.” And in that same period,

“the ecological implications of rapid transformation of landscapes that were motivated by the chase for a fast buck" were “severe and shocking.”

Like the earlier environmental critic E. F. Schumacher, he cites Gandhi on “the ravages of colonialism,” and suggests that modern economics should be based on a less materialistic approach to life. (Schumacher included his essay on “Buddhist Economics” in Small Is Beautiful.)

Regarding slavery, Frankopan estimates that in the 1780s “more than 900,000 souls were sent from the coast of Africa.” “The demand . . . was driven by the vast profits that could be generated from tobacco, cotton, indigo and sugar.” And even now the aftereffects of that racism that helped produce slavery still impact us. U.S. counties that possessed large numbers of slaves in the early 1860s are “more likely today not only to vote Republican, but to oppose affirmative action and express racial resentment and sentiments towards black people.”

The author’s last two chapters prior to his Conclusion cover the period from about 1960 to 2022. From the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) until the present, environmental anxieties have continued, at first regarding various forms of pollution and later stressing the dangers of climate change.

Frankopan also reveals that certain types of geoengineering, like cloud seeding, were already engaged in by the USA during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, and for some time the U. S. Department of Defense has been “the largest institutional producer of greenhouse gases.” Military conflicts, as he points out, come with a “very high” environmental cost--note, for example, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Although there is plenty of blame to go around for what Frankopan considers a woeful minimization of the importance of climate change, in the USA he identifies chiefly the Republicans. Despite more than a 99 percent agreement among “scientists working in this [climate-change] field,” more than half of the Republican members of the 117th Congress (ending in January 2023) “made statements either doubting or refusing to accept the scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change.” In the last sentence of his book the author writes, “Perhaps we will find our way back there [to a sustainable planet] through peaceful means; a historian would not bet on it.”