'A great work': Baroness Bennett reviews 'The Earth Transformed'
4 min read
A study of the impact of a changing climate on world civilisation from the beginning of recorded history to the present day, Peter Frankopan debunks many long-held assumptions
History as a discipline has been through clear theoretical phases. From Thucydides and Suetonius onwards, the great man theory held sway. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels challenged that with the “great economy” theory, that the base always determined the superstructure. Technological determinism has had its moment, and then Jared Diamond introduced a new actor: physical geography, blaming civilisations’ destruction, from the Maya to Easter Island, on climatic and ecological forces.
All of that might be called – in parallel with developments in biology – the “old history”, which sought a single explanation for events. It’s neat, clear, and ridiculously reductive. As the biologists – with Lynn Margulis at the forefront – have come to understand, believing that chemistry or genetics determines the nature and fate of an organism is far too simplistic.
Peter Frankopan, known as author of the hugely successful The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, with his new The Earth Transformed: An Untold History, has not invented a new approach to systemic history, but produced one of its first great works. His explanation draws in geological forces (volcanoes are major characters), climatic events, political, economic and sociological trends and choices, and the chance combination of these.
Rather than saying that a drought will inevitably cause collapse, he points out that sometimes an empire survives significant natural disruption with little apparent impact. But combine it with social unrest, or external military pressure, or the collapse of trade, then it falls. And human actions have big, unpredictable consequences. The Mongol rise in a period of seismic and climatic stability, saw an expansion of rich, productive grasslands. Which likely hosted the rodents that were a necessary condition for the spread of the Black Death. This is history as systems theory.
It is also very much a 21st century history in its global reach. It tries not to privilege the European over the rest of the world, drawing in far more than the other traditional big actors such as China, the Incas and the Mughals, to comment on developments from Tonga and Timbuktu, to the rise of the Volga Bulgars and the hydrological wonders of Angkor in Cambodia. It draws in the new historical approaches that focus on the maritime links that for so long held our human world together. And debunks many long-held, frequently xenophobic, assumptions.
I’ve now got two copies, and they’ll be sitting on the shelf of my office and study, for likely regular reference
I’ve now got two copies, and they’ll be sitting on the shelf of my office and study, for likely regular reference. That reflects, I suspect, how most will use this book. For its 700 densely packed pages can sometimes come across as a tick box list of events. For the one element on which this book is light – inevitably given its ambitions – is the individual human as an active agent in their own destiny.
But I understand the reason for that. For as Frankopan makes clear in the early pages, this is a history book with a purpose, for the age of climate emergency and nature crisis. He wants readers to understand that the course of human history has been entirely dependent on forces outside us, powers far beyond our physical human capacities, even today.
Of course he’s right. But he is also completing a circle of historical narrative. For there’s much in The Earth Transformed that feels like the vision of the Father of History presented in Joel Alden Schlosser’s Herodotus in the Anthropocene, survival requiring cooperative humility working with nature, rather than seeking to shape it to our own selfish ends.
Baroness Bennett is a Green peer
The Earth Transformed: An Untold History
By: Peter Frankopan
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