'The Earth Transformed: An Untold History' book review: Cause and colossal effect   

Written engagingly, the book is akin to a unified field theory of climate change and human behaviour.

Published: 26th March 2023 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 24th March 2023 01:20 PM   |  A+A-

Polar bear, ice berg, climate change

For reprentational purpose

Express News Service

Peter Frankopan is a British historian and a bestselling author of books on the silk roads and the crusades.  This latest one is formidable in length (24 chapters) and spans (dawn of time to today), and teases out the interplay between environmental changes (natural or manmade) and human development and behaviour.  

This is a remarkable piece of work, written engagingly, in a style familiar to his earlier books. Although environmental changes figure in passing in historical accounts, this is probably the first attempt to cull an entire book out of it, connecting the dots and digging up unknown facts and facets.

(Photo | Goodreads.com)

(There was, of course, the earlier work of Fernand Braudel.)  In the author’s words, “This book has three goals. The first is to reinsert climate back into the story of the past as an underlying, crucial and much-overlooked theme in global history and to show where, when and how weather, long-run climate patterns and change in climate––anthropogenic and otherwise––have had an impact on the world.  The second is to set out the story of human interaction in the natural world over millennia and to look at how our species exploited, moulded and bent the environment to its will, both for good and for ill.  And the third is to expand the horizons of how we look at history.”

These are laudable objectives, and they are achieved. There are events the author has unearthed that even professional historians may be unaware of. The rise and decline of civilisations are typically depicted in economic, social and political terms. Rarely has climate featured. One reason why history can use this new lens is because of new technology, modelling and data analytics. The odd paper has been written, establishing, in a probabilistic rather than deterministic sense, how climate change is featured.

As an advocate of these new tools, Frankopan marshals together these findings (and the references are extremely recent) to build the case. Therefore, as you read through the book, the typical reaction will be, ‘Is that true? I didn’t know that.’ This is true not only of events one is unfamiliar with but also ones reasonably familiar with. 

I suspect this will also be true of the author. In its vast sweep of time and space, the book is almost like a unified field theory of climate change and human behaviour, with the causal link extending both ways. 
To quote again, “Writing this book has taught me a great many lessons about how we conceptualise the world around us. But it has also made me realise that the reason we are at such a dangerous intersection is the result of trends that have deep roots in the past."

"As far back as written records go, people worried about human interaction with nature and warned of the dangers of over-exploitation of resources and of long-term damage to the environment. It may well be that we are now on the verge of finally becoming victims of our own success as a species and that the success and strains our behaviour has put on ecosystems have pushed us close to or even beyond a tipping point that has catastrophic consequences. We cannot say, however, that we were not warned.”

The past warns us about the future and rare is the person who has not heard of global warming, biodiversity loss, climate change and sustainable development goals. Frankopan is a historian. The book makes no claims about what the future holds. It merely warns us, as human species, that we should learn from the past and be careful. 

The world population will peak at almost 10 billion, or a bit lower, around 2065. Therefore, there are concerns about the earth’s carrying capacity and the adverse consequences of such a large human population.

 In fairness, we are rightly concerned about the needs and wants of future generations, as in any definition of sustainable development, but we don’t know what kind of technology the future will bring. For example, in days pre-dating the invention of the automobile, the cities of London and New York were in a state of fright, scared that the two cities would be swamped by dung released by horses used to draw carriages. Having said this, there is no denying climate change.

The moot question is: what should be done to mitigate it? What are the policies? How much does technology cost? Is it public or private? Who pays? Who bears the responsibility, richer countries or poorer ones? This is the domain of climate negotiations, where richer nations, responsible for most damage, have defaulted on their obligations.

Instead, it is fashionable to point a finger at China and India. The future, and negotiations, are not terrains covered in this book. But since no individual is independent of subjective value judgements, China and India do figure in the author’s mentions.

India Matters


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