A level-headed chronicle of the varied impact of climate on our history.
There is a sense of achievement when you complete The Earth Transformed, which at times feels like reading the Testaments of the World, illustrated by the photographs of Sebastião Salgado’s Genesis and set to the score of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. This brick of a book is certainly not one to take up inadvisedly or lightly; but reverently and in the fear and certain knowledge that things will relentlessly get worse. Like a vast, twisted but very fascinating gothic novel, The Earth Transformed is both a level-headed chronicle of the varied impact of climate on our history (be it the spark points for the French Revolution or for the Golden Age of the Antonines) but gradually grows to become a passionate series of rhetorical raps leading inexorably towards the threat of extinction through climate change.
One of the many things I admired about this work was the easy, confident way in which Peter Frankopan encompasses every region of the Earth. So when we reach the agricultural-based empires of the 14th century, we naturally embrace what is happening in Oceania, the Mississippi valley, Yucatán, the Sahel of West Africa and Southeast Asia, all treated with exactly the same weight as our more familiar history markers, be they Ming emperors or Mongol khans. Frankopan may be Professor of Global History at Oxford – the chryselephantine balcony off the ivory tower of white male privilege for half a millennium – but of this self-referential world, we get not so much as a whiff. No high art or palaces get saluted. Now and then I had to double-check where on Earth he had taken me by looking on Google Maps. With the condensation of so much information, there will inevitably be opportunities for specialists to protectively buzz over the text with corrections, but as a reader I relished this sense of inclusion.
Frankopan is engaged with a vast landscape and the broadest themes. One of my early takeaways was his destruction of the concept of a pure, natural landscape – be it the ancient primeval forests, or the noble parkland of the Savannah. Even without the tell-tale footprint of man, we learn that the surface of the Earth has always been transformed by the vagaries of an ever-changing climate. There is no pure land, no Eden, for vegetation is locked into a Darwinian battle for survival, just as resolute and merciless as that waged by flesh-eating beasts. And though these battles are often measured in units of millions or hundreds of thousands of years, all can also change in an instant, destroyed by a meteorite, or the air poisoned by a volcano. We also learn that any savage instance of extinction – be it of the dinosaurs or humankind – will also be a revolutionary opportunity for other species and other yet undreamt-of orders of plants and creatures.
Frankopan explains that although the weather of our globe is all linked, it is very difficult to predict what will happen in either a particular region or in global terms. The vast oceanic flows are full of vertical as well as lateral currents, and have their own highly erratic variations, as symbolised in our own times by the El Niño/La Niña duality in the Pacific. We learn that although ice ages can obliterate everything in their path in one part of the Earth, they will bring unimaginable boons to another, such as turning the Sahara into grassland steppe. Even if the current climate catastrophe unrolls as we now fear it must, drowning out the homelands of most of the world’s population, especially those packed into the mega-cities along the coasts, it may yet be to the climatic advantage of another region – such as the steppelands of Central Asia. And it is becoming ever more clear from the historical record of mammalian evolution that this sort of catastrophe is not a one-off ‘Noah’s Flood’ kind of event, but has happened many, many times. There is no safe place, even in the Rift Valley. The evolution of humankind was encompassed by a series of environmental tragedies which wiped out our genetic cousins, necessitating migration and adaptation, then a partial return, then another round of catastrophe. It is this remorseless process that has created a creature with an uncanny ability to adapt to some form of existence in almost all climate zones.
Although we can be left in no doubt as to who is the guilty party in the current climate debacle – step forward the competitive pack of trading nations of north-west Europe (all shown to be equally innovative, hungry and callously inhumane in their creation of the slave-powered export economies of the Caribbean) – I was left with a sense of complete powerlessness. The damage has been done. Unsustainable levels of wealth – whether measured in something as simple as clothing or food, let alone air conditioning and travel – have now been set up as bench-mark standards for the world, so that climate-change damage unleashed by the Industrial Revolution has been quadrupled by the advances made in the rest of the world over the last 30 years. And who can blame or stop such ancient centres of the world economy as China and India as they catch up with the former colonial powers who wreaked such damage on them during ‘the century of humiliation’?
The scientific facts of climate change now speak for themselves, whatever the primal cause. But Frankopan also helps us understand why, even in the guilty old industrial states, this has been such a hard sell. Many of us have grown up with a whole succession of imminent catastrophe theories: nuclear winters, mutually assured destruction, Malthusian over-population and holes in the ozone layer. It may be, even now, that climate warming will be reversed by a massive and long overdue volcanic explosion, followed by five years of famine from dark summers. In which case the cure will be even more violent and sudden than we fear.
It seems that some humans somewhere will survive, probably some way inland from the coast. Unless, of course, the last of the nomads, be they Sámi in the tundra, or the Tebu of the central Sahara, have given up the struggle to survive on their marginal homeland and have migrated to an air-conditioned apartment on the coast.
The Earth Transformed: An Untold History
Bloomsbury 736pp £30
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Barnaby Rogerson is publisher at Eland Books.