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Peter Frankopan

The Earth Transformed

This is an astonishing project. Peter Frankopan is Professor of Global History at Oxford University. Having established his reputation as a leading economic historian with "Silk Roads" (2015), he has now turned his attention to a topic of huge breadth and universal interest, which he has been ‘brewing for several decades’ and for which he is able to draw on a treasury of evidence made available through inventive technology and recently compiled ‘climate archives’. It is a judicious and magisterial survey of the planet we live on from a geological and anthropological standpoint. Weighing in at 1.3 kg, the hardback is a doorstopper of a book, and that’s without the 212 pages of Notes which you can get on the internet, supplying references but no additional material. There are maps, charts and colour plates.

The 28-page Index gives a clue to the preoccupying themes of the book. The top ten subject entries, in order of numbers of references, are: disease (including epidemics and plague), volcanic activity, drought, floods, famine, monsoons, slavery, storms, solar activity and irrigation. This is history from an ecological point of view, but touching political history at many points, where nature and humanity are engaged in a cosmic tussle, the victory continually shifting sides but inexorably tilting towards the ultimate vindication of nature. The perspective is from the dawn of time to the present day, and worldwide in its scope. Since there are no interim paragraph headings within the chapters, the reader has to keep continually alert for the context of the material, whether African, Near and Far Eastern, New World or (the villains of the piece) European.

Where does Frankopan stand in the climate change debate? For him it is a reality right from the start. The question is how the human race has reacted to it, whether with adaptability, efficiency and creativity or with exploitation, corruption and intemperance. In the past there have been periods of cooling and warming, affecting different parts of the world in different ways and in varying time lengths. But things have changed. The most disturbing chapter in the book is not ‘On the Exploitation of Nature and People’, horrific though that is, nor even ‘The Little Ice Age’, with its multiple mortalities, rampant diseases and failure of civilisations, instanced most compellingly by the collapse of the Ming Dynasty – it is the final chapter ‘On the Edge of Ecological Limits (c1900 to today)’ that really chills the blood.

Like classical tragedies, this global drama spirals inexorably downwards until the point of no return is reached, and hubris is visited by nemesis. At that point you might expect a deus ex machina, a godlike figure who appears to make everything right, at least from the divine point of view. But no such figure is in view for Frankopan: the tipping-point has already passed, the earth has been ‘transformed’ through anthropogenic activity, and catastrophe awaits, whether in the form of nature’s revenge or major human warfare. The ‘Conclusion’ offers some hopeful straws in the wind, but that is all.

I have begun to recommend this book to everyone I can, accompanied by a health warning. You could end up considerably better informed, occasionally entertained, and seriously worried. But it is compulsive reading.

Mark Greenstock


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