The Earth Transformed

Juan González-Barba Pera

13 mins - 14 de Abril de 2024, 07:00

On the occasion of its translation into Spanish, the book The Earth Transformed. An Untold History by British historian Peter Frankopan has received much attention in our country, and rightly so. It is a landmark in historiography, both for its innovative approach and for the many questions it unintentionally reveals - or leaves undisclosed - by the author.

The Transformed Earth is the first history book for the general public to systematically incorporate the ecological factor into human history in a threefold way. First, because it includes the pre-human history of the planet (from 4.5 billion to 7 million BC), if only in the first section of the book. ), even if only in the first chapter of a total of twenty-four; secondly, because it deals with the effects of the environment on human history; thirdly, because it includes the human impact on the environment throughout history, which becomes its leitmotif from the first globalisation with the full imbrication of America in world history (chapter fourteen onwards), which does not mean that it had not been considered before that date, nor that from that date onwards the impact of the environment on man is neglected.

At this point a caveat is in order. The book goes beyond the purely ecological, unless we stretch its definition to include the cosmic. Ecology is a science that encompasses the relationships of living beings with each other and with their environment. The environment is understood as the sum of abiotic factors, the most important of which are geology and climate. These latter factors are restricted in principle to the planet earth, i.e. its atmosphere, surface and subsoil (with special consideration of the water mass between the surface and the sea, lake and river beds). But geology already tells us that some rocks and minerals are of exoplanetary origin. Likewise, if we understand climate as the set of meteorological conditions of the Earth or any of its regions and localities over a long period of time, with the different possible combinations of temperature, pressure, wind, humidity and precipitation, its results would be self-limiting and insufficient if exoplanetary influences were not included: The influence of the moon on tides has been known since ancient times, but today’s science has proven the influence of solar activity on climate, both through sunspots - via the magnetic disturbances they generate - and through the long-term variations known as grand solar minimum and grand solar maximum.  Not to mention the effects of asteroid impacts on geology and climate (and, of course, biology). The author, in the very introduction to the book, makes it clear that he is extending ecology to the cosmic, insofar as certain extraterrestrial factors influence our ecosystem.

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Although Peter Frankopan does not identify it in a specific category, his approach makes it possible to objectify and classify the element of human history that has most troubled mankind: chance. One could summarise human history as the human attempt to predict and control chance. Religions attributed to the divine will any kind of chance manifestation, and tried to auscultate it through oracles and prophets, to propitiate it in a favourable sense - through fertility or rain rituals, for example - or to dissuade it from disastrous decisions through sacrifices to content or appease it. Above all, it tried to explain negative events in the past by the anger of the god or gods, who had to be placated with new sacrifices and prevented from future anger by means of rites to follow and commandments to fulfil. The most inexplicable individual negative event, death, received different responses depending on the perspective adopted by different religions. In contrast to the religious response to chance, scientific thought sought an explanation of natural phenomena by means of laws, so that it gradually narrowed the scope in which chance operated, excluding from its consideration what happened to the individual beyond death (whether it was the resurrection of the soul or reincarnation or any other religious response). Countless phenomena that were formerly attributed to divine will were thus explained and, where necessary, controlled and manipulated, either to prevent them if they were harmful (such as epidemics) or to enhance them if they were positive (such as soil fertility).

Weather has been the quintessential randomness. There were gods in ancient religions who were the personification of meteorological elements. Science has succeeded in explaining almost all previously unexplainable phenomena, and in predicting many of them within a reasonable time frame. Above all, it has taught us that climate is a system, of which man is an essential part, insofar as his activities affect the climate and are affected by it. Everything is interrelated, and our knowledge and predictive capacity will increase as we are able to consider how a small variation affects the whole (“the butterfly effect”). The development of Artificial Intelligence - which Frankopan does not echo enough in the book - therefore opens up enormous prospects for the future of the climate with increasingly complex and developed models, although the prospects are not always positive, especially in terms of their conscious manipulation. This aspect is well covered in The Transformed Earth, which in its last two chapters mentions some of the best-known climate manipulation initiatives - many others remain secret - and warns of the enormous risks involved. What the book does of course address, and comprehensively, is the history of unconsciously man-made climate change, especially significant since the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, the beginning of the period that the chemist Paul Crutzen called the “Anthropocene”.

The main objective of the ecological transition is the sustainability of the Earth or, in other words, the sustainable use of its resources, under the premise that man is inextricably linked to the Earth’s ecosystem, to the extent that, since the beginning of the Anthropocene, he has been the main cause of the imbalances suffered by our ecosystem. It would therefore be a matter of recovering the balance, with two main lines of action: reversing climate change, which means preventing global warming, and guaranteeing the survival and quality of natural resources (non-pollution of soil and water, conservation of forests and jungles, biological diversity, etc.), bearing in mind that the differentiation between one and the other is theoretical, as both are interconnected.

Well, what The Transformed Earth teaches us with its panoramic view of human history with full incorporation of the ecological factor, is that we have greatly reduced chance due to natural factors, and that in theory it is within our power to reverse the climate change we have caused since the beginning of the Anthropocene, but only to a certain extent. It is beyond our reach to combat - in the sense of anticipating and, if necessary, controlling - cosmic and telluric randomness, at least with the scientific knowledge and technical means at our disposal today. Unforeseen and intense solar phenomena, large asteroid impacts or, much closer to us and more likely, volcanic eruptions or earthquakes of maximum intensity (or medium intensity, but frequent and with several foci), can derail our efforts to undo the perverse effects caused in the Anthropocene.

The author acknowledges this in his conclusions in the specific case of a mega eruption with a volcanic explosive index of 7 or more (the last one of such intensity was Tambora in 1815), “spewing huge amounts of ash and gases into the atmosphere and rendering climate change debates superfluous”. The cooling caused by the ash layer would more than compensate for the human-induced increase in average temperature, not to mention the other ecosystem effects detrimental to our human existence. We must therefore be aware that our efforts to ensure the green transition are a necessary condition for saving the Earth and humanity, but not sufficient. Cosmic and telluric randomness can inflict serious damage to our ecosystem and even eliminate us as a species. And that is a figure of speech: “damage” in the sense that it would make our existence very difficult or even impossible. But the Earth would find its equilibrium again, until some other factor - which need not be human - upset it. One can imagine a world without humans, just as there has been a world without dinosaurs since an asteroid hit the Yucatan peninsula 66 million years ago. In Chapter I, Frankopan rightly warns against a Adamist idea of nature: “Conservationists sometimes imply that time can be stopped, leaving rainforests and grasslands intact, preserving ‘nature’ from human intervention...Nature is not a harmonious, benign and complementary concept that guarantees equilibrium, for ecosystems have always been transformed and reshaped by many non-human forces”.  

Not to mention human chance itself. In the book’s conclusions, Frankopan also points to the hypothesis that the greatest threat to our species is not climate change but, for example, a major war. He adds that the link between climate change and violence has been discussed, as in possible “water wars”, but that until the invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s decision to put Russia’s nuclear arsenal on alert, the use of nuclear weapons in the last thirty years seemed inconceivable. And therein lies one of the book’s greatest limitations, which is the narration of the history of mankind in a convincing and balanced way beyond the reciprocal impact between man and environment. Possibly because this was not and could not be the aim of a book of such geographical, thematic and temporal breadth. I think its purpose is well summed up in the conclusions: “environmental factors, including climate, are not actors in the history of our species, sometimes intervening to topple empires, produce social collapse or take people by surprise. Rather, they are the very stage on which the drama of our existence unfolds, shaping everything we do, who we are, where and how we live”. That is, the stage conditions, but does not determine who we are or what we do.

The scenario is very well summarised - compressed, almost - in the book’s more than 600 pages. The difference with other histories of mankind told so far is not that they did not take into account the environmental impacts, back and forth (although, admittedly, with a preponderance of the effects of the environment on man). We had been told that a natural catastrophe ended the Minoan civilisation on Crete, and we were aware through accounts in sacred texts of great floods and inundations at the dawn of history proper, that is, contemporaneous with writing. We knew of the destruction of Pompeii by the eruption of Vesuvius in 1979, or of the impact of the Lisbon tsunami of 1755, not only on Portugal, but also on European thought at the time. It was inconceivable to deal with the crisis of the late Middle Ages without taking into account the impact of the Black Death in the mid-14th century. In recent times, we know how the influenza pandemic of 1918 and beyond added to the suffering caused by the First World War and, in the very recent past, we have witnessed how the Covid-19 pandemic has caused profound socio-economic transformations, and how it in turn was originally a case of zoonosis facilitated by environmental degradation.

What is new about The Transformed Earth is its attempt to systematise - and interrelate - these influences in two ways: firstly, by showing how natural shocks of great intensity caused simultaneous transformations in civilisations that were tenuously connected - or even disconnected, as was the case in pre-Columbian America. One of the most striking examples is the crisis of Late Antiquity, from the second third of the 6th century to its end and beyond. The eruptions and their climatic impact led to the transformation of the Eastern Roman Empire, the collapse of the Sassanid Empire, outward movements from the Asian steppes and the Arabian Peninsula, the expansion of the Slavic peoples and political turbulence in China. But they also provoked profound transformations in other regions with little connection to the Eurasian core, such as the Aksum kingdom in Ethiopia, or with no connection at all, such as Teotihuacan in Mexico.

Secondly, by showing how phenomena that had been perceived as independent of each other had the same more or less mediated cause in nature. One example was the Mongol invasions of Eastern Europe, China and the Indian subcontinent in the 13th century. The devastation suffered - as felt by the local people, regardless of the favourable consequences for trade and the exchange of ideas brought about by the Mongol pax - was soon followed by the destruction of the Black Death. The spread of Yersinia pestis was facilitated by the increased mobility and trade made possible by the Mongol Empire. In turn, the Mongol expansion would not have occurred without the highest rainfall in more than a millennium following a climate change brought about by a series of volcanic eruptions as far away as Iceland and Japan. Thanks to these rains, there was an overabundance of grasses that allowed the Mongols to make full use of their military comparative advantage: the horse.

It is the human drama, including the randomness of human nature, that is insufficiently sketched in such a book. I will devote a separate article to this. 
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