The Earth Transformed
by Peter Francopan (An Untold Story)
Bloomsbury - Hardback 2023
Sam Hawksmoor review
It takes nearly 700 pages to examine the entrails of climate’s influence upon man and the planet over the last 5000 years. I can’t even begin to extract the salient facts that make this work of history so valuable and relevant, it’s all relevant. Stripping personalities out of history makes a lot of sense. No matter how sophisticated Asia may have been two thousand five hundred years ago whilst we in the UK wore skins and worshiped stones, almost every key event in the progress or regress of mankind has been at the whim of the planet we inhabit. Spectacular volcanic eruptions spew debris into the upper atmosphere and plunge the world into freezing temperatures and kill millions. It’s all on repeat for thousands of years and yet despite floods and starvation we seem to survive. It’s no coincidence that plagues follows trade and in particular the Silk Road. It's the price of expansion and contact.
The first cities and trade links blossomed from around 3500 BC and mankind’s influence began to be felt on the environment as deforestation grew to make way for crops often followed by soil erosion. (The anthropogenic hypothesis). Something similar that is rapidly occurring in the Amazon right now, as we can be sure that mankind rarely learns from history.
Some periods in significant development are due to benign weather and favour say the rapid development of Islam and this in turn spread knowledge in their sphere of control. But as different societies come into contact with each other they clash and diseases spread. Would the French revolution been so bloody or effective if three years before it began, a volcanic eruption caused European temperatures to fall and mass starvation in France in particular. Let them eat cake indeed. This all occurred during the Little Ice Age (c1550-c1800).
If every history class in senior school had access to this book students would gain a brilliant perspective on happenstance and cause and effect in the development of societies. They would gain a greater understanding on why the past developed as it did and how the spread of humanity altered the environment we inhabit forever. Forget Kings and Queens and see the Earth transformed by chance and an endless battle between myth and science. The conquest of the Americas by Spain decimated the native peoples who had developed sophisticated societies in MesoAmerica between 800BC to 1500AD. The chapters on slavery are deeply depressing with consequences with us forever. The sugar and cotton plantations they were transported to were monuments to inhumanity. When hurricanes struck the islands and killed thousands they were simply replaced. In the Americas there is the endless influence of El Nina and El Nino bringing alternate drought or floods. The rapid clearances of forest throughout the America's altered the weather and the events of the dustbowl in middle-America are well knows and huge quantities of top soil was blown away forever.
Well meaning digging of canals in India to provide a more stable environment for growing food led to more population growth and to the spread of yellow fever and deforestation and even more starvation and loss of life.
Still to this day we have climate deniers, some indeed running for president right now. Throughout history there were some key influencers who knew that forests needed to be protected and soil renewed but were more than often ignored or lost influence. Sometimes politicians acted, such as Clean Air acts or voting against nuclear testing in the atmosphere but common sense seems rare.
The last chapters do not fill us with hope for our place in this rapidly warming planet but nevertheless this monumental work by Peter Francopan should be read by all who seek greater enlightenment. (And don't forget his previous work The Silk Roads).
*Buy the hardback with the beautiful page-ends available only in Waterstones
© Sam Hawksmoor 2023
Author of Mission Longshot and J&K 4Ever