Sometime around 2200 BCE, societies across the northern hemisphere faced an ecological crisis. Large city-based empires and states, that had been slowly growing since about 3500 BCE, suddenly started collapsing in on themselves, like a house of cards. This was a situation that was felt across geographies, from the Akkadian empire in Babylon to the Indus Valley Civilization in South Asia to the Yangtze River delta in China. Within another 200 years, most of these areas witnessed a large-scale population dispersal, new kingdoms, and drastically reduced agricultural yields. From thriving international trade to monumental buildings, these were soon all just a memory.
What happened? According to stories written about this era, many hundreds of years later, the common theme was the wrath of gods. Of prideful humans overstepping bounds and being brought low by higher powers. What truly happened was something much less dramatic, but not any less epochal.
As historian Peter Frankopan tells it in his new book The Earth Transformed: An Untold Story, the widespread tumult was the result of a likely environmental catastrophe. Large parts of the world became extremely dry, which scientists have connected to shifts in solar variability, and in the North Atlantic Oscillation—a weather phenomenon over the North Atlantic Ocean. This led to widespread droughts, aridity and dust storms. While the effects of these conditions varied regionally, the overall effect was the same: a humbling of the proud civilizations of the time.
Human existence on the planet has always been precarious, but as Frankopan shows time and again, with examples from history, most of the time, human greed—especially those of the elites of societies—is to blame. The climactic changes of 2200 BCE and the “megadrought” these caused were exacerbated by the behaviour of societies at the time. This first age of empire had seen the rise of gigantic, walled cultures controlled by groups of powerful political elites, “whose power, authority and wealth lay in the ability to control trade, religion, status and labour,” as Frankopan writes.
Indeed, the entire raison d’etre of Frankopan’s book is to look at how human history has been shaped by and has shaped the planet’s environment and climate. The British historian is, after all, no stranger to grand narratives of ancient political economy, having written one of the big non-fiction bestsellers in the past decade: The Silk Roads: A New History Of The World (2015). While that book analysed the huge importance of the fabled overland trade route, The Earth Transformed aims for nothing less than the history of the world. And for the most part, Frankopan succeeds in doing the project justice.
The book’s twenty-four chapters each look at specific historical periods, starting with prehistoric times (c.4.5 billion years- c.7 million years BCE) to the absolute present (1990 to the present day). In each of them, Frankopan surveys the evidence of changes in political economies of cultures all around the planet, and attempts to decipher the reasons why individuals and groups throughout history did the things they did. Were they mere puppets in a game of chance ran by the planet’s environmental vagaries, or did they shape the earth as we know it?
The answer, unsurprisingly, is a bit of both. However, as we get closer to our present time, and as the pace of technology—whether for war or for agriculture or for transport—picks up, we find that it’s the humans that are doing the transforming of earth systems, mostly to their own detriment. Or, rather, powerful elites continue to try and play god, and it is ordinary men and women who suffer.
What is an eye-opener is how the rise and fall of civilizations follow a common boom and bust cycle. Every succeeding dominant culture—be it the Akkadians, or the Romans or the Aztecs or the British Empire or the Western capitalist nations—believed that their way of the world is going to last forever; that mastery over the earth and all that live on it has been achieved. This belief, and the concomitant attempts at hegemonic rule, inevitably leads to a fall—basically resulting in a shift from urban culture to rural. If history is a guide, nothing is ever ‘too big to fail’. In fact, the bigger something gets, the greater the chances of a fall. In the context of climate change and the planetary ecological devastation now, it would seem that the present world order has become so big and so set in its ways that it risks taking all human beings down with it.
Frankopan, though, adopts a more measured tone. His assessment of the sweep of history does not deny what the world is facing right now, but rather shows us how an old human urge to dominate has led us to this point in time. What frustrates slightly is the dry tone of the book, as if it is caught somewhere between being a work of popular historical non-fiction and an academic tome.
However, for the historically curious, this is a rewarding book, because some of the best and wildest stories come from our history. I didn’t know, for example, that the Biblical myth of divine fire and brimstone raining down upon Sodom and Gomorrah was based on an actual event. Around 1650 BCE, “a cosmic airburst or multiple airbursts caused by a comet or meteorite…flattened the city of Tall el-Hamman in the southern Jordan valley…temperatures exceeded 2000°C.” Settlements within a 25-km radius were abandoned for centuries, Frankopan writes, and there was an airburst-related influx of salt. You literally can’t make this up.
The Earth Transformed should be read by people, if for nothing else, just the great stories. For those with a greater interest in history, the books great sweep is best read in tandem with The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert and David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years. And one can’t think of greater praise.