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The Earth Transformed

An Untold History

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Hardcover
$40.00 US
On sale Apr 18, 2023 | 736 Pages | 978-0-525-65916-7
Here is a revolutionary new history that reveals how climate change has dramatically shaped the development—and demise—of civilizations across time.

Global warming is one of the greatest dangers mankind faces today. Even as temperatures increase, sea levels rise, and natural disasters escalate, our current environmental crisis feels difficult to predict and understand. But climate change and its effects on us are not new. In a bold narrative that spans centuries and continents, Peter Frankopan argues that nature has always played a fundamental role in the writing of history. From the fall of the Moche civilization in South America that came about because of the cyclical pressures of El Niño to volcanic eruptions in Iceland that affected Egypt and helped bring the Ottoman empire to its knees, climate change and its influences have always been with us. 

Frankopan explains how the Vikings emerged thanks to catastrophic crop failure, why the roots of regime change in eleventh-century Baghdad lay in the collapse of cotton prices resulting from unusual climate patterns, and why the western expansion of the frontiers in North America was directly affected by solar flare activity in the eighteenth century. Again and again, Frankopan shows that when past empires have failed to act sustainably, they have been met with catastrophe. Blending brilliant historical writing and cutting-edge scientific research, The Earth Transformed will radically reframe the way we look at the world and our future.

A MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF 2023: BBC NEWS, SUNDAY TIMES CULTURE, FINANCIAL TIMES, NEW EUROPEAN, GUARDIAN, NEW STATESMAN, THE TIMES (LONDON), AND THE WEEK
 
“Frankopan has brought all of this scholarly work together into a massive book that is comprehensive, well-informed, and fascinating. It has the intellectual weight and dramatic force of a tsunami. . . . This is an endlessly fascinating book, an easy read on an important issue.” —Gerard DeGroot, The Times (London)

Frankopan shows you how everything fits together. . . . Vast, learned and timely work. . . . The Earth Transformed is Sapiens for grown-ups. . . . It holds lessons for a world grappling with rapid climate change caused by human industry.” Dan Jones, The Sunday Times

“A dazzling compendium of global research. . . . The value of this book is an act of deep understanding, recognising not only scientifically but culturally and philosophically that we are epiphenomena—not dominators of the Earth but products of it.” —Adam Nicolson, Spectator

“The author succeeds in mastering a seemingly impossible challenge, distilling an immense mass of historical sources, scientific data, and modern scholarship that span thousands of years and the entire globe into an epic and spellbinding story. Humanity has transformed the Earth: Frankopan transforms our understanding of history.” —Walter Scheidel, Financial Times

“All historians aiming to tell a narrative face the problem of when exactly to start it. Only Peter Frankopan would go back 2.5 billion years to the Great Oxidation Event.” —Tom Holland, author of Dominion

“Frankopan demonstrates an impressive mastery of anthropological, historical, and meteorological literature, and his scrupulously evenhanded analysis carefully notes uncertainties in scientific and historical evidence. Elegant and cogently argued, this illuminates an age-old and urgently important dynamic.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“A scholarly assessment of the long-standing human habit of altering the environment to increasingly devastating consequences. . . . The author negotiates the difficult matter of environmental determinism well. . . . A deep, knowledgeable dive into environmental history.” —Kirkus

“Mapping historical, anthropological, and economic narratives against mountains of climate data, Frankopan correlates periods of instability to shifts in weather patterns, ocean currents, and seismic events. And if the human species has frequently survived existential peril—the Black Death, the Little Ice Age, volcanic mega-eruptions—the threats to our collective future are massive and unprecedented. . . . Propelled by Frankopan’s global scope and interdisciplinary legwork, the resulting synthesis is ambitious, nervous, and impressive.” —Booklist
1
The World from the Dawn of Time
(c.4.5bn–c.7m bc)

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void ...

—Book of Genesis, 1:1

We should all be grateful for dramatic changes to global climate. Were it not for billions of years of intense celestial and solar activity, repeated asteroid strikes, epic volcanic eruptions, extraordinary atmospheric change, spectacular tectonic shifts and constant biotic adaptation, we would not be alive today. Astrophysicists talk of habitable regions around stars that are not too hot and not too cold as being in the ‘goldilocks zone’. The earth is one of many such examples. But conditions have changed constantly and sometimes catastrophically since the creation of our planet around 4.6 billion years ago. For almost all the time that the earth has existed, our species would not and could not have survived. In today’s world, we think of humans as architects of dangerous environmental and climate change; but we are prime beneficiaries of such transformations in the past.

Our role on this planet has been an exceptionally modest one. The first hominins appeared only a few million years ago, and the first anatomically modern humans (including Neanderthals) around 500,000 years ago. What we know of the period since then is patchy, difficult to interpret and often highly speculative. As we get closer to the modern day, archaeology helps us understand more reliably how people lived; but to know what they did, thought and believed we have to wait till the development of full-writing systems around 5,000 years ago. To put that into context, accounts, documents and texts that allow us to reconstruct the past with nuance and detail cover around 0.000001 percent of the world’s past. We are not just fortunate to exist as a species, but in the grand scheme of history we are new and very late arrivals.

Like rude guests who arrive at the last minute, cause havoc and set about destroying the house to which they have been invited, human impact on the natural environment has been substantial and is accelerating to the point that many scientists question the long-term viability of human life. That in itself is not unusual, however. For one thing, our species is not alone in transforming the world around us, for other species of biota—that is to say, flora, fauna and microorganisms—are not passive participants in or simple bystanders to a relationship that exists solely or even primarily between humans and nature. Each is actively involved in processes of change, adaptation and evolution—sometimes with devastating consequences.

This is one reason why some scholars have criticised the idea and the name of the ‘Anthropocene’, which prioritises humans into ‘a distinguished species’ that has claimed the right to identify what is and is not wild, to classify ‘resources’ as ones that can be used—sustainably or otherwise. Such, argue some, is the ‘arrogance that greatly overestimates human contributions while downplaying those of other life forms almost to the point of nonexistence’.

For around half the earth’s existence, there was little or no oxygen in the atmosphere. Our planet was formed through a long period of accretion, or gradual accumulation of layers, followed by a major collision with a Mars-sized impactor—which released enough energy to melt the earth’s mantle and create the earliest atmosphere from the resultant exchange between a magma ocean and vapour that was anoxic, that is to say, lacking in oxygen.

The earth’s biogeochemical cycles eventually resulted in a radical transformation. Although there is considerable debate about how, when and why oxygenic photosynthesis occurred, evidence from organic biomarkers, fossils and genome-scale data suggests that cyanobacteria evolved to absorb and take energy from sunlight, using it to make sugars out of water and carbon dioxide, releasing oxygen as a by-product. New models suggest that 1 to 5 billion lightning flashes that occurred per year on early earth may have been the source of large volumes of prebiotic reactive phosphorus that played an important role in the emergence of terrestrial life.

Around 3 billion years ago—if not earlier—enough oxygen was being produced to create ‘oases’ in protected nutrient-rich shallow marine habitats. Whether because of chemical reaction, evolutionary development, sudden superabundance of cyanobacteria, volcanic eruptions or a slowdown in the earth’s rotation (or a combination of all five), atmospheric oxygen levels accumulated rapidly around 2.5–2.3 billion years ago, resulting in an episode known as the Great Oxidation Event. This was a key moment that paved the way for the emergence of complex life as we know it.

It also led to dramatic changes in climate, as rapidly increasing oxygen reacted with methane, producing water vapour and carbon dioxide. Alongside the effects of a supercontinent being formed from the collisions of landmasses, the earth’s greenhouse was weakened, leading to the planet being covered completely in ice and snow. Changes in the earth’s orbit around the sun, known as the Milankovitch cycle, may also have played a role in this process. So too might giant meteorite impacts which not only threw up debris into the atmosphere that blocked the sun’s light and heat but also played an important role in the formation of the continents. The glacial episodes may have been weaker or stronger over the course of several hundred million years, but in general the effect of ‘Snowball Earth’ was so dramatic that some scientists refer to this period as a whole as a ‘climate disaster’.

This process was precarious and complex, and is the subject of considerable advances in current research. As with later glaciations, however, it resulted in profound changes for the planet’s plant and animal life. One outcome appears to have been the evolution of small organisms into larger sizes, capable of moving at faster speeds to compensate for the high viscosity of cold seawater. It has recently been suggested that the formation of 8,000-kilometre long belts of ‘supermountains’ may have played a role in the rise of atmospheric oxygen and in stimulating biological evolution as a result of phosphorus, iron and nutrients being deposited into oceans as mountains eroded over the course of hundreds of millions of years.

The fossil record of complex, macroscopic organisms begins with the Ediacara Biota period which started 570 million years ago and which saw at least forty recognised species developing into multicellular animals that were symmetrical—presumably helpful for functions such as mobility. It marked a period of extraordinary diversification in the variety of animals living in the oceans and in their evolution, development and adaptation, with some creatures like trilobites developing respiratory organs on their upper limbs.

Near the end of the Ordovician period, around 444 million years ago, a sudden cooling, perhaps triggered by tectonic shifts that produced the Appalachian mountains, led to sharp falls in temperature and initiated shifts in deep ocean currents, as well as declines in sea level that shrank habitats for marine planktonic and nektonic species. That cooling produced one pulse of extinction; another came when temperatures moderated, sea levels rose and ocean current patterns stagnated, with a resultant sharp fall in oxygen levels. Traces of mercury and indications of significant acidification suggest that volcanic activity was a key factor in the second stage of a process that ultimately brought about the extinction of 85 per cent of all species.

As the moon used to be much closer to the earth—perhaps half the distance away that it is today— these forces were considerably stronger and therefore had a greater impact on the earth’s climate and also perhaps on its wildlife: recent modelling suggests that big tidal ranges may have been responsible for forcing bony fish into shallow pools on land, thereby prompting the evolution of weight-bearing limbs and air-breathing organs. The moon played a role not only in the transformation of the earth, in other words, but also in the development of life on this planet.
© Jessica Frankopan
PETER FRANKOPAN is professor of global history at Oxford University. He is the author of The First Crusade: The Call from the East, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, and The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World. He lives in Oxford. View titles by Peter Frankopan

About

Here is a revolutionary new history that reveals how climate change has dramatically shaped the development—and demise—of civilizations across time.

Global warming is one of the greatest dangers mankind faces today. Even as temperatures increase, sea levels rise, and natural disasters escalate, our current environmental crisis feels difficult to predict and understand. But climate change and its effects on us are not new. In a bold narrative that spans centuries and continents, Peter Frankopan argues that nature has always played a fundamental role in the writing of history. From the fall of the Moche civilization in South America that came about because of the cyclical pressures of El Niño to volcanic eruptions in Iceland that affected Egypt and helped bring the Ottoman empire to its knees, climate change and its influences have always been with us. 

Frankopan explains how the Vikings emerged thanks to catastrophic crop failure, why the roots of regime change in eleventh-century Baghdad lay in the collapse of cotton prices resulting from unusual climate patterns, and why the western expansion of the frontiers in North America was directly affected by solar flare activity in the eighteenth century. Again and again, Frankopan shows that when past empires have failed to act sustainably, they have been met with catastrophe. Blending brilliant historical writing and cutting-edge scientific research, The Earth Transformed will radically reframe the way we look at the world and our future.

A MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF 2023: BBC NEWS, SUNDAY TIMES CULTURE, FINANCIAL TIMES, NEW EUROPEAN, GUARDIAN, NEW STATESMAN, THE TIMES (LONDON), AND THE WEEK
 
“Frankopan has brought all of this scholarly work together into a massive book that is comprehensive, well-informed, and fascinating. It has the intellectual weight and dramatic force of a tsunami. . . . This is an endlessly fascinating book, an easy read on an important issue.” —Gerard DeGroot, The Times (London)

Frankopan shows you how everything fits together. . . . Vast, learned and timely work. . . . The Earth Transformed is Sapiens for grown-ups. . . . It holds lessons for a world grappling with rapid climate change caused by human industry.” Dan Jones, The Sunday Times

“A dazzling compendium of global research. . . . The value of this book is an act of deep understanding, recognising not only scientifically but culturally and philosophically that we are epiphenomena—not dominators of the Earth but products of it.” —Adam Nicolson, Spectator

“The author succeeds in mastering a seemingly impossible challenge, distilling an immense mass of historical sources, scientific data, and modern scholarship that span thousands of years and the entire globe into an epic and spellbinding story. Humanity has transformed the Earth: Frankopan transforms our understanding of history.” —Walter Scheidel, Financial Times

“All historians aiming to tell a narrative face the problem of when exactly to start it. Only Peter Frankopan would go back 2.5 billion years to the Great Oxidation Event.” —Tom Holland, author of Dominion

“Frankopan demonstrates an impressive mastery of anthropological, historical, and meteorological literature, and his scrupulously evenhanded analysis carefully notes uncertainties in scientific and historical evidence. Elegant and cogently argued, this illuminates an age-old and urgently important dynamic.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“A scholarly assessment of the long-standing human habit of altering the environment to increasingly devastating consequences. . . . The author negotiates the difficult matter of environmental determinism well. . . . A deep, knowledgeable dive into environmental history.” —Kirkus

“Mapping historical, anthropological, and economic narratives against mountains of climate data, Frankopan correlates periods of instability to shifts in weather patterns, ocean currents, and seismic events. And if the human species has frequently survived existential peril—the Black Death, the Little Ice Age, volcanic mega-eruptions—the threats to our collective future are massive and unprecedented. . . . Propelled by Frankopan’s global scope and interdisciplinary legwork, the resulting synthesis is ambitious, nervous, and impressive.” —Booklist

Excerpt

1
The World from the Dawn of Time
(c.4.5bn–c.7m bc)

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void ...

—Book of Genesis, 1:1

We should all be grateful for dramatic changes to global climate. Were it not for billions of years of intense celestial and solar activity, repeated asteroid strikes, epic volcanic eruptions, extraordinary atmospheric change, spectacular tectonic shifts and constant biotic adaptation, we would not be alive today. Astrophysicists talk of habitable regions around stars that are not too hot and not too cold as being in the ‘goldilocks zone’. The earth is one of many such examples. But conditions have changed constantly and sometimes catastrophically since the creation of our planet around 4.6 billion years ago. For almost all the time that the earth has existed, our species would not and could not have survived. In today’s world, we think of humans as architects of dangerous environmental and climate change; but we are prime beneficiaries of such transformations in the past.

Our role on this planet has been an exceptionally modest one. The first hominins appeared only a few million years ago, and the first anatomically modern humans (including Neanderthals) around 500,000 years ago. What we know of the period since then is patchy, difficult to interpret and often highly speculative. As we get closer to the modern day, archaeology helps us understand more reliably how people lived; but to know what they did, thought and believed we have to wait till the development of full-writing systems around 5,000 years ago. To put that into context, accounts, documents and texts that allow us to reconstruct the past with nuance and detail cover around 0.000001 percent of the world’s past. We are not just fortunate to exist as a species, but in the grand scheme of history we are new and very late arrivals.

Like rude guests who arrive at the last minute, cause havoc and set about destroying the house to which they have been invited, human impact on the natural environment has been substantial and is accelerating to the point that many scientists question the long-term viability of human life. That in itself is not unusual, however. For one thing, our species is not alone in transforming the world around us, for other species of biota—that is to say, flora, fauna and microorganisms—are not passive participants in or simple bystanders to a relationship that exists solely or even primarily between humans and nature. Each is actively involved in processes of change, adaptation and evolution—sometimes with devastating consequences.

This is one reason why some scholars have criticised the idea and the name of the ‘Anthropocene’, which prioritises humans into ‘a distinguished species’ that has claimed the right to identify what is and is not wild, to classify ‘resources’ as ones that can be used—sustainably or otherwise. Such, argue some, is the ‘arrogance that greatly overestimates human contributions while downplaying those of other life forms almost to the point of nonexistence’.

For around half the earth’s existence, there was little or no oxygen in the atmosphere. Our planet was formed through a long period of accretion, or gradual accumulation of layers, followed by a major collision with a Mars-sized impactor—which released enough energy to melt the earth’s mantle and create the earliest atmosphere from the resultant exchange between a magma ocean and vapour that was anoxic, that is to say, lacking in oxygen.

The earth’s biogeochemical cycles eventually resulted in a radical transformation. Although there is considerable debate about how, when and why oxygenic photosynthesis occurred, evidence from organic biomarkers, fossils and genome-scale data suggests that cyanobacteria evolved to absorb and take energy from sunlight, using it to make sugars out of water and carbon dioxide, releasing oxygen as a by-product. New models suggest that 1 to 5 billion lightning flashes that occurred per year on early earth may have been the source of large volumes of prebiotic reactive phosphorus that played an important role in the emergence of terrestrial life.

Around 3 billion years ago—if not earlier—enough oxygen was being produced to create ‘oases’ in protected nutrient-rich shallow marine habitats. Whether because of chemical reaction, evolutionary development, sudden superabundance of cyanobacteria, volcanic eruptions or a slowdown in the earth’s rotation (or a combination of all five), atmospheric oxygen levels accumulated rapidly around 2.5–2.3 billion years ago, resulting in an episode known as the Great Oxidation Event. This was a key moment that paved the way for the emergence of complex life as we know it.

It also led to dramatic changes in climate, as rapidly increasing oxygen reacted with methane, producing water vapour and carbon dioxide. Alongside the effects of a supercontinent being formed from the collisions of landmasses, the earth’s greenhouse was weakened, leading to the planet being covered completely in ice and snow. Changes in the earth’s orbit around the sun, known as the Milankovitch cycle, may also have played a role in this process. So too might giant meteorite impacts which not only threw up debris into the atmosphere that blocked the sun’s light and heat but also played an important role in the formation of the continents. The glacial episodes may have been weaker or stronger over the course of several hundred million years, but in general the effect of ‘Snowball Earth’ was so dramatic that some scientists refer to this period as a whole as a ‘climate disaster’.

This process was precarious and complex, and is the subject of considerable advances in current research. As with later glaciations, however, it resulted in profound changes for the planet’s plant and animal life. One outcome appears to have been the evolution of small organisms into larger sizes, capable of moving at faster speeds to compensate for the high viscosity of cold seawater. It has recently been suggested that the formation of 8,000-kilometre long belts of ‘supermountains’ may have played a role in the rise of atmospheric oxygen and in stimulating biological evolution as a result of phosphorus, iron and nutrients being deposited into oceans as mountains eroded over the course of hundreds of millions of years.

The fossil record of complex, macroscopic organisms begins with the Ediacara Biota period which started 570 million years ago and which saw at least forty recognised species developing into multicellular animals that were symmetrical—presumably helpful for functions such as mobility. It marked a period of extraordinary diversification in the variety of animals living in the oceans and in their evolution, development and adaptation, with some creatures like trilobites developing respiratory organs on their upper limbs.

Near the end of the Ordovician period, around 444 million years ago, a sudden cooling, perhaps triggered by tectonic shifts that produced the Appalachian mountains, led to sharp falls in temperature and initiated shifts in deep ocean currents, as well as declines in sea level that shrank habitats for marine planktonic and nektonic species. That cooling produced one pulse of extinction; another came when temperatures moderated, sea levels rose and ocean current patterns stagnated, with a resultant sharp fall in oxygen levels. Traces of mercury and indications of significant acidification suggest that volcanic activity was a key factor in the second stage of a process that ultimately brought about the extinction of 85 per cent of all species.

As the moon used to be much closer to the earth—perhaps half the distance away that it is today— these forces were considerably stronger and therefore had a greater impact on the earth’s climate and also perhaps on its wildlife: recent modelling suggests that big tidal ranges may have been responsible for forcing bony fish into shallow pools on land, thereby prompting the evolution of weight-bearing limbs and air-breathing organs. The moon played a role not only in the transformation of the earth, in other words, but also in the development of life on this planet.

Author

© Jessica Frankopan
PETER FRANKOPAN is professor of global history at Oxford University. He is the author of The First Crusade: The Call from the East, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, and The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World. He lives in Oxford. View titles by Peter Frankopan