One catastrophe after another: our environmental history

Peter Frankopan’s ‘The Earth Transformed’ is an immense work of scholarship—though sometimes too immense to get your head around
May 10, 2023
The Earth Transformed: An Untold History
Peter Frankopan (RRP: £30)
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History, Winston Churchill is alleged to have said, is written by the victors. It’s also, less contentiously, written by the writers, the preserved word being the best vehicle we have for understanding the vanished past. But this is beginning to change. “New and exciting… archives,” Peter Frankopan writes in his history of humans and their environment, are being opened all the time; only now these archives are physical rather than textual. Arctic ice cores, fossilised pollen, Scandinavian tree rings, the chemical composition of shells—all are divulging their secrets and, in the process, revealing how the protean planet that we call home has shaped human history, and vice versa.

Publishing hyperbole aside, this is not really an “untold” story. The environmentalist George Marsh was writing on Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action as long ago as 1864. The genre has simply been supercharged over the last two generations, for the obvious reason.

That said, I know of no volume that tells the story with the breadth and depth of Frankopan’s The Earth Transformed. The book’s scope is extraordinary: its stage is genuinely global, its data comes from every continent and almost every discipline, and its narrative stretches from the origins of the Earth to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It has the same contagiously lively tone as the author’s justly praised The Silk Roads.

The book’s strength is also its weakness, however, and the reader is in danger of being overwhelmed and losing sight of any historical wood amidst the innumerable trees. Its history can at times feel like one damn eruption, flood, storm, warm period and ice age after another. Then again, from an environmental point of view, perhaps that’s what it is.