man & earth felipe fernández-armesto
It ’s the End of the World as We Know It
The Earth Transformed: An Untold History
By Peter Frankopan (Bloomsbury 736pp £30)
The good news is that we’re all doomed. Humankind has made such a hash of the stewardship of creation that God looks like a chump for entrusting it to us. Most of the biosphere would be better off without us. If we don’t self-immolate or exhaust our resources, Peter Frankopan warns us, the planet will take its own revenge in some seismic rupture; or outer space, which we have strewn with the detritus of satellites and probes, may in return bombard us with asteroids or electromagnetic storms.
If the good news is that we are doomed, the better news is that we can’t do much about it. Frankopan points to the arrogance of talk of the ‘Anthropocene’, an age in which humans have replaced nature as the big influence on Earth. Not only does the name resonate with the self-congratulation of a bully, improperly proud of unprincipled power, but it also misleads us by making us think that we have the means of reversing our misconduct. Even if we adhered to the Paris protocols, global warming would be slowed but not arrested. If the sun doesn’t fry us, a new ice age may surprise us. Even if we stopped aggravating illness through our pathological lifestyles, we would remain at the mercy of microbial evolution. One day the ‘coming plague’ may overtake our response to it.
Technology might save us, but so far every technological advance has provoked new problems. Agriculture helped people survive climate change ten thousand years ago, but the results included malnutrition, disease, intensified warfare and political tyranny. Industrialisation met the energy crisis of the 19th century – an episode of which Frankopan seems strangely unaware – but poisoned the biosphere and exacerbated wealth gaps. The Green Revolution saved millions from star vation but encumbered the Earth and impoverished farmers. If we can overleap boundaries that seem untraversable at present, we might deflect the sun’s rays, switch to wholly renewable energy, desalinate enough water to survive and stock our larders with edible bacteria for when familiar foods run out. ‘A historian’, Frankopan concludes at the end of his survey of the last four and a half billion years, ‘would not bet on it.’
In the circumstances, environmental history is necessarily minatory. Frankopan’s is not genuinely ‘an untold history ’. Recent books have approached the subject by focusing on energy, classifying material by biomes, picking a way through the tale by
We a p o n i s i n g t h e w e a t h e r : a 1 9 5 4 m a g a z i n e c o v e r highlighting disasters, examining the relationship between environment and empire, quantifying ‘collapse’ and even presenting old-fashioned chronological narratives. In monographs and journals, however, new data – frequently contradictory – accumulates almost daily. Frankopan is a consummate, up-to-the-minute synthesiser who crams in a surprising amount of other people’s research. He aims to eschew over-generalisation by looking at every documented or suggested environmental change he can master and reconsidering political – and sometimes social and cultural – changes accordingly. It is an admirable ambition, but because the author does not distinguish climate from weather and pays less attention to other elements of the environment, the picture is hard to grasp and no trend seems sustained for long enough to make sense of its links to other trends.
Usually, in reviewing the scholarship, Frankopan summarises without tak ing s ides . When he does adjudicate, he is sometimes right. He is sceptical, for instance, about claims that major anthropogenic change began thousands of years ago, though he slips his guard to state that ‘reconfigurations of the environment … were primarily driven by one motor: the desires and needs of human beings’. He says, with the species arrogance he elsewhere decries, that human emergence was the ‘most important development in the history of the planet.’ Invalid claims sometimes seduce him: he accepts, for instance, unreliable recent computations of the effects of solar irradiation.
No work on such a vast scale can be error-free, but some of Frankopan’s utterances are just odd. He thinks that the peopling of the planet was a response to warming, whereas it happened in an era of cold. He invents a non-existent Portuguese king to explain 15th-century exploration. He antedates the origins of farming so as to make them rationally unintelligible and accuses farmers of ‘lay[ing] the seed’ of inequality (clichés come easily to him), though he knows that palaeolithic societies had their privileged and their poor. His account of the origins of agriculture omits consideration of soil properties and hydrography. He demotes the crisis of the Bronze Age to ‘a time of considerable disruption’. He seems to believe the Buddhist professions of the murderous Indian emperor Ashoka. He fails to notice how cold favoured the Black Death bacillus. His dating of the ‘Little Ice Age’ is idiosyncratic. His account of racism (briefly, Islam got it from the West) is tendentious, and woke drivel seems to have misled him into thinking that Native Americans resisted ‘the first Europeans’ they met. The Maya temple of El Mirador is slightly taller than Temple IV at Tikal, which Frankopan calls ‘the tallest building in the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans’. In musing on Europeans’ late colonisation of west Africa, Frankopan ignores the contrast with the colonisation
Literary Review | march 2023 10