Peter Frankopan’s ‘The Earth Transformed: An Untold Story’: Epic work on climate change : The Tribune India

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Peter Frankopan’s ‘The Earth Transformed: An Untold Story’: Epic work on climate change

Peter Frankopan’s ‘The Earth Transformed: An Untold Story’: Epic work on climate change

The Earth Transformed: An Untold History by Peter Frankopan. Bloomsbury. Pages 704. Rs 850

Devinder Sharma

Peter Frankopan’s magnum opus, ‘The Earth Transformed: An Untold Story’, illustrates how climate and environment have been central to human history. The profound analysis that spans two millennia is an effort to reintegrate history with climate change. When I read the Synthesis Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it appeared the future projections being made by the global community to keep temperature rise below the limit of 1.5 degrees would depend on the way the world leadership wants to shape the 21st century.

Professor of Global History at the University of Oxford, Frankopan has spent decades researching to understand the relationship between environment, natural world and human activities. Beginning with circa 4.5 billion to circa 7 million BC to date, he transgresses history and relates it with climate change and environmental and ecological transformation in a way that goes much beyond what we know. Divided into 24 chapters, the book is an amazing insight into how climate influenced history; and later, as we get closer to the modern times, how in the search for profits, the dominant political and scientific leadership tried to alter climate to its benefit.

The catastrophic consequences are before us. The author takes us through the times when ancient civilisations suffered due to shifting climatic patterns and volcanic eruptions and how human populations gradually moved to experiment with artistic forms clearly depicted in cave paintings. It is interesting to see how the Homo populations learned to control fire sometimes between 1 million and 5 lakh years ago, and how the change in climate subsequently led to demographic spread.

Using DNA evidence, the book traces the evolution of earlier forms of farming and crop cultivation dating back to 7,000 BC. From what is nowadays Greece, Crete, Europe and the Mediterranean basin, it soon moved to Spain, Bosnia and Nile Valley. In China, domesticated agriculture was recorded much later. With changing climate patterns driving migration, the century following the collapse of Indus Valley civilisation in 1900 BC witnessed demographic upheavals. Such was the impact of these migrations that almost 18 per cent Indian men today ‘belong to haplogroup R1a, which came from populations in Scandinavia, central Europe and Siberia’.

Interestingly, as India is worried about the possible impact of El Nino this summer, the book talks of the impact of El Nino-Southern Oscillations in around 3000 BC. In fact, the author tracks El Nino impact in recent history. The book also explains how settlements developed as early as 3000 BC and then the transition to towns, the building of temples and tombs, and even the emergence of accountants to record goods and trade.

It is fascinating to read the history of innovation and how climate aberrations resulted in food shortages, calamities and famines. How the Roman empire was swept away unable to bear the huge ecological cost. As scholars have pointed out: “All empires leave an ecological footprint; Rome’s was substantial.” The book also traces how political opportunism saw the rise of the new ruling families. While famines brought several regimes down, a combination of different factors, including floods, trade route disruptions, etc, brought the collapse of Pataliputra, once known as the greatest city in India.

While climate change was not always detrimental, it did bring about changes in lifestyle. With new plant species introduced subsequently, it changed dietary habits too. At the same time, a catastrophe struck the Yellow River in 1048, washing away the embankment. At least one million people were displaced. The book mentions how the resulting famine forced “fathers and sons to eat each other”. Later, in 1308, natural disasters in China had repeatedly hit the Yangtze and Yellow River deltas. Famines and disease killed almost half the population in the region.

What makes the book fascinating is the historical events packed in each chapter. Given the limitations of space, I won’t be able to dwell more on the interesting details that go much beyond what we probably know. That is perhaps why Sunday Times says ‘Frankopan is a brilliant guide to terra incognita’.

It is in the last two chapters, tracing the history of climate change between the periods 1960-1990 and 1990 to date, that the book looks at the Green Revolution in India and how it had a significant impact on health and environment besides, of course, increasing crop productivity. Talking of the environmental fallout from pesticide contamination, the author talks about how Rachel Carson’s book ‘The Silent Spring’ created a global movement against harmful chemicals. It is in the last chapter that the book tells us how the cities gave rise to profound socio-economic inequalities.

The book is full of details about how our consumption patterns are eating into natural resources, thereby leading to an upheaval in global climate. It says the earth’s axis has shifted since the 1990s, and one major reason for the tilt is the unrelenting exploitation of groundwater in northern India. Hope India is listening.

This is a book that every academician and policymaker must read. It is a book that students interested in climate change will find enthralling, and perhaps might help in changing their perception about the political economy surrounding climate change.

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