Climate change shapes history, says historian Peter Frankopan. Civilizations thrive or fall on environmental stewardship and adaptability.
On this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, we talk with Oxford historian Peter Frankopan, author of the new book The Earth Transformed: An Untold History. Delving into the intricate relationship between climate change and human history, Frankopan argues that environmental stewardship has been a pivotal factor in the rise and fall of empires and civilizations.
He takes us on a journey through time, from ancient Mesopotamia’s sustainable practices to the Byzantine Empire’s remarkable adaptability. Frankopan reveals how climate change has influenced warfare, disease, and economies, and warns of the potential threats from natural phenomena like volcanic eruptions and solar flares.
Indeed, Frankopan sounds a clear wake-up call. Unless we pay heed to history’s lessons, he says, our very survival is at stake. Yet he adds that the current environmental crisis, however dire, is not a death sentence but rather a warning to us to embrace sustainable practices before it’s too late. As civilizations rise and fall, the Earth endures, highlighting the need for a harmonious relationship with the natural world.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Climate change is not a modern phenomenon. Nature and climate has persistently changed, and in so doing it has shaped human history, influencing nothing less than the rise and fall of civilizations. History is clear. Sustainable practices have repeatedly saved or destroyed societies. In his new book, The Earth Transformed, my guest, historian Peter Frankopan, provides a unique perspective on this relationship between our environment and human history.
Frankopan presents compelling evidence that good environmental stewardship where possible has been crucial in preserving empires and civilization. His thought-provoking narrative and world-class research serve as a reminder that if we don’t learn from history, we truly are condemned to repeat it. Peter Frankopan is a professor of global history at Oxford. He’s the author of the previous books, The First Crusade, The Silk Roads and The New Silk Roads. His newest work is The Earth Transformed: An Untold History. It is my pleasure to welcome Peter Frankopan here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Peter, thanks so much for joining us.
Peter Frankopan: Absolute pleasure. Thank you, Jeff, for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s great to have you here. I want to talk first about this idea of environmental determinism, that place matters, that weather matters, that environment matters in terms of how civilizations both rise and fall.
Peter Frankopan: I guess you could think about the natural world a bit like your bank manager. You have to spend your resources carefully, and if you spend too much and you can’t pay back, then the bank manager comes calling. Every now and again the bank manager can be benign and you can get away from him or her, but oftentimes if you miscalculate and you overspend then you’re in trouble. And that’s a simple analogy, I guess, to think about the natural environment, But that’s something that, interestingly, our common ancestors have been thinking about, so far as we can tell, not just the beginning of written history, but since our species evolved.
So some of the very, very, very earliest texts, written about 5,000 years ago when writing systems came in, talk about the anxieties around what happens if there are weather shocks or if the climates change, if there’s too much rain or too little rain. What does that do to crops? How do you cope with the fact that if there’s a bad run of weather and your crops fail, there’s price inflation? All the things we’ve been seeing in the last year or so, how do you cope with that adversity?
And some of those very first stories in the Bible are all about the idea that God creates the world in perfect shape and form with everything that you need, but if you transgress, if you disobey, if you’re a bad person or if you eat from the forbidden tree, which is sacred to the story of the Garden of Eden in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, then you’re punished with ecological trepidation and difficulties. And we find similar kinds of stories across all sorts of belief systems in the Indic faiths, in the Vedic systems, in China, Mesoamerica. That anxiety around what happens if you get your budgets wrong is something that really traces itself deep into our history. We just don’t think about history that way.
Jeff Schechtman: And the irony is that in a way, it is so much more pure in terms of the impact that climate and these forces had in the historical context, because that was without the ability that we have today, limited though it may be, it’s an ability nonetheless, to be more adaptable because of modernity and technology.
Peter Frankopan: That’s absolutely right, Jeff. And I think that the way in which we have science and innovation, the speed of which we have these new innovations is key. But if you look back at, let’s say, Mesopotamia, one of the great cradles of civilization in what’s now Iraq, in the flat plains between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. People were still concerned thousands of years ago to work out how to develop new technologies that allow you to get better results from your crops. How do you reduce the requirement for human labor?
How do you find ways to build cities that were sustainable and have infrastructure like sewage systems, running water, sanitation that wasn’t just good for your health, it was good for your long-term productivity. So I think that we sometimes forget about those lessons of history, about those very similar things, like you mentioned at the beginning, about sustainable use and how you manage your ecological environment around you. So for example, in Mesopotamia one of the first things that got lost were the trees, they all got cut down because trees are a very important source of fuel, and fuel is needed not just for heating food and heating yourself, heat is required to make metal, heat’s required to make glass, heat’s required to make ceramics.
And so even when we think about the ancient Roman world, although it’s true, I understand everyone wants to think about Commodus and Gladiator and Russell Crowe and the emperors. My questions as a historian are these amazing hot baths where you could fit thousands of people every day, the equivalent of, I guess, the gym or your book club or whatever it is, thousands of people. My question has always been, how did it get heated? How did you generate that much steam? Where did the heat source come from? And as you cut down forests closer to Rome, shipping wood from long distances is expensive and it’s hard.
So those basic logistics of how an economic historian might think about the past is where does stuff come from? And that’s something which we don’t think about today. So our laptops that we buy in the shop or online, we have no idea about where the metals have come from. We don’t think about the energy that’s powering them. And I think that’s partly because we’ve expected science to always trump nature, we can always stay ahead of the traffic.
But deep history like I’m interested in tells you that that’s not the case. That’s why you’re in Northern California right now and I’m in Oxford, but a thousand years ago, let’s say there’d been an internet, we’d have been in different parts of the world, like what’s now Uzbekistan, in Bukhara, or in Isfahan in what’s now Iran or in Baghdad in what’s now Iraq. And those are the great centers of economic wealth of learning. And if you don’t adapt, you lose, and that’s the story of history.
Jeff Schechtman: As we saw with the pandemic, there’s also the way in which the environment impacts disease.
Peter Frankopan: Absolutely. So the traumas of the coronavirus, I guess, teaches you three things. One is that a single event can affect the whole world. So in this particular case a coronavirus released in Wuhan in whichever way, and your listeners will have strong opinions, some would be perhaps more accurate than others, but that single event shut down the world, cost trillions of dollars, had impacts on mental health, had impacts on economies, probably played a role in Putin deciding it was a good moment to invade Ukraine because he thought we were all weaker than perhaps we were in the West.
The second thing is that when you have impacts on the environment, either because you move into bad habitats or you live closer to animals, there are quite often spillover events. A lot of our diseases that come into the human system are zoonotic, so they jump from animals into our own disease systems. And third, a lot of these infectious diseases, and particularly emerging infectious diseases, are highly changeable relative to climate. We humans, we’re quite smart. When it’s really hot we can put air conditioning in or we can have fans. When it’s cold, we can find ways to warm ourselves up.
But other organisms don’t have the ability to think and act in the same kind of way, and so they change, they modify, and in some cases, diseases can become much more virulent. And to give two obvious examples, one is in the sixth century, people will have heard about the plague of Justinian, because people were very interested in pandemics during coronavirus, but there’s a sequence of volcanic eruptions that takes place in the 530s, really big ones, and that puts a lot of aerosols into the atmosphere, it stops photosynthesis, and what happens is, obviously, crops are harder to grow, so apart from food prices going up, if you eat less calories your immune system is more compromised.
And if you are nice and healthy and eat as much as you can, it also has an impact on the yersinia pestis bacterium, which is the bacterium that sits behind plague. It’s the same thing that happened with The Black Death a few hundred years later. And in this time, as well, what you need as well as disease to catch, you need people who are going to spread it, and the more connected you are, the faster disease spreads.
And so one of the interesting things is that the natural world, climatic changes, transportation networks, global trade networks can suddenly mean that in the case of both the Black Death and the pandemic of Justinian, we argue a bit about this as historians, but population loss in Europe is probably something like 40% of the whole population, which is huge. The number of dead are so many that they can’t even be buried. And so that world which we think of as being today and coronavirus and globalization, it’s something that’s very recognizable if you go back and look at history in the round.
Jeff Schechtman: The other area where it has had a profound effect is in warfare and the way weather has impacted conflict.
Peter Frankopan: I guess that comes for, again, a few reasons. If you have a bad harvest and your costs go up, people get agitated because they can’t eat. And sometimes that leads to risk-taking by political leaders who need to secure themselves in their positions, and so starting a war is quite a good way to deflect attention. Likewise, if your next-door neighbor is having problems, that can offer opportunities for you to wade in. So there’s always a calibration between the stability of political regimes and the decisions to take risks.
But funnily enough, then there are counters to that.
So for example, I write about potatoes in my book. Potatoes are indigenous to southern America, but it is a miracle crop because it’s much more hardy than most types of grain. It produces a very high calorific input, so an acre of potatoes is much more nutritious, many more calories, than an acre of wheat. It doesn’t require a great deal of human labor. You plant it and then you dig it out when it’s ready. And it also carries lots of vitamins and riboflavins and things like that. So, what happens when the potatoes start to spread around the world?
And it’s not straightforward. In Russia they think it’s the devil’s crop because it looks bad, it looks ugly and deformed. It’s not always those nice round potatoes you find in the supermarket. But one of the things that it does is that because it provides more calories, it allows more cities to grow, and city populations have become bigger because it’s easier to feed people.
And so you can see that the potato’s introduction around the world increases urbanization, or help plays a role in urbanization, and also decreases conflict because those triggers of people being hungry and demanding action suddenly shift. So, it’s fascinating, I think, how one integrates environmental histories, the natural world, into how we think about some of those big triggers in the past.
Jeff Schechtman: And you mentioned conflict a moment ago. We’ve seen weather impact conflicts we’re seeing . Now in the Ukraine we keep hearing about spring offensive and how the weather’s impacting it, and certainly in World War II the Germans moving on Moscow were profoundly affected by weather.
Peter Frankopan: So when we think about the past and we think about the weather, we don’t really figure too much about whether it was warmer in the old days, and if so, how and why. But for the first 100 years or so in Florida where the Spanish settled, the reports that kept being sent back to Spain was, “This place is ice cold. It’s impossible to grow anything and it’s freezing. There’s no point in us keeping our colony in Florida.” And of course, Florida today is the kind of place where retirees, amongst other people, move to because it’s got such lovely climates, it’s great for citrus fruits. So, four, five hundred years ago, the climate was completely different, unrecognizable to today.
As it happens, when we do think about the weather, we think often about Stalingrad and Moscow in the Second World War, and I guess the other really important event that we associate climate with, the same thing when Napoleon attack Russia in 1812, but actually in both these cases, the French attack and the attack of the Nazis, the Germans in the Second World War– Actually, do you know what? The supply lines failing was catastrophic. The way in which fuel was brought to the front line was terrible.
The way in which decisions were made by battlefield commanders, awful, quite similar in fact, to how the Russian offensive against Ukraine went really wrong from a Russian perspective. [unintelligible 00:12:22] worked out how much gas you needed to keep the tanks in a line. So when the Russians began their offensive, they had a 60-mile-long tailback because they couldn’t get tankers, fuel to the tanks at the front. So climate makes life harder for you, but actually, you can solve the problem of climate if you plan well, but if you haven’t planned well, then climate can absolutely derail everything. And that’s what happened in the Second World War.
Jeff Schechtman: There’s constantly this idea when we talk about climate that there’s an unpredictability, but that has not proven to be the case always, because specific decisions that have been made have really had an impact, as we’re seeing today.
Peter Frankopan: I think what’s hard to cope with, whether it’s climate or disease or warfare or economic meltdown, it’s hard to cope with change and it’s hard to cope with volatility. So stuff that’s predictable, like your paycheck every month, you can work out how to cope with that. You may feel like you want more, you may have to save up for things, but you’ve got a reliable income and you can work out what you can and can’t buy. The problem is if suddenly you get fired or the company you work for through no fault of your own, goes to the wall, then suddenly you’re stuck with how do you make ends meet for your mortgage? How do you feed your family? How do you work, how to pay your bills? And the shock is what the challenge is.
So, in fact, it’s very rare that one particularly bad summer or one particularly bad winter tends not to derail because we humans are quite sophisticated, we’re quite smart, we’re quite good at solving problems. But when it runs for multiple years, then things become really tricky. And if you are in a position where you’ve got too many mouths to feed or you can’t generate enough food, or the water supply goes bad on you because there’s not enough rain, or, like in the case of the Maya, the great civilization in Central America, where the challenge there was it’s very hard to store water because it’s built on limestone, which is porous.
And the other problem for the Maya was that they cut down lots of their trees and everybody’s known for the last three or four thousand years, literally, you find writers writing 3,000 years ago saying you cut down trees, you affect rainfall patterns. So, the real anxiety around human transformations and interventions in the landscape– And also what happened in the case of the Maya is that some of those trees were cut down for the heat source to make lime plaster that was put on Mayan buildings and temples and palaces. And the problem is when it rains, one of the products that is produced by lime plaster is cyanide that then leeches into the water systems.
So those kinds of things become difficult to start with, then they become existential, and then they become terminal. I’m a child of the Cold War, so for me, how empires ended were like in Star Wars, where the Death Star’s blown up at the end, although now it turns out with sequels that, in fact, the bad empire never, ever, ever ends. But I always thought the empires went out with a big bang. Actually, even the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, I dare say, always goes with this slow, sad suffocation where the oxygen supply just gets lower and lower and lower, and then everything folds in a sad melting, rather than a big firework going off.
So life is getting harder, people adapt by trying to cut costs, by trying to boost revenues, by trying to adapt, by trying to innovate, but for the large scale, it doesn’t work. And that’s why we think about the Roman Empire as something glorious in the past, rather than something that’s here today in the present. Rome’s a great city to visit, Italy’s a fantastic country, but we don’t have an emperor sitting in Rome who rules the whole Mediterranean and most of the Middle East.
So that process of change, of why is the center of gravity, geographically, militarily, economically, why did it move to the United States and North America, for example? I think it’s impossible to answer those questions without thinking about the natural world.
Jeff Schechtman: Does history point to any civilizations, any societies that have been so much better than others in understanding this insustainability and really in dealing with the reality of this kind of change?
Peter Frankopan: That’s a great question, Jeff, and I wish I had a pre-packed answer. I suppose the way I try to answer that is to say my starting point would be what lasts longest. What is able to stick around for a really long period of time? And funnily enough, my own areas of research, geographically and academically, are things that we don’t spend any time thinking about. So I work on the Byzantine Empire and the Byzantines have–– They’re a bit part of history when we think about it. No one really knows where they were, what they did, but they went from around 330 AD until 1453.
So they had an empire that survived for 1,000 years, and that was in a multi-climatic zone, multi-faith, multilingual, multi-regional, very complex society. And it’s true, the boundaries and the frontiers changed often, actually, because of pressures of war or economy and so on, but over that 1,000 year period, there were also lots of chapters of more or less benign or difficult weather conditions and climate patterns. And that system worked for 1,000 years, and I guess if you were to ask why it’s number one, the administr–– The reason why all states work, and they’re actually the reason why all marriages work, when they work, is that they have to be fair.
That’s the first thing. Justice has to work. You need to have a system in which you can’t buy it because you’re better endowed or you’re rich so you get the judge, you can nobble the judge. The Byzantines took that really seriously. You need to have the ability of a bureaucracy and institutions that can cope with pressure, and that when there is a crisis, they know that it’s coming, they’re ready for it, and they know how to solve it. And again, it doesn’t work every time quite the same way in the Byzantine world, but there is a real sense of fluidity. And partly because it’s driven by the fact that they know that the world is always changing. You’ve got to be scouting the horizon, looking for problems.
Funny enough, some of the other empires that do that really well, or states that do that well, are the Ottomans, the successors of the Byzantines, the Mongols, but they get a bad rap because of Genghis Khan and rape pillage, but hugely sophisticated state that sits across basically the whole of Asia, builds an empire in the course of a couple of decades. And that resilience is the key. How do things last for a long time?
Even you guys in the United States. We’re still sorry that you left us in 1776 from my side of the pond, and maybe you want to come back and join us sometime. But it’s because despite the foibles and the troubles and the difficulties in US history, the United States has been pretty good at navigating change and navigating how to adapt despite all the things that people get hot under the collar. The US is very fluid in being able to read the tea leaves. And the question is, will it be able to stay doing that in the future?
Jeff Schechtman: The other thing you talk about that goes beyond climate, per se, but certainly impacts climate, are the things that we have less control over. Volcanic eruptions, solar flares, et cetera, that have profound impacts.
Peter Frankopan: Yes, I think the things that are on the horizon to worry about, as well as the world getting warmer, which it is doing in 98% of the globe, which is unprecedented. It’s often that you have heating in some parts and cooling in others. That’s the way a thermal system works. We haven’t had a really big volcanic eruption for about 200 years. They’re not predictable in terms of you know when it’s coming, but they come in cycles that are measurable. And what a volcanic eruption does is, like I said before, it puts huge amounts of dust and particles up into the atmosphere and that affects things like photosynthesis. It affects heat on Earth, it affects water systems, and suddenly there’s a big shock.
And those shocks on their own, from an environmental point of view, you know what they are, lower crops, higher prices, but it’s human error that then makes things go bad. So it’s speculators cashing in on crops that are going to be more valuable. Politicians not looking after, or rulers or leaders or whatever they are, failing to work out how to protect everybody in society, because any shock, whether it’s war, disease or starvation or hunger, always affects the poor most and it affects them first. And so working out how to cope with these kinds of things is important.
A lot with volcanic eruptions depends exactly on what the latitude of the volcano is, how powerful it is, and also what time of the year it explodes. Things like solar activity, likewise, solar flares, they’re quite regular. They can knock out all of our telecommunication systems, and they almost certainly will at some point in the coming years, decades ahead. So how do you cope with that? But the thing that’s always in our human history that is more damaging or dangerous than volcanoes and disease and natural phenomena is pilot error.
It’s the human inability to make the right decision and to do things like start wars or to not lock down quickly enough, or to allow things to spread, or to not adapt, or to allow people who are too rich to have too much food and then the revolution starts from beneath because people need to be able to eat and they want their grievances aired. So, for example, in the French Revolution in 1789, there’d been terrible weather conditions for the previous 24 months, wheat prices had doubled.
And so the king said, not unreasonably, “Look guys, I’m here to listen. I’m not just sitting in Versailles eating cake, despite what you might think. Let me know what your problems are, let me know how angry you are.” And 25,000 documents are sent to him over the course of the next month or two outlining why people are angry. Because they can’t eat, above all. And then because he’s raised their expectations saying, “I’m listening,” people want action.
And when action doesn’t come and doesn’t come fast enough, the French try to buy as much American wheat as possible to try to mitigate the process. Because they don’t react quickly enough, the march on from Marseille going north towards Paris, where people just want to have their voices heard, turns into a bloodbath where anybody who’s wealthy or thought to be wealthy, or connected or thought to be connected, ends up either losing everything, but sometimes even losing their head, as well. So it’s the human experience of complexity that we’re not so good at dealing with.
Jeff Schechtman: And finally, Peter, as a historian, when you look at this history, some of the things that we’ve just touched on today, and you see the way the world is playing out today with respect to climate, with respect to some of these same issues, talk about the degree of frustration that you as a historian must feel at our constant refusal to use history as the guide that it could be.
Peter Frankopan: I’ll start with the good news, and I’d say, first of all, we as human beings have long predicted the apocalypse, Armageddon, the end of time, massive overpopulation. And yet here we are in 2023 talking, and there are obviously lots of problems going on in the world, not least new technologies, AI, war in Ukraine, terrible suffering in many parts of the world, but actually, life expectancy in most parts of the world is going up, literacy going up, clean water going up. So there’s lots of good news that we’re here. We have been able to cope.
There’s good news in so far as there’s lots of quite low-hanging fruit if you want to address, it’s not just global warming, but the degradation of the natural world where we are drinking too much water, there’s not enough to go around. We expect in the United Kingdom, for example, water consumption is going to go up by 40% in the next seven years, and at the moment we already have the head of one of our water companies saying, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down,” saying be cautious of your water use so that you don’t flush every time you use the bathroom.
And in a country like mine where it rains a lot, the idea that we might be short of water should make you think, how does that look in North Africa and the Middle East where 13 of the 19 most water-stressed countries and heat-stressed countries are, what’s that going to mean for some of the problems coming towards us, or towards them, in fact? So I think that there’s lots of low-hanging fruit where we can adapt, where we can change, where we can improve efficiency.
Here in the United Kingdom, 3 million tons of food are wasted every year on farms of edible food. And that works out at 18 million meals per day, on average. So improvement of that and making it more efficient could make all of our world a better place, not least for people who are in poverty. On the [unintelligible 00:24:43] side, how do things look [inaudible 00:24:45] and looking at the earth as my patient, I’d say how does it look? I’d say, look, we had a big report in the UK that came out at the end of last year that said between us on this earth we’re spending 1.6 times the world’s resources.
I would go back to what I said right at the very first answer, Jeff, to your first question. A bit like the bank, if you borrow too much, if you spend too much and you think that you’re going to get away with it, you just don’t check your bank statements. At some point there’s a knock on the door and things come to a change. So water is an issue, food production, a warming world where whatever the causes of it are, it’s currently happening at quite a fast rate, and it’s just making sure that we think through what we need to do.
I do lots of work with governments around the world and with people who are much, much smarter than I am. I don’t know a single person who’s not trying to take it seriously. The biggest challenge right now is that it looks like a big problem. So the key, as I know as a historian, like I know as a father, is to break big problems into small problems. When I’m talking to my kids, how do we do this into 10 different parts and let’s solve them one by one. And I think that that’s the bit that’s missing.
And I’m pessimistic at the moment because the US has its relationship with China that’s very complicated. Russia hasn’t done the world any favors in terms of its engagement with attacking innocent Ukraine. We’ve got lots of dislocations in Latin America as well as in Sub-Saharan Africa. But how do you get the whole family of nations around the table to talk? And I think we could do a much better job of that than we’re doing at the moment.
Jeff Schechtman: Peter Frankopan. His book is The Earth Transformed: An Untold History. Peter, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.
Peter Frankopan: Absolute pleasure, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you so much. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.