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Good Reads  History & Other Humanities  Environmental History

The Earth Transformed An Untold History

By: Peter Frankopan(Author)
714 pages, 16 plates with colour & b/w photos and colour illustrations; b/w illustrations, b/w maps
Fascinating environmental history on a big canvas, The Earth Transformed is admirably cautious in ascribing too much power to environmental explanations for historical events.
The Earth Transformed
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  • The Earth Transformed ISBN: 9781526622556 Paperback Mar 2024 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • The Earth Transformed ISBN: 9781526622563 Hardback Mar 2023 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
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About this book

Most people can name the influential leaders and major battles of the past. Few can name the most destructive storms, the worst winters, the most devastating droughts.

In The Earth Transformed, ground-breaking historian Peter Frankopan shows that engagement with the natural world and with climatic change and their effects on us are not new: exploring, for instance, the development of religion and language and their relationships with the environment; tracing how growing demands for harvests resulted in the increased shipment of enslaved peoples; scrutinising how the desire to centralise agricultural surplus formed the origins of the bureaucratic state; and seeing how efforts to understand and manipulate the weather have a long and deep history. Understanding how past shifts in natural patterns have shaped history, and how our own species has shaped terrestrial, marine and atmospheric conditions is not just important but essential at a time of growing awareness of the severity of the climate crisis.

Taking us from the Big Bang to the present day, The Earth Transformed forces us to reckon with humankind's continuing efforts to make sense of the natural world.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Fascinating and cautious environmental history on a big canvas
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 31 Mar 2023 Written for Hardback

    After writing two history bestsellers, professor of global history Peter Frankopan now turns his attention to environmental history. Bloomsbury is gunning for another bestseller and has thrown the full weight of its marketing machine behind it; you will have been hard-pressed to miss The Earth Transformed if you have visited a UK bookshop recently.

    The first thing you will notice, after that beautiful green cover, is the size of this book; at 724 pages Frankopan's biggest yet. Especially if you consider that he put the footnotes in a separate 212-page PDF that can be downloaded from the Bloomsbury website. The Earth Transformed is similarly expansive in scope, nominally taking you from the dawn of time to today. I say "nominally" as the first two chapters cover 4.5 billion years up to the start of agriculture, so can do no more than give a nod to deep time and human evolution. They are well-executed nods, though, pointing out how past geological events have clustered important natural resources in certain places, underlying many of today's geopolitical power games, and acknowledging the complexities of human evolution.

    But to get to the point: the meat of the book is the remaining 22 chapters that take you through a very detailed chronological environmental history of the last 14,000 years. The first half mostly discusses the impact of the environment on human history. Examples include the haphazard and drawn-out rise of agriculture and cities, the collapse of empires under the strain of resource exhaustion and natural disasters, the Roman Climate Optimum, the Little Ice Age, and sundry natural disasters. But environmental history also works the other way, and there is a noticeable shift as the book progresses towards discussing the increasing impact of human history on the environment. This included many historical episodes I was less familiar with, such as the environmental consequences of colonialism and the plantation economy that was fueled by the slave trade, the megalomaniacal and environmentally destructive transformation of the economies of Russia and China by communist leaders, or the bizarre chapter of early experiments in weather control during the Cold War. Once the narrative reaches our current times of rapid globalisation, consumerism, and population growth, Frankopan gives Wallace-Well's book The Uninhabitable Earth a run for its money. He relates many shocking facts and forecasts regarding our environmental footprint and the likely impacts of climate change.

    Fascinating as this all is (and it really is, I have only scratched the surface), what left an impression is what I consider to be the book's core message. In many ways, The Earth Transformed reads like one giant cautionary tale. Much scholarship and popular writing turns environmental history into an either/or proposition. Environmental factors are either presented as the sole explanation for certain historical events or considered unimportant. Frankopan is far more nuanced: to say that climatic shift X or natural disaster Y caused event Z strikes him as a caricature of what environmental history is and should be. This is his call for the discipline to grow up. For example, a period of megadroughts around 2200 BC correlates with the collapse of several empires, but Frankopan cautions that "we should be looking at the wider question of why societies struggled, rather than being tempted by the convenience of a simple [...] answer that starts and finishes with climate" (p. 112). Did volcanic eruptions around AD 530–540 lead to a transformation of the eastern Roman Empire and the rise of Islam? Think of them "rather as having aggravated existing problems, and exposed fractures that then produced radical change" (p. 217). And to say that climatic pressures made the collapse of the Maya civilisation unavoidable is an exaggeration as some polities flourished for another 800 years. There were already deep-rooted problems that "were affected and exacerbated rather than caused by shifting climatic conditions" (p. 251). This idea, that environmental factors were frequently the final nudge tipping an already-strained system over the edge, is reiterated throughout. If you take just one lesson away from this book, this is it. He is on point when observing that this has never been more true than today. We have created a fragile society in which "we are living at the edge of our means and indeed beyond them, reliant on everything to go right and with little margin of error for things to go wrong" (p. 656).

    There are two other very interesting if perhaps lesser themes that stood out for me. Where civilizational collapse is concerned, there is the risk of "viewing the past through the prism of contemporary concerns" (p. 9). This is not always warranted and risks misinterpreting past events guided by our fears today. A second minor theme is the recurrent supremacist and racist views that justified the exploitation and subjugation of nature and other cultures in the name of "improvement". Time and again, human attitudes have boiled down to different flavours of "nature needs to be tamed". Europeans in particular have had a long history of brutal colonial exploitation, seeing the tropical world as fruit ripe for the picking. And, frankly, that attitude has never really gone away: "the lure of accessing the fruits of the earth proved impossible to resist" (p. 517). Old-school colonialism has been replaced by interference in the domestic affairs of independent states. I should add that Frankopan brings nuance to this damning picture by pointing out those European voices who spoke out against such injustices from the start.

    Criticism? Yes, I have some. As can be expected with a global chronology, the writing occasionally falls prey to the "history is just one damn thing after another" problem and I feel Frankopan sometimes abruptly switches topics in later chapters. Several early chapters read more like detours into "conventional" history to provide background information while some later chapters discussing the Cold War focus mostly on events in the US and USSR. Though none of the chapters are overtly long, they could have done with subheadings to divide it all up. Lastly, I was not too impressed with the seven included charts: the text barely references them and there are no captions to clarify the many details included. I consider all of these as relatively minor quibbles though.

    Overall, The Earth Transformed is fascinating environmental history on a big canvas that is relevant and captivating, whether you are new to the topic, familiar with the genre, or a professional historian. I am particularly pleased that Bloomsbury is providing a platform to broadcast a message of academic caution and nuance to a very broad readership.
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Peter Frankopan is a Professor of Global History at Oxford University and a Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, Oxford. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, published by Bloomsbury in 2015, was a No. 1 Sunday Times bestseller and remained in the top 10 for nine months after publication. It was named one of the 'Books of the Decade' 2010-2020 by the Sunday Times. The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World was published by Bloomsbury in 2018 and won the Human Sciences prize from the Carical Foundation in 2019.

By: Peter Frankopan(Author)
714 pages, 16 plates with colour & b/w photos and colour illustrations; b/w illustrations, b/w maps
Fascinating environmental history on a big canvas, The Earth Transformed is admirably cautious in ascribing too much power to environmental explanations for historical events.
Media reviews

The Times Best History Book of 2023
– A Book of the Year pick for The Times, Sunday Times, BBC History Magazine, Guardian, Independent and Financial Times
– A BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week
– An instant Sunday Times bestseller

"[...] What sets Frankopan's book apart is the comprehensive nature of his historical gaze in terms of both time and place, covering all parts of the world, as well as the multiple linkages from climate to species, soils to oceans [...]"
– Nick Robins, Resurgence & Ecologist 339, July/August 2023

"Vast, learned and timely work"
The Sunday Times

"Frankopan shows you how everything fits together [...] vast, learned and timely [...] 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, Sunday Times

"Frankopan has brought all 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

"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

"[Frankopan] 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"
Financial TImes

"This is epic, gripping, original history that leaps off the page. I wanted to buy everyone I know a copy"
– Sathnam Sanghera

"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

"A dazzling compendium of global research [...] The value of this book is as 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 Earth Transformed by @peterfrankopan truly is an epic masterpiece. There are many 'big ideas' books out there, but often are beset by wafer-thin scholarship, and few stand up to scrutiny. This absolutely does. It's a book for the ages, and I cannot recommend it enough"
– Adam Rutherford

"He has attempted successfully, and deftly, what few others have and provided an overarching perspective of the way climatic events and trends, geography and human opportunism have intertwined and defined Homo sapiens' relationship with the planet"

"The Earth Transformed makes a major contribution to raising awareness and concern, and hopefully will reach those decision makers, in the political and commercial spheres, who might have the power and means to do something about it. In many ways, this fascinating and thoughtful book's lack of an overt political message – and its clear focus on the lessons we can learn from past civilisations and their response to climate change – make it all the more powerful a weapon, for which Prof Frankopan deserves credit and thanks"
Country Life

"Importantly, Frankopan shows our modern concerns about the environment are no modish fad: they were shared by ancient thinkers and leaders. Anyone with an interest in building a more sustainable world would do well to read his book"
New Scientist

"Peter Frankopan reveals how our lives have been shaped by environmental changes since the emergence of Homo sapiens in this sweeping, riveting study"

"Frankopan has done the sterling, even heroic job of making readily available much of the bountiful harvest of research in climate and environmental history. For thousands of aficionados of door-stopper history books, this one is likely to be their introduction to climate and environmental history"

"A wise, well-researched and essential study for our precarious times"
The Independent

"Peter's book is an incredible, must read, magnum opus on the history of humanity and the environment, and I THOROUGHLY suggest you read it"
– Greg Jenner

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