When we think about history, we tend to focus on influential leaders or major battles or events – we rarely pay much attention to the most destructive floods or volcanic eruptions, the worst winters, the most devastating droughts or the ways that ecosystems have changed over time. Yet such things, along with anthropogenic behaviour, are fundamental parts of the past and the present, and can be a crucial, sometimes defining factor, in global history.
One of the world’s leading historians, Peter Frankopan, explores this in his groundbreaking book, The Earth Transformed – our Book of the Month for March 2023. In his book, Frankopan discusses the origins of our species – the development of religion and language and their relationships with the environment; how the desire to centralise agricultural surplus formed the origins of the bureaucratic state; how growing demands for harvests resulted in the increased shipment of enslaved peoples; how efforts to understand and manipulate the weather have a long and deep history. All provide lessons of profound importance.
Peter Frankopan was a guest on Dan Snow’s History Hit podcast where he discussed his book further, though here we explore more about our relationships with the environment, its impact on historic events and the importance of paying attention to the natural world.
Why do people live in geographically precarious places?
One of the most densely populated places on Earth is the northern part of India, yet this is a bad place to live if you’re worried about earthquakes. The Indian sub-continent is formed from tectonic plates that smashed together, creating the Himalayas. Subsequently, flatter areas formed around as a result of the compression of the land that pushed upwards. The snowmelt and water run-off from the mountains formed floodplains, creating a fertile growing environment with access to decent water supplies.
People are drawn to such places – not because they’re stupid, but because they’re calculating the risk that on balance, the chances are they’ll get more good times than bad.
Most places on Earth have worked out that there are geological risks, but money, like water, always finds the shortest course to action. Therefore whilst these places aren’t a completely logical place to live, it depends how they’re built on if people are to live there and what kind of risks should be prepared for. Seismic activity is not necessarily dangerous in every single circumstance – a lot is to do with human error. If an earthquake hits, high-rise buildings – built without adhering to proper regulations or in the absence of them altogether (a factor in the 2023 Turkish/Syrian earthquake) – become the devastating equivalent of mass tombs, in part due to the greed of property developers.
People live in regions that get struck by earthquakes again and again (such as by Mount Vesuvius or near the San Andreas Fault in California) due to the resulting fertile soil, available water, and the fact that for most of the time these places are attractive places to live. The risk is in the unlucky 1% of the time when a disaster hits – such events can kill hundreds of thousands. Thus the need to mitigate disaster and risk is crucial.
According to some projections, by 2053 at current rates of carbon burn, the bottom third of America will be uninhabitable due to predicted summer temperatures of above 50C. 100 million people currently live there, yet instead of moving further north, in fact people are migrating into that area. A similar pattern is seen with floodplains in Florida – there are more people moving into floodplains in Florida than are moving out, even though the CEO of Lloyds Insurers has said that Florida is almost uninsurable even now because of sea-level rises and the risks of hurricanes coming through every year.
Decision-making is not necessarily always logical – partly because people don’t understand what the risks are, or that they think they can ‘beat the odds’. Yet this is an obviously risky business.
How environmental change can impact historic events
Around the 1260/70s, geophysical changes and volcanic eruptions occurred along the Mongolian and wider Asian steppes (around 60 years before the Black Death fully escalated in Europe). Plagues need transmitters to connect people together, and the great connectors at this time in history were the Mongols.
As free trade liberals, the Mongols were keen to reduce trade barriers and the flow of goods back and forth, which consequently also enabled diseases and pathogens to flow. The resulting Black Death killed around 40% of Europe’s population, and a similar amount in the Middle East and in other areas. Some of the knock-on changes that happened to societies as a result of this were profound.
Europe experienced a resulting baby boom – people were so pleased to have survived that rates of marriages and births went up. Fewer mouths to feed meant there were more cows available to eat, providing a protein boost for people’s diets. Lower population levels also meant more wagons and horses were available, facilitating greater transportation and mobility. Thus the Black Death had a galvanising effect on lots of ways in which different parts of the world are linked together.
The length of time it took populations to recover also affected many things (for example the population of Italy didn’t recover for another 200 years), such as who is buying goods, who is able to produce things, why people travelled, and what countries did when short of manpower when other countries (potential competitors) may conversely start to develop global empires.
Thus how the natural and disease environment fit together with climatic changes and resources ultimately created the world that we’re living in today.
The importance of paying attention to the natural world
In December 2021, an eruption began on Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai, an underwater volcano in the Tongan archipelago in the southern Pacific Ocean. The eruption reached a very large and powerful climax nearly four weeks later, on 15 January 2022, generating the largest atmospheric explosion recorded by modern instrumentation.
The volcano ejected so much moisture into the air that it has a measurable effect on how much the planet has warmed since. Initially most people saw the video and although Tonga was badly affected overall they thought the effects weren’t too bad (it was perceived that it could have been a lot worse, and was fortunate to take place underwater), but as Frankopan explains in his book, volcanoes are the secret way in which we’re most at risk globally in the coming decades.
We’re overdue a really big volcanic eruption which could be many thousands of times greater in magnitude than the Hiroshima nuclear bomb, making current climate discussions potentially irrelevant. This is also many magnitudes of probability more likely than an asteroid strike or a risk of war.
Volcanic eruptions in the past have been hugely significant, so while we’re busy watching what politicians might do next, instead we should be paying attention to the natural world that’s shifting dramatically and quickly around us.
Peter Frankopan is Professor of Global History at Oxford University and 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 of the Carical Foundation in 2019.