Peter Frankopan is a professor of global history at Oxford University. His new book is The Earth Transformed: An Untold History.
To many, the twin questions of climate change and sustainability seem decidedly modern. If it’s not eco-warriors demanding action to limit carbon emissions, it’s the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions requiring banks and insurance companies in Canada to run stress tests that would enable them to cope with severe, yet plausible, climate-related stress events. It seems we are always being urged to recycle, to be mindful of the environment and to be aware of the footprint that we leave on the natural world. If not, we are told, a bleak future awaits.
All these concerns, however, have long and deep roots. The story of the Creation, of course, as set out in the Book of Genesis, tells of how the world was made with everything in perfect harmony. When Adam and Eve betrayed the trust that had been placed in them, they were punished with ecological stress: Being expelled from the Garden of Eden meant having to work to grow food, rather than be presented with the fruits of the Earth, and having to make dusty fields produce crops, rather than relying on verdant land.
There are echoes of this story in other belief systems, both modern and ancient, around the globe: The actions of the natural environment, the weather and climate, are often taken as signs of divine intervention in many religious texts, where moral behaviour is rewarded with fine climatic conditions while ecological punishment is stored up for those who anger the gods. Sometimes, the wrath is spectacular; a giant flood appears in multiple Babylonian texts, including the Atrahasis and the Epic of Gilgamesh, as well as the story of Noah in the Bible. All feature devastating rains, sent by a higher power to kill humans because they were so wicked.
Climates changed often in the past as a result of many different factors: Volcanic eruptions forced vast columns of ash into the atmosphere that could change weather conditions thousands of miles away; solar activity could bring about unusual conditions, providing opportunities as well as challenges. The shifts in the El Nino-Southern Oscillation weather pattern, in which El Nino and La Nina events alternate with one another, provide us with the dominant year-to-year climate signals on Earth. Needless to say, today we can observe and understand these patterns better than those living hundreds of years ago – let alone millennia.
Nevertheless, that does not mean that scholars did not try to work things out. David Hume, writing in the middle of the 18th century, wondered how it was possible that the Roman poet Ovid could talk about the Black Sea freezing over, or other numerous accounts of Rome’s River Tiber turning to ice. Some European travellers who crossed the Atlantic soon after Columbus were convinced that they would be burned alive when they reached the equator. It was clear that ancient Greek scientists, whose works formed the backbone of later scholarship, had no idea what they were talking about, noted one Spanish Jesuit in the late 16th century: “I laughed and jeered at Aristotle’s meteorological theories and his philosophy.”
In fact, many parts of the Americas were considerably cooler than today – especially around the start of the 1600s. This was, above all, due to a series of major eruptions at Colima in Mexico in 1586, of Nevado del Ruiz and Huaynaputina in the Andes in 1595 and 1600, as well as another major volcanic event at an unknown location around 1592, which can be detected in the records provided by ice cores. Conditions were so bad that many Spaniards questioned whether it was even worth holding on to the territories that had been taken. Spanish Florida was “a wasteland,” one commentator warned, that “renders little harvest after much labour.” The entire enterprise of supporting colonies in North America was misguided, another adviser told King Philip II of Spain: “To maintain Florida is merely to incur expense, because it is and has been entirely unprofitable nor can it sustain its own population. Everything must be brought from outside.”
That provides a sharp contrast with the Florida we know today, studded with orange groves and golf courses – though perhaps not with the Florida of the future, where insurance premiums are expected to rise by 50 per cent this year and perhaps even double next year. The strength of storms like Hurricane Ian, which caused US$60-billion of damage in September, 2022, has been taken not only as an indication of the risks involved, but as part of a long-term pattern that will include rising sea levels affecting both coastal areas and floodplains, on which almost 20 per cent of new single-family homes have been built in recent years.
Contending with major climatic changes in the past has been a hallmark not only of human history but of the survival of other animals, as well as plants and pathogens, too. But another theme I have been keen to explore is that of sustainability, and the ways in which the natural world has been transformed over the course of millions of years. In particular, I am interested in how consumption patterns have driven trade and, in doing so, how they have shaped the social, economic and political contours that are so important in the modern age.
One might point to the role that environmental change has played in the deep past, connecting it to the most mundane but important geopolitical trends of today. The distribution of the world’s major hydrocarbon oil and gas fields, for example, was most often determined millions of years ago by tectonic plate shifts. And yet this ancient history clearly has a bearing on the ways in which Russia can exert pressure on today’s international markets, or on the buying power and influence of those in or close to the social and political apexes of certain states in the Middle East. Likewise, the serendipity of chance means that Europe – as well as China – is unable to meet its own energy needs in a world still dominated by fossil fuels, even though that may change in the future.
The importance of supply and demand, of course, even helps explain the European push into Canada – and even the country’s “frontiers.” The northeastern coast of what is now Canada was of particular interest because of the abundance of fish that was so overwhelming, according to one report in the 17th century, that fishermen did not need to use nets, but simply had to lower baskets over the sides of their vessels and then pull them up.
Not long after that, it was the mighty beaver that drove European expansion inland – initially through trading with First Nations hunters, and then through the establishment of trading stations. The scale of the beaver trade was vast, partly driven by the demand for the castoreum that could be extracted from their anal scent glands, which was used in popular European treatments for fever, headaches, spasms, epilepsy and mental illness. It was also partly driven by the craze for tall “cavalier hats” made of the creatures’ fur, which influenced the latest French fashions.
Tens of millions of beaver pelts were imported to Europe from North America, with England alone re-exporting more than 20 million between 1700 and 1770. This helped fuel the growing power of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which in a mirror image to the East India Company found a way to leverage its commercial muscle into monopolies, and to influence government, military operations and foreign policy. Beaver populations in most parts of Europe were all but hunted to extinction, and the decimation extended to colonial lands, most notably in what is now Canada. But the hunting of beavers on this scale also changed landscapes and riverscapes as the prolific dam builders were ravaged, transforming terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in the process.
This is just one case among many of the ways in which fads, fashion crazes, excessive consumption and the rush to cash in on commodities have shaped the world into a human image: We alone of all the species on this glorious planet have worked out how to kill each other through weapons with such destructive force that they would not only lead to large-scale death in blast zones, but would change the climate of the entire globe. Recent modelling has shown that a localized conflict – in this case, a hypothetical contact between India and Pakistan – that used small numbers of nuclear warheads would reduce global calorie consumption by 7 per cent, and have a particularly strong effect on agriculture in high-latitude countries, such as Canada.
Many of our human ancestors have worried about the spectre of famine and disease, of rains that never come or floods that never cease. The good news is that despite everything, despite the horrors and the suffering of persecution, violence and disaster on an epic scale – even just in the 20th century – we are still here and just about doing okay. The bad news is that we are fast approaching, or perhaps have even passed, a major tipping point. As a report that came out in 2021 put it, “The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms – including humanity – is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp, even for well-informed experts.” That provides sobering food for thought. But it also provides, I hope, a cue to contemplate how we arrived at the cliff edge, and how some, but not all, societies have managed to sail away from disaster – rather than head directly into it.