Ancient History Teaches Humanity How to Face a Hotter Future

Historian Peter Frankopan’s new book seeks to reveal the lesser discussed climatic moments that have shaped our world. 

(Bloomberg) — Humans have always been scared by and obsessed with the Earth’s climate, to the point that founding myths of almost every civilization are based on huge climatic changes — the loss of a perfect paradise, giant floods, seven-year droughts or punishing plagues. 

Yet historians have traditionally kept their focus on what humans did — empires, wars and great inventions — and ignored volcanic eruptions, harsh winters or harvest failures that had equally impactful consequences for humanity. Reintegrating human and natural history is fundamental to understand the world around us today, argues Peter Frankopan, a professor of global history at Oxford University in the UK and the author The Earth Transformed: An Untold History (Bloomsbury, 2023). 

Much like he did with his bestselling The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (Bloomsbury, 2015), Frankopan draws from ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indian and Chinese historical sources to identify trends and join dots across regions, building a thorough but entertaining tale of how the natural world has influenced humanity — and vice-versa. 

Humans, he says, are like rude guests who arrive at the last minute, causing havoc and destroying the house to which they have been invited. The reason the planet has warmed by 1.2C since pre-industrial times, and why it’s headed to a catastrophic 2.7C warming by the end of the century is deeply rooted in our origins as a species. 

Tales of how the monsoon climate made it harder for rulers in India to breed and acquire horses or of how European agriculture in Medieval times thrived thanks to a warm spell can help us understand not just how we got here, but how to avoid becoming victims of our own success, he says. 

Bloomberg Green spoke with Frankopan in a London bakery known for delicacies from Georgia — a country between Europe and Asia, the continents which the historian’s work revolves around. We talked about his book, and what it says about our species and the times we are living. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

What does ancient history tell us when we look at it through a climate lens? 

It tells you that people have always been scared. The story of the creation of the Earth in the book of Genesis, in Judaism, in Christianity, in Islam, is about how God creates a perfect ecological system designed to look exactly how he wants. The last thing he puts in are human beings and he gives simple instructions — don’t eat from this forbidden tree. When Adam and Eve do eat from this forbidden tree, the punishment is ecological. It means that you’re no longer at a place where things grow without you having to work. Now you have to worry about too much rain or not enough rain. 

Big floods have always made people worried. The flood of Noah, but also stories written in Mesopotamian and Egyptian chronicles and texts. A massive flood that was hugely important in China’s history, to the point that a Chinese emperor’s main skill was his ability to build the infrastructure that prevented flooding. And Thomas Jefferson took diary recordings every single day from more or less 50 years about temperatures, about how things changed. 

You’ve spent most of your career focusing on the Byzantine Empire, the crusades and the ancient silk roads. What made you look at climate?

As a global historian, you want a good problem to look at — to take a big question and look at its past history. But you need a big range and there are not that many topics that are truly global. There are not many things that all of us are involved on at the same time in the same way.

Climate patterns have impacts that can typically reduce harvest levels, increase inflation, lead to cost of living crisis, calorie shortages, reduced immune systems and prevalence of disease. That’s all happened in the past, but normally not all at the same time. The difference about today’s world is that 90% or 98% of the world is warming at the same time. That’s unprecedented.

You say most people know the names of great emperors and the dates of big wars, but few can name big floods or drought events. Why haven’t most historians taken this approach in the past? 

We focused on something different — on the human history where nature was less relevant, maybe even absent. In the last 100 or 200 years we just became detached from nature. There’s a shift of gears now and there are plenty of environmental historians who have been working on this field in recent decades.

What has this relatively recent detachment from nature meant for humanity?

Take the number of farm workers in 1850 compared to 1950 — it’s a collapse of almost 90% because of automation. People are more disconnected from the land and cities became bigger. That means that people who think of themselves as being educated, smart and well-read are smart, educated and well-read — but they can’t milk a cow. We let other people do that, and we step into a world where we never really think about where things come from. 

You have conveyed the image of humanity standing on the edge of a cliff several times through history. What has prevented us from falling off?

We have been lucky to avoid catastrophes in the past. But you should always be worried about what happens if something you’re not expecting happens — the shock is the key. We teach students about Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 [whose killing led to World War I], about what happens when you have a system that’s built on that level of fragility. Some of the things coming towards us — Arctic melt water, the way oceanic systems are changing, pollution into the environment — we are all aware of them. But they don’t seem to be a big problem.

These pressures are like little cracks on a glass. Will they turn into something much bigger? Can one person throw a stone and break the whole thing? How do you live in a world where you’re not scared of that? How do you prepare for it?

There are lots of things you can learn from history about how people did adapt well and how they didn’t, and how supply chains, political systems collapsed.

So how do entire systems collapse? What should we watch out for? 

You can’t always stay ahead. The Aztecs and the Mayans, who the Spanish found in Central America, were hugely robust, sophisticated states, but collapsed extremely quickly. Huge empires can suddenly fall under not very much pressure. Others never collapse with an explosion or a big bang — take the Roman empire — they fade because things just become harder. 

But we don’t think about empires that way because we focus too much on how empires grow, what makes them successful. We look at the cathedrals, the palaces, the great civilizations rather than at what goes wrong. The winners write the history, but human history is a history of constant failure.

If we’d been talking 500 years ago, the great writers, thinkers, scholars and artists would have been in in Isfahan, or Damascus, or Constantinople. All those cities like Uruk or Nineveh that I write about in my book — most people can’t place them on the map. They’re not here anymore, they’re no longer the centers of empires they were because they didn’t adapt. And that adaptation is often military, economics, politics, social, but there’s always an ecological environmental element too.

What’s your take then — can humanity successfully adapt to climate change?

I’m optimistic, or pragmatic. We’re here. People have been writing about the apocalypse since the beginning of reported time and here we are sitting in the sunshine in central London. 

Humans are very adaptable, enterprising and creative. We are a remarkable species, capable of these wonderful things of art, civilization, culture, music and so on. But under the wrong circumstances we can do terrible, terrible things to each other. We have a Jekyll and Hyde side to us. So it’s making sure that the best part of us — concerned, careful, sustainable, thoughtful, generous, and kind — comes over thinking that we never need to pay the bill, and that if our children, grandchildren have to, that’s their problem.

So prepare, prepare, prepare for what might come — and let’s hope we keep bumbling through.

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