“Most people can name the great leaders and major battles of the past,” writes the Oxford historian Peter Frankopan. “But few can name the biggest storms, the most significant floods, the worst winters, the most severe droughts.” In his hugely ambitious and “endlessly fascinating” new book, Frankopan sets out to address that deficiency, said Gerard DeGroot in The Times. The Earth Transformed: An Untold History is a “history of the world that integrates natural history into the human story”. Much of it is concerned with how human experience has been “shaped” by the environment, describing the various storms, eruptions, earthquakes and pandemics that have altered the course of history.
But when he reaches the 18th century, the focus of his book shifts: from being a passive “victim” of the environment, humanity turns into its “pillager”. Comprehensive and well-informed, Frankopan’s book has the “intellectual weight and dramatic force of a tsunami”. “Squint hard enough,” said Dan Jones in The Sunday Times, “and almost any historical event can be said to have had a climatic component.” The turmoil that led to the collapse of the Roman Empire owed much to a huge volcanic eruption in Alaska in 43BC, which caused global temperatures to plunge by 7°C. “Brexit Britain” became a possibility because rising sea levels after the last Ice Age – combined with a tsunami in about 6150BC – sunk the landmass, known as Doggerland, that once joined us to the continent. Frankopan’s book is packed with such “riveting examples of how history has been affected by our environment”, said Rohan Silva in The Observer.
He even highlights data suggesting that in Europe between 1100 and 1800, a “small drop in temperature during the crop-growing season” correlated with increased persecution of Jewish people. Perhaps unavoidably in such a “vast” work, there are some significant flaws, said Felipe Fernández-Armesto in Literary Review. Frankopan makes sloppy factual errors. He “invents a non-existent Portuguese king” to explain 15th century exploration, he fails to “distinguish climate from weather”, and he writes some “abominably slack sentences: (‘In antiquity, nomads came on to the radar’)”. But overall, the book’s virtues “balance and perhaps outweigh its defects”. They certainly do, said Adam Nicolson in The Spectator. This is “a dazzling compendium of global research”. And it ends with a picture of humankind at “the edge of a precipice where the future of our species is at risk”.