The Earth is around 4.6 billion years old, but modern humans (including Neanderthals) only emerged around half a million years ago. Our species is one of the prime beneficiaries of dramatic changes to our planet’s climate and ecosystems, changes that made the Earth perfectly suited to our needs and desires. In these 500,000 years, we have been intimately shaped by the Earth around us, but we have also increasingly become a source of profound environmental disruption to the point where it is our species that is currently driving the planet’s sixth mass extinction, along with rapid global heating.

Yet look in our history books, and where the tale of our manifold relationships with the more than human should be told, there’s a vast Earth-shaped hole instead. Peter Frankopan, Professor of Global History at Oxford University, wants to correct this omission with his 600-page blockbuster, The Earth Transformed: An Untold History. A further 200 pages of footnotes have been posted online.

The book comes as environmental and climate history is growing – in both popularity and quality – with, for example, recent volumes examining the role of climate change in the fall of the Roman Empire as well as the multiple crises in the 17th century. 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. For him, “environmental factors are not actors in the story of our species, which sometimes make interventions that bring down empires.” Instead, he argues that the Earth provides “the very stage on which our existence plays out”, adding, “actors come and go, but if the theatre closes or collapses, that marks the end for us all.”

Ancient worries

Frankopan’s aim is threefold: to reinsert climate as an ever-present theme of human history, to set out the long-running story of human interactions with the rest of the Earth, and to expand our horizons from simply a tale of the global north to all cultures. In this quest, he gathers insights from the ‘climate archives’ that science is unlocking, such as what air bubbles trapped in ice cores can tell us about human activities. He merges this with political, social, economic and religious history, but doesn’t fall into the trap of tracing simplistic straight lines between environmental shocks and human events.

From the beginning, humans have exhibited a host of conflicting attitudes and behaviours towards the Earth, from a desire for conquest to a sense of reverence. “As far back as written records go, people worried about human interaction with nature and warned of the dangers of overexploitation,” he writes, showing with multiple examples over hundreds of thousands of years our continuing capacity for environmental destruction and also for renewal.

The Earth has experienced frequent mass extinctions, largely driven by asteroids and volcanoes. But the evolution of our species has now become “the single most important development in the history of our planet”, he argues. A decisive break came with the end of the last ice age, which ushered in the Holocene epoch. By around 11,000 years ago, humans had managed to spread across all continents except for Antarctica, so that lands that were untouched by humanity “were as rare as they are today”. In the early anthropogenic hypothesis, some have even argued that from around 5,000 years ago human activities were sufficient to start changing the global climate (largely driven by the growth in agriculture). What has changed since then, of course, is the scale of the human imprint, driven by economic expansion, population growth and unsustainable technologies, but also by power, ideology and ethics.

The Earth is our mother

From the earliest times, religions have attempted to understand and order our place in the world. Around 3,000 years ago India’s Atharva Veda was one of the first texts to state that the “Earth is our mother”, while around 1700 BCE the Babylonian Epic of Atrahasis was warning that people had become “too numerous”. About the same time in Egypt, a period of lower rainfall contributed to poor harvests and rampant food price inflation, demonstrating that environmentally driven cost of living crises are nothing new.

Many religions have explained environmental disasters (such as droughts and floods) as the punishment for breaching divine ecological laws, in some cases deploying animal and human sacrifice to try to win back favour. In the Judaic book of Genesis, the original humans, Adam and Eve, are expelled from paradise for taking fruit from a tree in Jehovah’s sacred grove: humans are henceforth placed in an antagonistic relationship with the rest of creation. Depressingly, the story of a cosmic hierarchy from God to humankind has repeatedly been used to justify inequality within society. Projecting human mastery over the Earth has also been a critical source of political power for millennia, symbolically represented to this day by the love of hunting by elites. Others, such as the Jains of India, have asserted a certain equality across the species, avoiding all forms of violence, but of course they have been the minority.

With the remorseless march of human history, the chapters in Frankopan’s book shrink from covering thousands of years to hundreds and then to mere decades as he reaches today’s all-consuming crisis. Sometimes changes in the climate (notably from solar activity) ushered in benevolent conditions when populations expanded, as in the ancient and medieval warm periods between c.300 BCE and c.500 CE and then between c.900 CE and c.1250 CE. But these are interspersed with cold shocks (sometimes triggered by volcanoes), curbing food production and often accompanied by devastating plagues, as happened in the crisis of late antiquity (c.500 CE to c.600 CE), the run-up to the Black Death in the 14th century, and the wrongly named ‘Little Ice Age’ (c.1550 CE to c.1800 CE). Frankopan is clear, however, that it was human vulnerabilities and responses that determined how devastating these calamities would become. The Black Death, for example, brought opportunities for those who survived, particularly among the poor, in a kind of ‘plague bonus’.

Taming Nature

From 1500 CE onwards, increasing global interconnections generated by European exploration, capitalist expansion and imperial conquest moved environmental transformation into a new gear. A profound intermingling of species and landscapes took place, powered by the pursuit of profit. Potatoes, chillies and corn, coffee, cocoa and tea, as well as gold, guano and rubber, along with opium, tobacco and saltpetre, entered global trading networks that always demanded more. For Frankopan, much of these first waves of globalisation rested on Eurocentric beliefs that “nature could be tamed, just as local populations could be ‘civilised’.”

In the valley of Mexico, brutal violence and imported diseases from the conquistadors combined to crush the local population by 95%, from 1.5 million in 1500 to just 70,000 in 1650. Across the Americas, this ‘Great Dying’ resulted in the resurgence of forests: scientists argue that this was sufficient to draw down enough carbon dioxide to contribute to a spasm of global cooling. Millions of Africans were forced into slavery and transported to service the plantations, where they were systematically worked to death. A fifth didn’t even survive the voyage across the Atlantic.

All of this rested on a capitalist logic that relied on commodifying the Earth to generate profits, ideally paying nothing in the process for the people it enslaved, the land it stole and the air it polluted. Britain’s fossil-fuel-led industrial revolution pushed levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere above the Holocene maximum and overturned sector after sector (including India’s historical lead in cotton textiles). New evidence suggests that the profits from slavery were essential to provide the capital for the industrial revolution, which in turn started to drive human-induced global heating. In a further kick in the teeth, the resulting climate-led loss and damage are greatest in countries that were heavily impacted by slavery and empire. The deeply dismissive attitude to non-European cultures would later be extended to the protection of wildlife, with Indigenous people pushed off their lands to create national parks, a further expression of enclosure and a stain on the conservation movement.

Decolonisation and ecological renewal

Alongside this tale of increasing exploitation and extraction, one of the weaker points in Frankopan’s excellent work is a lack of similar focus on the efforts – some successful – to tame the monster of imperial capitalism through protest, regulation and rebellion. Not only was Britain dominant in fossil fuel emissions until the 1880s, but it also led the first efforts to conserve land, protect species and curb pollution. The writer John Ruskin, for example, tried to overturn the ruling belief in unfettered wealth creation by pointing to the ‘illth’ (a term he coined to describe the reverse of wealth) that was produced alongside.

Ruskin’s ideas would inspire many, including Octavia Hill, a co-founder of the National Trust, as well as Mahatma Gandhi, leader of India’s independence movement. Frankopan highlights how a strong ecological agenda formed a core part of Gandhian struggle for freedom, rejecting industrial capitalism in favour of sustainable systems. This was symbolised by the replacement of the coal-fuelled steam engine with the human-powered spinning wheel. In a final sign of imperial terror, the Bengal famine of the 1940s killed between two and three million people, primarily from the political choices taken by the British rather than the initial drought. Decolonisation opened the hope that the developing world could pursue development that met human needs and respected local ecologies.

The 20th century is certainly the hinge in the transformation of human relationships with the Earth. By 1900 human numbers were still less than 2 billion, and by 1950 they had reached 2.5 billion. But by the turn of the 21st century they topped 6 billion, and they have now reached 8 billion. More than population, however, it was largely the consumption patterns of the world’s prosperous classes that drove further catastrophes for the natural world. Yet the main challengers to capitalism actively sought to deepen human dominance over Nature. Soviet plant breeder Ivan Michurin was insistent that “we can’t wait for kindnesses from Nature; our task is to wrest them from her.” Soviet efforts to wrest agriculture from the peasants resulted in famine across Ukraine and southern Russia, killing as many as 8 million people in 1932–3.

“Man must conquer Nature”

In China, Mao Zedong was insistent that “man must conquer Nature”, launching a colossal programme of industrialisation, dam building and agricultural intensification. One of the most bizarre aspects was the ‘war on sparrows’, ostensibly to reduce the loss of grain: almost 2 billion sparrows were killed between March and November 1959. But removing this thread from China’s ecological web resulted in an explosion of insect infestations, which, combined with state brutality, produced the greatest human-created famine in history, killing somewhere between 35 and 50 million people.

To complete the horrors of totalitarianism, Frankopan unpacks the creepy embrace of Nature by Nazi Germany, which viewed a perverse form of conservation as being core to national identity and racial purity, notably in terms of forests, agriculture and the soil. But Hitler’s belief in Blut und Boden (‘Blood and Soil’) always focused on the bloodletting, the attempted extermination of the Jews and mass killings across Europe and beyond, all underpinned by a hyper-industrialised state.

The post-war world opened with the threat of nuclear annihilation, a context that paradoxically favoured a rise in existential concern about humanity’s growing environmental predicament. Here, America’s devastation of its land through over-grazing and excessive ploughing had been exposed in the Dust Bowl disaster in the 1930s: “Many areas in the Great Plains had lost more than three-quarters of their topsoil,” Frankopan notes. But he omits to mention one of the pioneering responses, President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which created over 700 state parks and planted over 3.5 billion trees in the world’s first major ‘green jobs’ programme. After the war, the reality of the Dust Bowl underpinned mounting anxiety about resource depletion and degradation. Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic, Silent Spring, brought environmental issues out of the world of science and into the public realm: it also signalled the central role that women would play in the burgeoning green movement.

The road not taken

Across the world, governments started to put in place wide-ranging environmental legislation and gathered in Stockholm in 1972 for the first summit. The oil shock the following year raised hopes that the global economy could be steered away from fossil fuels onto a ‘soft energy path’ prioritising both efficiency and renewables. President Carter would put solar panels on the roof of the White House, but he lost the next election to Ronald Reagan. “The pathway of the following decades”, writes Frankopan, “was one that led to an extraordinary rise in energy consumption, fossil-fuel burning, carbon emissions and pollutants.” As the US journalist and climate writer David Wallace-Wells has highlighted, “more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels” has been emitted since 1989, an era marked by scientific consensus over the threat of accelerating climate change. The result was that “for 98% of the planet the 20th century was the warmest period of the last two millennia”, an “unprecedented outcome and one entirely linked to human activities”.

Frankopan ends his odyssey through environmental history on a deeply sombre note, and not just because of the depth of the continuing destruction around us or the terrifying prospects for future climate harms that are already locked in from past emissions. As a historian, Frankopan isn’t impressed with the environmental track record of our species, concluding that “much of human history has been about the failure to understand or adapt to changing circumstances in the physical and natural world around us.” He acknowledges that “ours is a story of resourcefulness, resilience and adaptation,” but fears that “these qualities can lead to a false sense of security.”

Out of this monumental work I was left wanting more, however, particularly more analysis of the historical conditions for sustainability, not least the social, scientific, spiritual and economic practices that had worked in the past. I was also left hungering for a more systemic view, one that recognised the fundamental nexus between climate, biodiversity and other planetary systems. As I put down this scholarly and elegantly written kilo-and-a-quarter history book for the last time, I was struck that the tale Frankopan had told was far richer than his image of the Earth as simply a stage for our actions. Certainly the Earth is a powerful protagonist in our story as well as the location for all our lives. But she is much more than that. James Lovelock’s powerful Gaia hypothesis argues instead that the Earth is a self-regulating complex system, one where life co-evolves with its environment. For Lovelock, “if we see the world as a superorganism of which we are part, we could have a long time ahead of us.” Rethinking our Earth history as part of this larger system would generate new ways of understanding the past, overcoming the continuing binary separation in so much of our culture between humanity and Nature: we are part of Nature, and our histories urgently need to recognise this fact. Peter Frankopan’s book goes a long way to starting us down this road.

This is a longer version of an article that appeared in the printed edition of Resurgence & Ecologist, issue 339. You can find the footnotes for The Earth Transformed at

The Earth Transformed: An Untold History by Peter Frankopan. Bloomsbury, 2023. ISBN: 9781526622563

Nick Robins is Professor in Practice for Sustainable Finance at the London School of Economics