Peter Frankopan
The Earth Transformed

History through a new lens

Peter Frankopan is a professor of global history at Worcester College, Oxford. He is perhaps best known for his book Silk Roads which I read in April 2021 and offered a new history on human history by placing the focus on the role of the East in shaping global events, rather than the traditional Western-centric view of history. It shows how Frankopan is able to offer fresh perspectives on perhaps well established views and therefore I was really interested in what this book had to offer. So I was curious about The Earth Transformed.

Coincidentally, my eye fell on another book on the same topic, which is from the German historian and writer Philipp Blom who in his book Die Unterwerfung: Anfang und Ende der menschlichen Herrschaft über die Natur seems to tackle the same topic. Perhaps I will read this book later on, and am curious how his book will compare against Frankopan’s The Earth Transformed.

Humanity’s struggle

Anyway, about the book. The book can be roughly divided in two parts. The first part mostly discusses the impact that changes in climate had on human history. Without modern technology, humanity basically had to endure various environmental factors such as ice ages, droughts and floods, volcanic eruptions and pandemics without any chance of prevention. Frankopan offers insights in the effects of climatic changes such as the Roman Climate Optimum, the Little Ice Age, the Black Death and various other floods and famines.

The second part is where humanity starts to ‘conquer nature’. Frankopan describes that through the rise of technology and industrialization humanity finally succeeds in counteracting the impact of floods and pandemics by dams and irrigation systems as well as vaccines, but at the same time allowed humanity to manipulate and control the natural world to extract resources on a much larger scale, and a rapid expansion in the production and growth of natural resources. This resulted in colonialism, where the degradation and destruction of the environment had significant impacts on biodiversity and the ecological balance of the regions involved.

I learned a lot: I didn’t know that volcanoes have probably played an important role in shaping the planet’s climate history than, let’s say, asteroids or the Milankovich cycle. Frankopan frequently relates specific volcanic eruptions to particular environmental, social, and economic factors that ultimately may have lead to the collapse of civilizations or empires. Perhaps this is controversial, as historians may disagree but at least there is a causation. It just showed me how humans – despite their belief in technology and their own superiority – are still subjected to Earth’s random events and there is nothing we can do about it.

The environmental movement

Back to modern history: what I missed in Frankopan’s book was the emergence of the environmental movement advocating for greater protections for the natural world and a more sustainable approach to development. Today, attitudes towards nature continue to evolve, with a growing recognition of the importance of protecting the environment and preserving biodiversity for future generations. But will it help? This tantalizing question is not answered by Frankopan: he does not explain how future mankind can reverse the disastrous trends of past centuries. Perhaps we are not yet too late, or perhaps there is no turning back. It would be interesting to have heared Frankopan’s view on this.

  • Peter Frankopan

    The Earth Transformed

    ISBN: 9780525659167 | Pages: 736 pages | Publication date: April 18, 2023

    Buy on Amazon


This is a great book for those interested in the symbiotic relationship between human civilization and nature. It shows how nature has influenced humanity and how in its turn humanity is currently influencing nature itself and serves as a warning: nature always fights back.

— Bill
Next post: The German madhouse

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