The Battle of Plassey is often explained as a consequence of socio-economic and political churning in India and precipitated by the violation of trade privileges and non-payment of tax to the Nawab of Bengal. On June 23, 1757, the British East Company’s forces commanded by Robert Clive emerged victorious against the Nawab. The pivotal moment heralded the rapid expansion of the British colonial state into the subcontinent, where it would stay for almost two centuries.
The Earth Transformed: An Untold History
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But, in our understanding of the war and the establishment of the colonial state, perhaps we missed the role of the subcontinent’s defining climatic feature: the Indian monsoons.
Through the mid and late 1700s, climatic conditions in the subcontinent were challenging. The failure of the monsoon led to lower than usual agricultural productivity and higher-than-average commodity prices. Warfare and deterioration of centralised authority pushed up the cost of agricultural input. On the other hand, Britain, in particular, was experiencing a boom, which was linked to higher agricultural productivity, better wages, and colonial expansion that extracted resources from across the world.
Around the time of the British East India Company’s expansion in India, a combination of poor monsoons, bad harvests, incompetent administration, and predatory speculation resulted in crop failure and famine. India’s share in the world’s industrial output diminished from 25 per cent in 1750 to just 2 per cent in the 1900s.
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All this served “to make India less competitive at a time when trends in Britain and elsewhere in Europe were heading in the other direction”, notes British writer and historian Peter Frankopan in his latest book, The Earth Transformed: An Untold History.
The role of weather and climate in shaping history is an oft-ignored but thoroughly intriguing idea. The Earth Transformed brings the environmental perspective to the fore in its sweeping narration of the earth’s civilisational history.
The nearly-700-page book presents a pertinent look at how civilisations have been shaped by droughts and pluvial periods, ice ages and warming, and in particular, volcanoes. It traces the journey from the time of early hominins, whose evolution was shaped by drier weather conditions, to the present age of climate anxieties and loud climate denialism.
Frankopan explains that the book has three key goals: reinsert climate back into the story of the past as an underlying, crucial and much overlooked theme in global history; set out the story of human interaction with the natural world, particularly how our species exploited, moulded and bent the environment to its will; and expand the horizons of narrated histories by looking beyond the Global North.
The book attempts a narrative tight-rope: it seeks to present a balanced viewpoint of nature’s role in shaping history and also tries to be truly representative of civilisational history.
Frankopan consciously avoids the temptations that plague most pop history or populist science books. A comparison that comes to mind is Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The book is immensely readable largely because of its tendency to oversimply complexities of human history. Harari’s speculative reconstruction of history is peppered with reductive philosophical epithets that allow readers to view the vast span of human history through singular notions or questions (Are we happier than the pre-historic man? Or, did we domesticate wheat or did wheat domesticate us?) The questions raised and answers provided are often based on dubious interpretations of science and history. But there is no denying that Harari’s narrative style has made the book into a phenomenon that has sold millions of copies.
Frankopan, on the other hand, seeks balance to a fault. He’s determined to represent all facets, elaborate on every nuance, and sow doubt into every possible theory that gives primacy to environment in the retelling of history. There is repeated emphasis to explain that climate/environment is not the sole driver of change and numerous complex factors shape events of history. The book challenges popular notions of drought and climate change leading to the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilisation or of a particularly harsh winter that grounded Hitler’s troops in their march into the Soviet Union and precipitated the downfall of the Nazi regime.
Indus Valley, for instance, had survived in bleak climatic conditions through a series of coping strategies and adaptations. A combination of unplanned demographic expansion, sanitary conditions that bred diseases, and violence that coincided with prolonged periods of lowered rainfall precipitated its collapse, Frankopan writes. In the case of the Nazi army’s winter march, “overambitious objectives, inefficient supply lines, poor strategic decisions and worse execution of plans on the ground” aggravated the effect of heavy snow.
The pitfall of such an approach is that often the writing slips into a sort of dense narrative with no linking thread save that certain events happened in a particular time period.
Frankopan’s 2016 best-selling book, Silk Roads: A New History of the World, also sought to challenge the Eurocentric view of history by placing the Persian World at its narrative centre. In Earth Transformed, he takes it to an extreme with a strong need to be geographically representational. A single page of the heavily-annotated book may cover Champa and Dai Viet in South East Asia, Song dynasty in China to kingdoms in Southern Botswana and Iraq. The plethora of research used to describe the climatic conditions in an era, their impact across geographical spans and across economic industries, as well as reams of research to caution against oversimplification of the role of climate, can be overwhelming.
- Peter Frankopan’s The Earth Transforned: An Untold Story presents a pertinent look at how civilisations have been shaped by droughts and pluvial periods, ice ages and warming, and in particular, volcanoes.
- Frankopan explains that the book has three key goals: reinsert climate back into the story of the past as an underlying, crucial and much overlooked theme in global history; set out the story of human interaction with the natural world, particularly how our species exploited, moulded and bent the environment to its will; and expand the horizons of narrated histories by looking beyond the Global North.
- Recent history—particularly, the Soviet Union’s draining of the Aral Sea or Chairman Mao’s disastrous proclamation that “Man must conquer Nature”— points to the folly of attempting to control nature with utter disregard for consequences, which not only destroy environment but devastate millions of human lives.
- The writer warns that humans continue to live well beyond their means, needing the equivalent of 1.6 earths to maintain current lifestyles.
For instance, climate’s role in the colonialisation of India is breezed through in a chapter that covers the role of weather, crop and ecology in the American Independence movement, the French Revolution, socio-economic changes in Ottoman Egypt, environmentally exploitative trade in the Caribbean, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the impact of potatoes in European prosperity, among others.
Looking at the past
Despite its difficulties, the book is an important project with critical insights. For one, it emphasises the importance of the environment in looking at the past, and this can be useful when viewing epoch-making historical events. For instance, regions vulnerable to weather conditions are more likely to nurture beliefs and religions focussed on moralising gods who hand out punishment in the form of natural calamities for transgressions and apparent lack of respect. The rapid rise of Islam in the 7th century has also to do with environmental conditions following a large volcanic eruption that disrupted global weather patterns and brought a sense of the approach of Judgment Day.
As importantly, the book’s objective presentation of environmental history showcases repeated patterns of human folly.
Empires are often forged when nature is at its kindest. It isn’t a coincidence that the Mongol hordes that swept across Asia were nurtured by periods of fortuitous, stable climate that made the steppes productive and hospitable for livestock and humans. But, empires can be brought down by nature through famines, droughts, floods and sudden weather changes. Natural calamities expose weak leadership, excessive centralisation and flawed policies that disregard environmental consciousness.
The environment is a stage on which the worst of human behaviour comes to the fore: times of food shortages and high prices increased persecution of Jews in Europe during the medieval era and beyond; times of good weather that increased agricultural productivity in Africa led to an increase in export of slaves as colonialists found them to be fitter and well-nourished.
A consistent theme during periods of environmental uncertainty is the appropriation of resources by the elite, while the rest of the populace deals with the effects of famine and food shortages. It isn’t hard to see parallels in the contemporary world: Corporate profit margins have hit their highest levels even as the impact of climate change ravages through the developing world.
“The book’s objective presentation of environmental history showcases repeated patterns of human folly.”
Recent history—particularly, the Soviet Union’s draining of the Aral Sea or Chairman Mao’s disastrous proclamation that “Man must conquer Nature”—points to the folly of attempting to control nature with utter disregard for consequences, which not only destroy environment but devastate millions of human lives.
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The book is replete with examples of how civilisations can fold in on themselves with ecological change or overexploitation catalysing the process.
Around the first century C.E., when the forests of Tuscany were cut down and Rome was left in an “oppressive atmosphere” as a result of intense mining under the Roman Empire, Pliny the Elder noted sadly that too many people undermined nature with the sole purpose of self-enrichment. “Rather than content themselves with the bounteous food and natural wealth that the world provides, humans were too busy being overwhelmed by avarice to stop overexploiting its resources,” he said.
Nearly two millennia later, Frankopan writes that we continue to take extraordinary risks with our futures, one that is now determined by avarice on a global scale. He quotes a report that says the solution to climate change will not come from human action, but from nature—in the form of catastrophic depopulation, whether through hunger, disease, or conflict..
Mohit M. Rao is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.