Peter Frankopan - “We are living through an unparalleled age of transformations”
On the wider questions about the natural world’s reshaping as a result of globalisation, consumption patterns, demographics, and climate change
You write that the first goal of your book is to “reinsert climate back into the story of the past as an underlying, crucial, and much overlooked theme in global history”. Could you talk about your journey to the conclusion that we haven’t looked enough at climate patterns while studying the past?
That’s a great question. There are three reasons. As a historian, I am interested in connections and exchanges of all kinds and themes with regional, intercontinental, or global ramifications. Climate change (as well as disease/pandemics) has a wide context and substantial consequences. So, climate, the environment and the natural world have been subtexts of my work.
Second, we are living through an unparalleled age of transformations in our understanding of the past thanks to rapid scientific advances. I would compare these to the invention of the printing press or the advent and expansion of the internet. The new tools we have to look back in time and revolutionise our understanding of history are jaw-dropping. When we want to think about migration, we can now turn to genomics. For changes to landscapes, we can draw on fossilised pollen or lake sediments. For diseases, we can establish phylogenetic trees. We can chart changes in rainfall from things like tree ring data or calcium carbonate materials in caves and so on.
Third is the situation today. I am not only interested in climate change, but wider questions about the natural world’s reshaping as a result of globalisation, consumption patterns, demographics, etc.
So, as a historian, it feels like a responsibility to look at humanity’s footsteps in 2023 and work backwards to see how we arrived at this point of fragility. Our ancestors were concerned about sustainability thousands of years ago, as is clear from the Vedas, Bible, Mesopotamian texts, and more.
And yes, lots of wonderful scholars have worked on climate and the environment. But often, these studies cover one period or region. And in school or mainstream books about almost any [historical] topic — Partition, World Wars, the French Revolution, you name it — you’ll be lucky to find a single sentence about environmental or climatic conditions.
Many writers have talked about a failure of storytelling and imagination when it comes to climate change, such as David Wallace-Wells, Rebecca Solnit and Amitav Ghosh. As a historian and best selling author, what are your thoughts on this?
I love all three writers you mention and I’d almost argue the opposite — that authors and scholars like these show how to tell stories in ways that are not only convincing and important, but also compelling and readable.
I am not sure anyone is to blame. Authors need to come up with good ideas that capture the imagination and publishers to take them on. But the real magic lies with readers. People buy books about subjects they want to read and if they enjoy something, they recommend it to others.
I’d also note that I spent 20 years as a don at Oxford, where few people seemed interested in what I wanted to say, even though I thought my imagination and storytelling skills were reasonably good. But I could barely even interest my friends and family to listen to what I was working on — nomadic peoples in the steppes, the nature of empire, and Asia’s rise in the 21st century. But things changed about 10 years ago. So while I am grateful for my success, I am neither stupid nor naive enough to think that I have a particular gift. I have been lucky.
Your book has a formidable length and tries to address both the general reader and an academic audience, which might have been a difficult balance to maintain. What kind of audience did you have in mind for the book?
I never write with a particular audience in mind. I see my job as ordering my thoughts into a lucid structure and explaining topics I think people will be interested in, but might not know about. I aim to explain why they are both interesting and important even if they might seem obscure.
It is important for me to have a full apparatus of footnotes to show my sources properly. I love to draw on primary material — eyewitness accounts or historians writing hundreds or even thousands of years ago — because I see these scholars as my companions and friends. It gives me great pleasure to draw attention to their work and cite them so that readers read their books. When it comes to citations of modern research, I don’t include those to make my academic peers happy or satisfy an academic audience, but because it is right to acknowledge where ideas come from. That does not happen enough in popular history writing. But that’s not really my problem. I’m grateful that my publisher has always supported me and never asked me to hold back.
In the narratives around climate action, a dichotomy often comes up between individual action (taking fewer flights, driving electric vehicles, etc.) and systemic change (pressuring governments to curb fossil fuel investments and fund green jobs, for example). Are there any examples from your research that can better inform this debate?
Sure, there are loads — and lots of different ways of answering this very good question. One starting point might be to look at states that could provide stability through climatic, environmental, economic, or technological changes. One might study the roles of administrators or the rural population rather than rulers to see how people adapted to changing circumstances. I’d look at entities like the Byzantine or Ottoman empires; or perhaps, the Mongols. And, of course, one could look at moments of parallel states rising together, such as in the 10–12th centuries, where we can see the efflorescence of the Byzantine, Arab, Chola, Khmer, Pagan, Srivijaya, and Tang/Song empires in parallel and in competition.
As far as narratives go, I do not think this is a dichotomy. This is one of the greatest moments of opportunity in history. As a colleague of mine put it, the decisions we make in the next 10 years or so may shape not only the coming centuries, but the next millennia for our species. That is sobering, but I am not without hope.
“Writing this book has taught me a great many lessons about how we conceptualise the world around us,” you write in the introduction. Could you talk about these lessons?
The most obvious is how many people’s voices remain unheard, their stories untold. The amount of coverage given in history classes, non-fiction books, finance, politics, and much else to the entire continent of Africa or huge parts of South America or South East Asia is almost zero. The dominance of Western perspectives is understandable in some ways, but it has a vice-like grip on how we see the world. Focusing on the Americas before Columbus, West Africa in antiquity, and the settlement of islands in the Pacific is crucial to help bring down artificial barriers that still exclude significant parts of the world’s population.
Another is how easy it is to write about the past without thinking about where people’s calories came from, what and how much they ate, and what heat sources they used not just for cooking and warmth, but also for making glass or metals. How much acreage does one horse need? How many trees are needed to make a ship? What were conditions like in Deccan mines and how did they change over time? These are primary questions in history, but often, the focus is on the character and brilliance of great men (it’s almost always great men, not women). So, understanding the context of how our species has used, shaped, exploited, abused, or sustained the natural world is important.
A review in The New Statesman says that your book “seeks to tell the story of climate change without confronting global capitalism”. While you dwell on the ravages of imperialism and the pursuit of profit at all costs, were there any reasons for not focusing on capitalism as a historical phenomenon and how it has shaped the climate crisis?
This is a classic case of how the intellectual priesthood in the West seeks to preserve a monopoly on the past. Insisting on the importance of “capitalism” in this context means centring the significance of the Industrial Revolution and Karl Marx’s (and others’) work and suggesting that this was a defining feature that shaped the world. From my perspective, this is highly exclusionary and worse, reduces the experiences of many peoples in other parts of the world to the role of supporting actors on a stage in which the West must dominate. As a global historian, that does not just look out of date or even foolish, but a distortion of the past.
All empires, states, and realms are driven by the motor of acquisition and can be said to be underpinned by mercantile and trade interests. The problem is that many historians do not look at things this way. In my book, the role played by capital and capitalists is central and does not require a chapter on methodological justification just to satisfy academic sensitivities and notional priorities that serve to exclude. That is the absolute opposite of my approach, so I read this critique as being told off for not conforming. The Industrial Revolution indeed helped accelerate globalisation, which had profound consequences, and I make that crystal clear. But I also think it is important to look at how exchange, connections, communication, and the spread of goods, peoples, ideas, and technologies are not modern. They certainly do not require a doctrinaire definition of capitalism.
I suspect that one downside of being well-known is that one’s peers sometimes think they need to take you down a peg or two. Again, that’s not how I do things, but each to their own!
Were there any topics you wanted to explore in the book but could not?
Yes, I left out a great deal. Like with The Silk Roads, each chapter could be a book in its own right. My book is quite long, but I also wanted to cover a lot of ground, which means having to sometimes move faster than I’d have liked. But those good ideas can and will come out in academic papers one day.
Has this book sent you on new paths of enquiry that you would now like to work on?
I am thinking about what I might work on next. But I can promise that my day job of Russia, China, Central Asia, the Middle East — and now climate and the environment — keeps me pretty busy! The last week has been completely dominated by the BRICS being on the move.
I’d rather focus on what I’m good at than try to find another topic and reinvent the wheel. I’m happy and proud of what I’ve achieved. But I’m motivated by curiosity, not personal ambition. I know how lucky I am to wake up every day feeling excited about what lies ahead. I’ve been like that since I was a little boy with a map of the world on my wall!
Syed Saad Ahmed is a writer and communications professional.