In Conversation with Peter Frankopan

"In the modern era, many people have come up with hare-brained ideas about how to change the world around us, and more recently, to 'settle’ new planets. I don’t know if that’s viable. But I think it’s the stuff of science fiction, rather than reality."

The stage burns. 

There is no need for lighting,

the slow crackling of the centuries-old stage burning is enough to draw eyes. 

There is no need for director, 

the actors said they can improvise in any situation. 

The stage burns.

Historian Peter Frankopan, author of 2015’s The Silk Roads, is known for his ability to reframe history. In his previous work, he refocused the history of human civilization away from its Eurocentric frame, instead pinpointing the centre of our history to the Silk Road. 

This time, in his book The Earth Transformed, he lights up the stage on which human history takes place — the environment. 

Always an ambitious historian, Frankopan illuminates how the environment has shaped and influenced the course of history, despite humanity so desperately trying to take control of it. 

I had the honour to speak with Peter ahead of his appearances at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Lucas Kao: Could you briefly summarise how you would describe homo sapiens’ relationship with nature throughout most of our history? 

Peter Frankopan: Well, I suppose the simplest thing to say is that our species – like all forms of life – is contextualised by the natural environment. There are climatic and environmental envelopes that are easier or harder to live and survive in; but each requires adaptation of some kind. The history of homo sapiens can be seen as a series of efforts to manage to shape the natural world around us; but also as a set of challenges posed by the limits that nature imposes.

LK: We currently live in a period of time where capitalism is the dominant mode of society, and where the exploitation of the environment is a known negative externality (as economists would describe) that it produces. How has capitalism changed the dynamic between people and the environment? 

PF: A lot depends on what one means by “capitalism”. This term and its centrality to historical critiques often looks to me like a form of Eurocentric or western privilege that pre-supposes a socio-economic system, identified by and then protected by western intellectuals, deserves to be prioritised — and seen as fundamentally different to experiences in other regions and periods. So one needs to be clear about what capitalism really means. If you mean the over-exploitation of resources, of nature, of human labour and the importance of mercantile capital, then I can show you examples of this thousands of years ago, long before the advent of European intellectual prisms took shape, often overlaying exploitation with European empire. All empires are extractive and over-consumptive and run into problems of ecological sustainability. Today’s world is simply an extension of that: but the scale, mechanisms and inter-connectivity mean fragilities are particularly acute.

LK: What are some major natural disasters that transformed history? And how has the environment previously influenced the “trajectory of history”? 

PF: Great question. Well let’s do a recent one. The earthquake off the coast of Japan in 2008 brought about a terrible tsunami and awful loss of life. But it changed the world too: one result was the green lobby using the example of the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear facility to warn about the risks of this form of energy. In Germany, that led to the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, taking space off the green lobby for her own party by promising to shut down nuclear power in the country — and to meet the energy needs through building a major new gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, to Russia. That inevitably played a role in Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, which — as well as bringing grotesque suffering and loss of life in Ukraine – also shifted energy prices dramatically around the world, with a particular impact on the poorest nations. That is just one of many examples of how shocks can produce shock waves. They don’t have to come from natural disasters; but they often do.

LK: Throughout history, humanity has sought to control nature, whether that is through religion or so-called magic. Different cultures throughout different times have tried it. Would you argue that terraforming to counter climate change is a misguided effort to control the uncontrollable? Do you see it as a viable solution? 

PF: Let’s put it this way: a few years after the Second World War, some were planning to use nuclear explosions to create deep new harbours on the west coast of the United States; others were talking about using new technologies to melt the North polar ice cap and to use massive engineering schemes to open up “millions and millions of fertile acres” in the Sahara that would “yield two and even three crops a year for the benefit of mankind”. Those were ambitious. But they did not happen; and if they had, one assumes that there would have been some dramatic consequences — both good and bad. So yes; in the modern era, many people have come up with hare-brained ideas about how to change the world around us, and more recently, to ‘settle’ new planets. I don’t know if that’s viable. But I think it’s the stuff of science fiction, rather than reality.

LK: You write that the environment is “the very stage on which our existence plays out, shaping everything we do, who we are, where and how we live…”. Does this perhaps suggest that you view human activities as separate from nature and the environment? What is your view on arguments that see human activities as part of nature? 

PF: Well the best way to show how we are part of nature is the recent coronavirus. One of the great ways to tell global history is through the study of pathogens — something which provides a stark reminder that our connectivity is great on good days, and deadly on others. Disease needs hosts to infect and keep spreading, so that classes us as a vector. So too does that fact that many diseases were exposed to result from zoonotic jumps – that is, ones that affect animals but that are then transmitted to humans. And of course, the fact that we need to produce food and rely on water, that we mine minerals and other materials means that we are very much part of the natural world and are both defined, liberated and trapped by its limits. So I am very much looking at humanity being shaped by nature, the environment and climate – and shaping each in turn, by design or by mistake.

LK: Is our survival as a species throughout previous environmental disasters the result of perseverance? Or perhaps sheer luck? 

PF: Bit of both. When we talk of “survival” of course we forget about those who did not make it. So everyone in Europe or of European descent had ancestors who did not die during the Black Death. In some cases, that would have been luck; it seems in some populations, there was some innate resistance to plague bacterium thanks to genetic differences that provided responses to autoinflammatory disease. So luck played a part. So too did good decision making and planning ahead; the challenge for all societies is how to deal with shocks. Again, the last 16 months have shown that clearly, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggering sharp rises in oil, gas, metals and wheat and making inflationary pressures that were already growing because the cork in central bank monetary bottles had been popped. Coping with sudden events is different to long-range, multi-decade transformations. But both require playing one’s cards well — and relying on a bit of luck in the process.

LK: To counter climate change, should we seek to control the environment, or should we limit and change our activities (i.e., limit capitalism)?

PF: I suspect a bit of both. For what it’s worth, there is a lot of low hanging fruit that means we can boost efficiency, clean things up and be more sustainable without too much difficulty. That includes switching to smarter uses of things we already do and use; but also simple and not even expensive fixes to energy production and storage, food waste and better lifestyle practices. Even modest adjustments can bear fruit too: nudging air conditioning up a pip or two dramatically cuts requirements. In places like the Gulf or the US, room temperatures are often set at 18C which is positively chilling in a work or hotel environment. Pushing those up a bit can save money and carbon. Then there are key industries – like fashion, which produces almost 10% of global emissions and is set to triple in the coming decades. That all becomes a little harder. But I don’t think it is beyond the capabilities of us all to modify our behaviour and live more sustainably. As an academic, I’d obviously say that the first thing is for people to be better informed about the choices that they take for granted — partly because no one ever told them how many litres of water go into a pair of jeans or an avocado, or what the ingredients are in lipstick or KitKats. Once one knows that, one might make different decisions — without feeling that one’s making a sacrifice.

The Earth Transformed, by Peter Frankopan and published by Bloomsbury, is out now. 

Peter will be speaking at the Sydney Writers’ Festival at Carriageworks in Eveleigh. He will be in conversation at Peter Frankopan: The Earth Transformed, at 1pm on Thursday 25 May; in panel at Beginnings: Past, Present, Future, at 4pm on Thursday 25 May; and in panel at Richard Fidler & Peter Frankopan, at 6pm on Thursday 25 May. He will also appear at the Sydney Town Hall for the Storytelling Gala: Letters to the Future, at 8pm on Thursday 25 May.