Most natural history programs examine a particular organism or habitat and consider how the elements have shaped their evolution. Series such as Planet Earth or David Attenborough’s Life exist to explore how the basic factors of land and weather determine the choreography with which flora and fauna dance endlessly amidst one another in a battle for survival. In Earth: The Biography, geologist Iain Stewart (who exhibits a pure childlike joy in these discussions) laid the groundwork of the elemental forces defining this complex planet – Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. How The Earth Changed History brings this series full circle by reconsidering how these have shaped human history, and how dissonant human tribes struggled with one another for local, and eventually global, supremacy. Ethnocentric accounts of history would have you believe that one’s own culture and intelligence were the sole agents of change. It turns out that humans tended to gather in certain areas to maximize their use of natural resources, and luck often played a tremendous part as to which came out on top. The disparate disciplines of geology, geography, history, and anthropology are weaved effortlessly together in what is a dizzying spectacle that regards where we are headed. Documentaries of late tend to focus on our future with either conservative blinders or progressive gloom; this series comes to the conclusion that mankind itself has become a force of nature that has changed the Earth, and such enormous control is reason for optimism.
One is reminded of the approach of Jared Diamond as How The Earth Changed History considers resource management in the rise and fall of civilizations and explains why certain nations are at the top of the game in this uncertain world. It is an unforgiving place, and humanity along with the rest of the animals was forced to adapt or die. Though the forces that shape the Earth are familiar, the way they interplay shifts inexorably. In the introductory chapter, the fate of all life is linked to water, which is always in motion; this is made clear as Stewart examines rock carvings of crocodiles – in the middle of the Sahara Desert. The water cycle moves the relatively small amount of drinkable water useful for human activity from sea to wind to mountains and rainfall, rivers and lakes, and back to the sea. This cycle was notoriously difficult to understand and control for prehistoric man. History is defined by hardship, demonstrated as the last ice age precipitated a drought lasting centuries in the fertile crescent. The hunter-gatherers there adapted by fashioning stone tools to become more efficient hunters, and then invented the sickle, sparking the agricultural revolution. Growing crops necessitated a ready water supply, beginning mankind’s connection to water, namely rivers, that brought a predictable source. This in turn drove the development of an organized society, as only a high degree of organization can deal with water shortages.
The Nile River valley benefited from the river rich in volcanic minerals originating in Ethiopia, and business, taxation, and societal hierarchy were driven by the water. The Garamantians established an advanced nation in the Sahara desert through the cunning use of deep boreholes that were the first use of groundwater. One civilization after another is examined for their methods of adapting to volatile water supplies, and often their failure to continue that adaptation and outstrip their resources in lean times. This includes a fascinating section on how the British empire’s failure to manage India’s water supply provided the spark for the resistance movement. This is not only a look at the past, but at our very near future, considering the increasing global tension over the water supply that will eventually lead to the next world war.
And so we continue through Deep Earth, the source of the minerals that yielded the Ages of Bronze, Iron, and Plastic; Air, the wind power that gave birth to maritime superpowers; and Fire, the catalyst for converting stored carbon into the energy that drives industry. All of these forces converge upon fault lines – the cracks between intercontinental plates allow magma to the surface, carrying precious metal, providing a surface to trap groundwater, and can act as a reservoir for fossil fuels. Indeed, fault lines are the hub of civilizations. It is fair to say that the vanguard nations were those able to best harness these elemental forces to power commerce, organize society, wage war, and drive further intellectual pursuits into improving upon their ability to harness those forces.
The series is peppered with anecdotes that are not only intriguing, but are relevant to our current resource management problems. The Minoans of Crete had a tremendous navy until their neighbor and trading partner was buried in a volcanic explosion, eventually sending a tidal wave that smashed the Minoan fleet, a loss from which they never recovered. Los Angeles obtains its entire water supply from distant areas, draining communities to feed the desert in a way that could become problematic, but for the present this unsustainable metropolis thrives from the gold and the oil brought to the surface by the fault line. The first energy crisis occurred hundreds of years ago as Europe was depleted of wood, which drove the search for another fossil fuel. This turned out to be coal, and the harvesting of this from water-logged mines required the development of the steam engine (the first use was a mine pump) that sparked the industrial revolution. Interestingly, Britain had coal that was easily exploited and close to urban centers. China also had massive coal reserves, but they were hundreds of miles from any city, behind the Yellow River. This delayed China’s industrial revolution until the mid 20th century. The most sobering strands of this massive story relates to our dependence upon oil – it takes 3 million years for the Earth to convert dead material into a one year supply of oil. This segues neatly into climate change, and the final chapter of the planetary force of the Human. The cautionary tale here relates to the Sidoarjo mud volcano that erupted in Indonesia in 2006, expelling 30k cubic meters of mud daily, anticipated to continue for the next 30 years. The cause was a blowout in a natural gas well. In 2010, the Deep Water Horizon disaster has given even greater food for thought about the cavalier way we view our extraordinary power to shape the planet. Add to this the 26 million tons of plastic we add to the oceans per year and the degradation of more than 25% of the planet’s farmland, and this should paint a fairly dire picture.
Iain Stewart, however, finds this impact to be cause for concern, but also sees it as an opportunity. Time is spent on the technological efforts to reverse this damage, and this is an industry that has only begun to grow. The Svalbard seed vault is not a sign that plant life is being wiped out, but rather that the nations of Earth are cooperating to ensure humanity’s agricultural future. The drive to find an alternative to fossil fuels is at a fever pitch, for both political and practical reasons. As Dr. Stewart puts it, “As a species, we think we are special. Now is our chance to prove it.”
Though you may have heard some of these stories before, what is fascinating is the way they are strung together into a narrative spanning prehistory to the modern. And in our present age, termed the Anthropocene Epoch, Man is truly in command of this world, for better or worse. It is poetic that just as we have truly come to understand just how much of an impact we have, we are now able to more precisely control that impact. How The Earth Changed History is about as epic in scope as a series can be, and the cinematic treatment is pure entertainment that stays with you long after the closing credits. It is difficult to watch this feature and not have its ramifications inform your behavior, and perhaps regard our might as a species with some well-heeded caution.