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Historian Peter Frankopan: ‘We are predisposed to looking for drama. That’s why we watch Netflix, not documentaries’

The British expert criticizes the West’s complaints about China’s investments in Africa and Latin America when the former doesn’t do anything to build hospitals and schools there

Peter Frankopan
A photograph of Peter Frankopan taken in Madrid on June 22.Samuel Sánchez

There’s no better time to sit down and chat with a historian than the present. In an age of endless turbulence around the world, Peter Frankopan, 52, Professor of Global History at Oxford University, invites us to take a fresh look at our world. He is the author of the successful book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2014) and the more recent The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World ( 2018), in which he replaced the usual Eurocentric view of history with an Asian perspective. In addition to collaborating with several Ivy League universities, he and his wife run a handful of boutique hotels in London, Paris, Amsterdam and Brighton. He spoke with EL PAÍS before participating in a forum on the climate emergency organized by EDP in Madrid.

Question: What kind of world do we live in?

Answer. Well…it’s a big question… Let’s start here. [In] Madrid, [at] the end of this week [it is going to] be 40 degrees C [104 degrees F]…It’s going to be 50 degrees C [122 degrees F] in Iran and 48 degrees C [about 118 degrees F] in China. So, that looks to be a real concern. [But] humans are very adaptive. We’re very creative. We can make lots of interventions that can solve problems, but it’s very difficult [in] nature. That’s one of the reasons we teach children about evolution... We teach that animals need to adapt, and if they can’t, they disappear. So, I’m concerned about that.

Q. How concerned are you about political fragmentation and polarization?

A. I’m concerned. The war in Ukraine [is] bad for humanity, it’s bad for the economy because it pushes prices, but it’s also bad because it shows that we are not in a position to be solving global problems at the moment. The relationship between China and the United States [is] very complicated, maybe even difficult, at a time [when] all of us…need to have global cooperation [and] there’s an urgent need [for] some interventions.

Q. You call yourself an “optimist and pragmatist.”

A. It’s easy to be alarmed, but we need to be thinking quite quickly about transitions to sustainability…The interesting thing for me as a historian is that all of the humans in the past [seemed] to be worried about these problems, too, from the very beginning of the Bible [onward]. [In]the story of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden, the punishment was environmental and economical…And the purpose of the story was to remind [us] that human beings are at the mercy of the environment. And that’s something that all the generations before [us] have had to think about.

Q. Some countries are beginning to show signs of backsliding.

A. We may be changing, but the reasons [that] life[spans] have gotten longer is because we’ve been good at developing new medicines and] become better at health care…It is still not perfect, but it’s much better than any time in the past.

Q. Why is pessimism winning the ideological battle?

A. It’s a good question….I suppose a historian would say it’s because we always focus on history and things that don’t work. We focus on battles, we focus on genocide, we focus on big trauma. So, we’re used to looking for catastrophe. And in fact, as Hegel, the great German thinker, said, the blank page [in history books] is where there’s peace and quiet…So, I suppose it’s that we are predisposed to looking for drama. It’s a bit like why we watch Netflix…rather than boring documentaries.

Q. What is the media’s responsibility in all this?

A. I do not …blame the media. I think it’s the way in which we want information. I think that we teach like that in the classroom. It’s not the media’s fault…We are always thinking about lessons we learned from the past; often in history, those are the negative stories of …war [and the] collapse of societies. Actually, the things that work are really exciting [and] really interesting to talk about. So, the battle of pessimism is partly that that’s what scares people. And in liberal democracies, scary people can change the way they vote. What’s interesting is that [in] all societies in Europe at the moment, it’s hard to see many political leaders who are offering an optimistic, positive view of the future…. That lack of ambition, of vision, of bringing people together helps make [things] polarized.

Q. What can we do, then?

A. [We need] the space in the middle… to be occupied by people who could join us together… That’s why Trump and even Boris Johnson have been so toxic: because of an unwillingness to accept…the court of justice [and] also public opinion… One side… doesn’t believe what the other side…says. They threaten our institutions. But more or less here, you know, whatever the election result will be, one would assume there’ll be a transition from one [leader] to the next… The losing side loses, and the new side gets in…We may not like it, but we understand that it’s…. the other team’s chance. And I think we do that quite well…I get your point about being pessimistic, but we should also be honest that…most people…tried to do a good job. Most of us tried to be sustainable…People try to recycle, they try to conserve and be thoughtful. But we just need to have a little bit more thought. I think that’s all.

Q. How do you explain the rise of climate denialism?

A. I would see these things as competition for power and…for hearts and minds…. I can’t really make an intervention or [have a]discussion with people who want to deny the science…I mean, you can show [that] 99% plus of scientific papers all talk about not just warming but about the human activities [causing it]. You’ve got to be quite self-confident to see temperatures of 40 degrees C [104 degrees F] in Madrid … in April and say. ‘Oh, is that a worry?’ …Is it a worry if you can’t grow crops in Spain? Is it a worry if the olive oil industry is collapsing and looking to the European Union for €5 billion of support? … Of course, it is a concern…But…I’m not here to try and convince people [who] don’t want to be convinced. I’m [here] to try and tell them how we reached a point where we’re looking at levels of biodiversity loss and changes to the natural environment that are a real worry…And we should be addressing that rather than having arguments with each other.

Q. Are we witnessing the end of globalization as we know it?

A. That’s the story in Europe and in the West. [But] that’s not what people are talking about in Asia or Southeast Asia. [There,] it’s high levels of cooperation, more movement of goods and people… 65% of the world’s population lives to the east of Istanbul…The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the biggest trade agreement ever ... Globalization [is] sort of easy to talk about. But, you know, we have global supply chains that deliver…the materials to [us]…we can’t decouple [from them] straightforwardly…It will be much more expensive than having [to] trade [with] other parts of the world. Even if we make [products] here, you need…the materials, you need the processing. And to establish that…takes years and it’s expensive. But…that’s a choice for all political leaders. It would seem that the globalization discussions are ones about political power and economic power rather than anything else. But we are talking about fragmentation here in the West without realizing quite what that means. But in a period where we have high levels of inflation and an economy that’s on the edge, you might take the view that this might not be the right argument to be having right now.

Q. So, there’s no sign of the West’s decline that many people have been predicting for years?

A. No, I don’t think about the end of the West. Probably, on balance, we in Europe have…less climatic stress, at least to start with, than, let’s say, North Africa or the Middle East…13 of the 21 most water-stressed countries are [in] the Middle East and North Africa…You know, there’s a reason why people want to come to live in Madrid or Barcelona and [they’re] maybe not so keen to go live in Riyadh or in Shanghai.

Q. China is continuing to invest and look for allies in Latin America and Africa.

A. We think only in terms of: What does it mean about China?...What does it mean for the countries [in which] China is investing … particularly in Asia, America and West Africa?… I always hear, “you Europeans and Americans tell us we shouldn’t take [China’s investments], but will you invest in our projects for us [like] schools, hospitals, clean water, clean energy?” And, you know, quite often we’re not part of doing it. But we [can’t] be telling the people what they should be doing any more…Either we turn up and we get involved, or we allow other people to do it. My view is that we should have high levels of investment in these parts of the world.

Q. In recent weeks, hundreds of people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. But the media’s attention has focused on the death of five men aboard a submarine trying to see the wreck of the Titanic.

A. Well…[that]tells us we think about people who are rich…You can give them names. You can speak to their families, [you can tell] which industries they own... [The people who drowned off the coast of Greece] are poor and anonymous. We don’t know their names. We don’t know where they come from. And people don’t relate to [them]. You know, I think it tells us something dark about how we see things. But the job of the media [is]to report what people want to read about…And…my job is not to criticize and say that’s good or bad. I think it’s really to ask yourself the question of what is it that matters? …I don’t recognize this as a choice between one or the other, the catastrophe and the horror. The tragedy in the Mediterranean is part of a huge problem of [current] global poverty and…the global anxiety that we have at the moment. [There have been] 20 million people in the Horn of Africa, East Africa, at risk of… starvation and famine …for the last three years. Food [is] not available or [it is] incredibly expensive; [there’s human] trafficking, and [people are] trying to offer ways out. And this [is a] humanitarian crisis [that] we don’t pay any attention to until people really start to die. That’s a tragedy.

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