‘How Earth Made Us’ is a ground-breaking BBC series that tells ‘the incredible story of the natural forces that have shaped our history’. Now available on YouTube, it is well worth watching, offering fantastic imagery and though-provoking commentary. Presented by Professor Iain Stewart, the series examines the influence of four fundamental elements – Water, Deep Earth, Wind and Fire – on human history. The fifth and final episode, called the Human Planet, presents humans as a natural force in their own right.
The series sets out to address the influence of these planetary forces on the rise, persistence and fall of civilisations, a topic rarely mentioned in history books. It uses the classical European depiction of the elements – water, earth, wind and fire – as a framework. Some of the perspectives presented by Professor Stewart are not quite what you might expect based on this classification. At least they weren’t what I expected. That is one of the reasons the series is so quirky and engaging.
One of the surprises for me was the ‘Earth’ episode, which I thought would focus on soil formation and loss. Far from it. The episode ‘Deep Earth’ addresses the unseen forces below the ground that have provided the raw materials for the human conquest of the planet. The discovery of malachite, that releases copper when heated, is one of the raw materials discussed. First found in the Negev Desert in Israel 6,000 – 7000 years ago, the ‘copper revolution’ (as it is called) changed the relationship of humans with the planet through tools such as the copper axe. The rest of the episode focuses on the observation that the vast majority of ancient civilisations were found in close proximity to continental plate boundaries, giving them access to resources and energy.
The focus of the episode on ‘Fire’ was also unexpected. Being surprised is good, as it expands and challenges your thinking. I am getting ahead of myself however. The series starts with an episode on ‘Water’, which Professor Stewart describes as “the most magical force on earth.” It is an element to which our fate is inextricably linked. The ability of water to constantly transform itself into different guises (frozen, liquid and gas) from place to place is highlighted. The finite amount of water available on the earth is also highlighted in this episode – a fact still ignored by many.
Examples of the crucial role of water to humanity are given from across the globe. Many focus on the mismanagement of this precious resource, including the inability of Britain to manage the monsoonal water supply when it colonized India. Stories are also told of human populations outstripping available water resources, often with drastic consequences. Water is singled out as the only element of the four covered that can constrain humans due to its restricted nature. The inevitable conclusion is that we need to adapt to its limits.
Professor Stewart says that wind – the atmosphere in motion – is one of the most powerful and least understood forces on earth. I agree. In the ‘Wind’ episode, the discovery of how the trade winds worked 500 years ago is described as pivotal in terms of transforming our planet. This led to the European discovery, colonization and exploitation of many countries. The episode goes on to document several examples of desertification and drought associated with wind patterns and wind/ocean interactions and the impacts of large-scale events such as El Nino and the Southern Oscillation on different civilisations.
The deserts of Central Australia are described in the ‘Wind’ episode as being the harshest place to live on earth. The barren nature (his words) of these deserts is put down to the wind patterns stripping fertility from the soil. Indigenous Australians have lived in these environments for tens of thousands of years, developing a sophisticated culture in tune with the available resources. While Indigenous Australians are acknowledged as ingenious and adaptable in this episode, I believe that the depth and complexity of their knowledge and customs could have been emphasised more.
The planetary force of Fire is described as a paradox in the fourth episode, being both lethal and an element we depend on. Discovering how to create and control fire gave humans immense power over the world. So much so that Professor Stewart describes fire as the human signature. It’s an interesting analogy. Fire gave us warmth, light, protection, the ability to cook food, a rallying point for conversation (e.g. campfires) and a land management tool. These all arose from the deliberate burning of vegetation, mostly wood. Fire, through the creation of charcoal, also provided humans with the ability to make metal, used in turn to make weapons, tools and money. Discovering how to harness fire in engines, using wood/charcoal, coal and oil (again all vegetation-based sources of fuel), represented another critical turning point in human history.
In the final episode titled ‘Human Planet’ Professor Stewart argues that today humans are a geological force to rival earth’s natural forces. He gives several examples of the mostly negative impact of humans at a global level to support this statement. This new era has been described as the Anthropocene by some scientists, the period when human activities began to have a global impact on climate and ecosystems. An International Working Group is currently developing a case for making the Anthropocene an official geological epoch. It’s a sobering thought. The ‘Human Planet’ does examine the potential saving grace of human ingenuity in addressing these planetary impacts. His closing words include “We like to think we are special as a species, this is our chance to prove it.”
I first watched this DVD in 2013 when I seriously began undertaking research on the elements, around a year before I started this blog. The ideas and examples presented by Professor Stewart demonstrate the complex and inter-related nature of the elements and human endeavor, as he sees it. It provides a ‘big-picture’ perspective that complements the more local, regional and national expressions of the elements, and our relationships with them, that I’ve discovered and continue to share.