Understanding & Altering the Climate: Historical Perspectives

Tuesday evening gave me the chance to alter my geographical position on the University of Leeds campus, temporarily abandoning the Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science to visit the School of English. Here, the Environmental Humanities reading group had gathered for a discussion of the most pertinent of topics – climate history:

LOCHER, F. and FRESSOZ, J.B., 2012 Modernity’s Frail Climate: A Climate History of Environmental Reflexivity. Critical Inquiry 38(3): 579-598.  

A diagram on the distribution of vegetation on the Peak of Teneriffe in the Canary Islands, by naturalist Alexandre von Humboldt. Humboldt’s biogeography was harnessed by French thinkers to create historical vegetation data, aimed at reconstructing the climate of the past two thousand years. http://www.mappingthenation.com/blog/alexander-von-humboldt-master-of-infographics/

Some hold the assumption that our relationship with the environment has completed transformed over the course of two generations, resulting in what has been termed the “Environmental Age” or “Second Copernican revolution.” Part of our new environmental awareness is a fear of climate change – the realisation that humankind is capable of altering the makeup of our planet’s atmosphere.

Is an awareness that we can change the climate new?

According to Locher and Fressoz, no. Ptolomy (AD 90 – c. 168) conceived of climate as fixed according to latitudinal position on the globe. By the seventeenth century, perspectives of climate  had radically altered. It was now dynamic and even pliable. The Comte de Buffon declared that centuries of human habitation in Europe had produced a milder climate than that encountered in North America. Following the French Revolution of 1789, the destruction of aristocratic forests by the peasantry were blamed for unfavourable meteorological conditions, including drought.

Locher and Fressoz also link historic attempts to alter climatic conditions to existing ideas of health and degeneracy. Marshy conditions and associated diseases around the Nile were blamed upon the mismanagement of Islamic civilization. In 1826 professor of hygiene Jean-Baptiste Bérard declared that the decline of Egypt was due to its subjection to “the ignorance and barbarism of Islam… Through Turkish negligence, the Nile became a source of plague that infects or threatens the rest of the world.” In Algeria, a French colony during the 1860s, thousands of eucalyptus trees were planted to deflect harmful miasmas from marshes.

An early photograph of the Nile c. 1900. Diseases associated with the river were described by French hygienists as partly the result of poor climate – in turn the result of environmental mismanagement. http://kiva.lib.utk.edu/egypt/items/show/800

This grand “climate theory” collapsed in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Pasteur’s germ theory, new ideas of heredity and trends in the social sciences and economics undermined the link between climate, human actions and health. Climatic determinism also emerged from the findings of earth scientists from the second half of the nineteenth century, who promoted glaciation theory and speculated upon the existence of ice ages.

Why does understanding historical thought on climate change matter?

Humanity has recently found itself beset by environmental problems, including chemical pollution, depletion of the ozone layer and global warming. How we respond to these new challenges may not be as original as we would like to think. Instead, our attitudes and approaches towards environmental problems may stem from centuries of European thought. An awareness of this ancestry could potentially alert us to pitfalls and blind-spots in our twenty-first century ways of thinking.

Yet Locher and Fressoz note that modern environmental destruction has not occurred in a world where nature is considered valueless. Instead, devastation has happened despite longstanding climatic theories, which have always cited environmental objects as the very things that produce humankind. Quite correctly, the authors label this a “strange and disturbing fact.”


One thought on “Understanding & Altering the Climate: Historical Perspectives

  1. What they don’t see is that the level of reflexivity is important as well.
    See for example Yannick Rumpala, “The Search for “Sustainable Development” Pathways As a New Degree of Institutional Reflexivity,” Sociological Focus, Volume 46, 2013 – Issue 4.


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