January 17, 2018

Editor’s Desk: April 2015


Issue 20.2 – April 2015

Lisa M. Brady

Climate change, catastrophic environmental events, and scientific discoveries long have spurred debates among and between secular, religious, scientific, and lay communities. All the articles and the Gallery essay in this issue examine some aspect of these frequently contentious conversations. Joshua Howe’s Gallery on the Keeling Curve—the graph that measures carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere—is decidedly grounded in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, whereas the other four authors draw our attention to developments in the early modern era. I’ve chosen to organize this issue in a roughly chronological order, not out of any Whiggish sense of progression, but because taken together in their temporal context, the four articles present a unique view into an important moment of change in scientific and environmental thought that, in turn, shaped both proximate and distant responses to material challenges.

Fig2-cut-550-RawsonIn “Discovering the Final Frontier,” Michael Rawson examines the wider implications of lunar science during the early seventeenth century. Rawson suggests that Galileo’s 1609 discovery and description of the lunar environment completely transformed “traditional understandings of the natural world.” This set in motion tremendous changes: “It influenced European literature, promoted new interactions between the celestial and earth sciences, stimulated colonialist thought, and sparked the first serious inquiry into the possibility of space travel,” Rawson persuasively argues. Moreover, Galileo’s work, and that of other early modern astronomers and thinkers, opened up possibilities for modern space exploration dedicated to discovering extraterrestrial life. In the end, Rawson urges environmental historians to turn their eyes to the stars and to think about the universe as nature, thereby creating “an enlarged intellectual space in which to make new connections and explore understudied questions.”

Lydia Barnett’s article, “The Theology of Climate Change,” also explores early modern changes to conceptions about the earth and its larger systems. Barnett suggests that in the early eighteenth century, scholars began to posit theories about global climate change with sin as the fulcrum for their explanations. Barnett centers her discussion on the ideas of Italian physician and naturalist Antonio Vallisneri (1661–1730), who proposed that physical human suffering is a symptom of climate changes wrought by human sin. Barnett convincingly argues that, far from being irrelevant to today’s discussion of global climate change, these theories demonstrate “how much Christian theology has influenced the narrative tropes and concepts we use to think about environmental disaster in general and climate change in particular” and that


their authors’ “vision of the Anthropocene—a planet utterly transformed by human action—reveals a radically different yet not entirely unrelated way of understanding the relationship between the human species and the global environment.”

Figure1Sundberg-cut-550In “Claiming the Past,” Adam Sundberg delves into the history of the 1717 Christmas Flood on the North Sea coast, with particular emphasis on the Dutch province of Groninger. His analysis focuses on three related issues: how those affected interpreted the flood and how they adapted to its aftermath; political and fiscal debates about who was responsible for postdisaster recovery; and the technological, legal, historical, and cultural legacies the flood engendered. He argues that responses in Groninger drew on both “cumulative experience” and “the shock of catastrophe” and that the balance between tradition and invention “resulted in a dialogue that stressed continuity and convention while simultaneously facilitating technological innovation.” Sundberg provides vivid insight into the work of engineer Thomas van Seeratt, who looked to historical debates and cultural memory to justify new designs for protective dikes, which, Sundberg concludes, had both short- and long-term implications for flood response. “In the case of the Christmas Flood,” Sundberg ultimately contends, “claiming the past was as critical a response as offering an improved future.”

Fig4Mikhail-cut-550Like Sundberg’s, Alan Mikhail’s focus is intimately local, even as he examines the more global effects of a massive natural event. In “Ottoman Iceland: A Climate History,” Mikhail forwards the compelling argument that the Laki volcanic fissure eruption of 1783–84 in Iceland had not only climate ramifications across a large swath of the earth, but it had direct material and political implications for Ottoman Egypt. By analyzing Laki within the Egyptian context, Mikhail demonstrates that an event previously considered only for its Western European consequences resulted in important changes to hydrological systems, such as the Indian Ocean monsoons and the Nile’s flood patterns, which in turn contributed to a decrease in the Ottoman Empire’s hold over the most agriculturally important region in the Middle East. The eruption in Iceland, that is, played a significant role not only in global climate changes, but also in altering power structures in Egypt locally. As Mikhail cogently argues, “this one small slice of the history of just one nonanthropogenic climate event allows us to think about climate change’s individual causes and individual effects rather than seeing the phenomenon as only an abstract all-encompassing problem of planetary proportions.”

Gallery Editor´s Note: This Is Nature; This Is Un-Nature: Reading the Keeling Curve

Fig3HoweBy Neil M. Maher and Cindy Ott

In its Gallery essays, Environmental History has yet to examine the visual culture of scientific data. Joshua Howe corrects this oversight with a wonderful essay on the Keeling Curve, first made famous by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and now one of the most iconic images of scientific data worldwide. According to Howe, the Keeling


Curve, that upward sloping oscillating line that documents global warming, tells two distinct narratives—one seemingly natural, the other cultural. Just as important, Howe reminds environmental historians that scientific data, whether presented visually in graphs, charts, or tables, can be read as cultural evidence much like historical photographs, works of art, or handwritten diaries.

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Ottoman Iceland: A Climate History

Fig4Mikhail-cut-550By Alan Mikhail

In June 1783, the Laki volcanic fissure began erupting in Iceland. It would continue to do so for the next eight months. One of the largest volcanic discharges in recorded history, the ash it produced led to cold summers across Europe, the Mediterranean, the Americas, and parts of Central Asia. This article examines the impacts of the explosions on Ottoman Egypt and uses this climate history of Iceland and Egypt to analyze ways of doing global environmental history. By focusing on the directly


linked climate history of Iceland’s environmental and political impacts on Ottoman Egypt, the article attempts to show the utility of analyzing small-scale instances of global climate change. It moreover argues for the importance of the history of Laki for Middle Eastern history and also shows how considering the history of the Middle East adds to our understanding of the global history of Laki.

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Claiming the Past: History, Memory, and Innovation Following the Christmas Flood of 1717


By Adam Sundberg

The Christmas Flood of 1717 affected much of the North Sea coastline between Denmark and the northern Netherlands and was one of the greatest disasters of the early modern era. This article investigates the impact of the flood in the northern Dutch province of Groningen and makes three interrelated claims. First, the flood showcased the contested nature of flood interpretation and adaptive decision making in the wake of disaster. Second, dialogues of conflict that developed in the aftermath of the flood focused on three issues: the divine causation of flooding, the financing of dike


management, and the viability of technocratic solutions to flood risk. Third, the ultimate goal of much of the flood literature was to promote prescribed action but also to enshrine the motivations for those beliefs in legal precedent, history, and cultural memory. Rather than being defined by either cumulative experience or the shock of catastrophe, the Groninger response is a case study in the importance of both. This balance resulted in a dialogue that stressed continuity and convention while simultaneously facilitating technological innovation.

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The Theology of Climate Change: Sin as Agency in the Enlightenment’s Anthropocene

By Lydia Barnett

This article surveys a brief and forgotten episode in the history of climate science when a handful of European scholars at the turn of the eighteenth century formulated some of the first theories of global climate change. Appearing incidentally in several works of world history, these conjectural accounts of a dramatic downturn in the earth’s ancient climate following Noah’s Flood were intended to explain the physical and spiritual decline of humankind since biblical times. Although theories of local climate change were becoming widespread in this moment, theories of global climate change were distinguished by their emphasis on sin as a potent


form of human agency capable of transforming the entire planet, a global force no less powerful and deadly for being largely unintentional. I focus on the Italian physician and naturalist Antonio Vallisneri (1661–1730), whose emphasis on the physical suffering of humans as a result of climate change highlighted the role of humans in bringing such a calamity about in the first place. Paying attention to these long-neglected theories illuminates the key role of religion in fostering the idea of a global climate capable of alteration by human activity.

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Discovering the Final Frontier: The Seventeenth-Century Encounter with the Lunar Environment


By Michael Rawson

Environmental historians rarely consider extraterrestrial environments in their meditations on the natural world. But paying more attention to places beyond the earth would expand the environmental contexts in which we write our histories and illuminate past events that still await an environmental lens, such as seventeenth-century Europe’s imaginative encounter with the moon. Galileo’s discovery in 1609 that the moon has earthlike features sparked an overlooked revolution in thought that saw humanity’s environmental imagination expand outward from the confines of earth


into outer space. Some of Europe’s greatest thinkers began puzzling out the kind of natural environment that the moon might have. In the process, they constructed a new environmental imaginary containing many of the working assumptions about extraterrestrial nature that still guide space exploration today. The full significance of historical moments like this one can only come to light if environmental historians turn their attention to the stars.

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