January 19, 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.”

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.

Full text (HTML) >>

Full text (PDF) >>

Abstract on Oxford Journals >>