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  • Eco-historicism
  • Gillen D'Arcy Wood

Climate has long been the third rail of professional historiography. Climatic determinism, with its roots in Hippocratic theory, figures among the great embarrassments of the early modern history of ideas: an intellectual adjunct to European imperialism and institutionalized racism. Enlightenment writers such as Montesquieu offered climatic rationalizations for the putative "laziness" and inferiority of African, Asian, and Pacific cultures, legitimating their subjection and conceiving, in the process, the embryo of biological race theory in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Until very recently, to suggest climate as an influence on human culture and history has been to raise the unwelcome specter of a disgraced ideology.

Now, however, all is changed utterly. With tropical warmth threatening to become a global phenomenon, ushering in an era of chronic drought and desertification, acidifying oceans, coastal inundation, and global food shortages, the necessity of integrating climate and environment into the work of history has become increasingly urgent. Crude climatic determinism remains anathema, but historical materialism without ecological awareness now appears vulnerable to a dangerous determinism of another kind: a grand narrative of class, government, empire, and trade whose anthropocentric terms are no less a product of imperialism and the Enlightenment than the current ecological crisis itself. Climate, long a background constant, is back in the spotlight as a key variable shaping the human story.

Across a variety of academic fields, climate and human history are no longer estranged. In the sciences, the once marginal field of historical climatology, pioneered by Hubert Lamb, now spawns institutes. Given that standardized statistical data for temperature and rainfall are only available [End Page 1] for the mid-nineteenth century on, historical climatologists have mined a multitude of proxy sources—from ice cores, tree rings, and fossilized pollens to ships' logs and "weather" diaries—to fill out the climate record (albeit incompletely) across a breathtakingly broad temporal range: from a single famine year in, say, eighteenth-century Europe, to the beginnings of sedentary human culture ten thousand years ago (the Holocene Period), and back through the dim, paleo-climatological eras of human evolution. In each case, the propensity of the world climate system to dramatic temperature fluctuation has been a major and consistent finding. The journal Climatic Change, which debuted in 1977, is just one example of a high-profile forum for a range of physical and social scientists—climatologists, geographers, economists—to publish not only projections of the future impacts of warming, but accounts of past climate change, both "natural" and those subject to anthropogenic forcing.

In traditional fields within the humanities, too, an historicized ecological consciousness has become the new norm. In the last three decades, environmental history has evolved from its exclusively American focus to a key interdisciplinary element in both regional studies and world history: the work of Alfred Crosby and John Richards has proved especially relevant to early modern studies. The thriving field of environmental history currently boasts two major journals, a professional society, as well as conferences, specialists, and—the ultimate test of viability—faculty lines. Similarly, anthropologists have recognized the untenability of their traditional intradisciplinary divide between "physical" anthropologists—who take seriously the climatic adaptation of pre-historical human communities—and cultural anthropologists who have long been, in the words of Carole Crumley, deeply "suspicious . . . of the determinisms: racial, environmental, social" (3), and who therefore "den[y] environment a meaningful role in human history" (2). Crumley's landmark 1995 volume, Historical Ecology, proposed a new interdisciplinary formation for anthropology, one that would integrate history, geography, and the environmental sciences to create "a laboratory of past human choice and response in which the effects of environmental change can be palpably understood" (7). It now remains for cultural historians to join that interdisciplinary project.

In other words, if academic historians and social anthropologists have recently experienced an ecological awakening, ecocriticsm—the realm of ecological scholarship within literary and cultural studies—is still awaiting its own turn to history. While abundant in "green" readings of literary and [End Page 2] philosophical texts and rightly consumed by the politics of the current global ecological crisis, ecocriticism has suffered from a deficiency in historical consciousness. Anthropogenic climate change did not begin sometime...


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