- Introduction:The Past and Present of Climate Theories
Elle est la terre, elle est la plaine, elle est le champ.Elle est chère à tous ceux qui sèment en marchant ;Elle offre un lit de mousse au pâtre ;Frileuse, elle se chauffe au soleil éternel,Rit, et fait cercle avec les planètes du cielComme des sœurs autour de l'âtre.Victor Hugo, "La Terre" (1873)
This article is part of "Climates Past and Present: Perspectives from Early Modern France," a special thematic grouping in the September 2017 issue.
This special issue has evolved out of two separate events: a session on early modern climate theories at the 62nd meeting of the Renaissance Society of America in Boston (March 31–April 2, 2016), sponsored by the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés et Instituts pour l'Étude de la Renaissance; and a symposium entitled "Climates Past and Present: Perspectives from the Humanities," organized at Johns Hopkins University on March 3, 2017, with generous support from the Charles Singleton Center for the Study of Pre-Modern Europe, the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute, the Centre Louis Marin for Interdisciplinary French Studies, the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures, and the Department of the History of Science and Technology. I am grateful to many people without whom the organization of these events, and the publication of this special issue, would never have been possible: first of all to my colleague Evelyne Ender, who co-organized the Hopkins climate symposium and co-ordinated Jean-Patrice Courtois and Christine Planté's visit to JHU in March 2017; to Jean-Patrice and Christine themselves, for their extraordinary intellectual generosity; to Bill Egginton, Ingrid De Smet, Nancy Frelick, Guido Giglioni, Earle Havens, Michael Kwass, Jacques Neefs, Larry Principe, Eugenio Refini, Suzanne Roos, Elena Russo, Derek Schilling, and Rochelle Tobias, for unfailing support, advice, and inspiration; and to Ben and Mélanie Peak, for their enthusiasm and commitment at all stages in the preparation of this collection. Finally, heartfelt thanks to David Lines, Gioia Panzarella, and Jean-Olivier Richard, who offered much welcome feedback on a first draft of this introduction. [End Page 902] Climate change, global warming, pollution, deforestation, resource depletion, weather disasters, impending planetary apocalypse: contemporary public discourse is dominated by narratives about the environment, and these narratives, fuelled by legitimate concerns about the current state of affairs, almost invariably revolve around a tragic dualism between us and our planet. In their recent book The Power of Narrative in Environmental Networks (2013), which looks at contemporary engagements with the environment through the lens of storytelling, Raul Lejano and Mrill and Helen Ingram observe that most of the stories that we hear and tell today about the environment seem to unfold along similar lines:
Across a vast range of ecological settings, we find a diversity of earth's living organisms uniquely adapted to thrive on the local resources, and creating an intricate, multifarious web of relationships with other living things, shaping and shaped by soil, wind, and other elements. Picture humans in this scene, however, and we enter like a giant predatory insect driven by necessity, greed, ignorance, or even good intentions (depending on the twist favoured by the storyteller). Humans blunder into the web, rending strands with every move, wreaking the net's destruction, but also hopelessly caught in the gluey strands and unable to escape.(1)
This is certainly not the first time in history that humans narrativize the discourse of Nature in order to make it speakable, or even conceivable. At the very origins of Western environmental discourse lies a story about origins—the cosmogonic account in the Book of Genesis, which culminates in man's divinely ordained mission of stewardship and dominion over nature (Genesis 1:26–28). Genesis also contains what could be considered as one of the first narratives of environmental disaster in Western culture: the account of the Great Flood and of the subsequent repopulation of the earth from a small group of survivors (Genesis 9:7).
These biblical models left a long-lasting imprint on the Western environmental imagination, and the often uneasy task of reconciling them with...