A Temperate Empire: Making Climate Change in Early America by Anya Zilberstein
Anya Zilberstein's A Temperate Empire brings historical perspective to current debates concerning climate change. Examining eighteenth-century climate discourse, primarily among agricultural colonists in New England and what became the maritime provinces of Canada, she traces settlers' persistent fixation on the climatic possibilities and limitations of the region for human inhabitation. By working at the intersection of climate history and the histories of science and empire, Zilberstein is able to demonstrate that worries about climate change not only have a long genealogy but also originated in some unexpected places and often encouraged unconventional thinking about race and colonialism. She also restores climate and the many worries about it to the central place in Atlantic history that they deserve.
It is perhaps not surprising to find an obsession with climate among people who depended upon farming an unfamiliar land, but Zilberstein's history reveals intriguing contours to their debates and practices. The unexpectedly cold North American climate befuddled colonists. Based on latitudinal theory, they expected temperatures more similar to those in Europe. Instead, they found an "American Siberia" (109), a comparison that prompted some agriculturalists to study Russian agronomic practices. Though unanticipated meteorological conditions encouraged an increasing reliance on empirical data, colonists never entirely abandoned latitude as a persuasive explanation for climatic trends, perhaps due to a lingering optimism that their new home could not really be as cold as it seemed. The composition of the groups who wielded influence in describing and explaining climate also yields revelations; although status, patronage, and connections ruled in the world of formal Atlantic natural history, Zilberstein finds that women and children—key agricultural laborers—also made noteworthy contributions through record keeping and even some speculation about climatic theory. But no matter the source, nearly all writing on climate came down to one central anxiety: did New England and the Maritimes possess a climate appropriate for European colonization?
The attempts to answer this question documented by Zilberstein reveal that concerns about climate often ran directly counter to those of the present. In the most intriguing section of her argument, she shows that colonists spent much of their time encouraging climate amelioration, which in their world meant global—or at least regional—warming. Believing that the earth responded to civilized agricultural practices (which were limited to [End Page 199] their own and not those of indigenous Americans or small-scale farmers), many hoped that consistent cultivation would modify the regions' coldness to the benefit of Europeans. This expectation was not entirely nonsensical—for example, forest clearance did tend to dry the land and raise summertime temperatures. Rudimentary but impressive early systems of climate monitoring such as long-term sampling of soil temperatures, furthermore, seemed to provide real evidence of this amelioration. Accordingly, both Thomas Jefferson and Harvard College professor Samuel Williams believed that sturdy North American industry had raised temperatures ten to eleven degrees. Ironically, as we now know, these optimistic proclamations erupted during an exceptionally cold time in northeastern America—indeed, during some of the coldest years of the Little Ice Age.
Most of Zilberstein's book does not deal with the climate per se but with colonial agriculturalists' preoccupations concerning how best to understand it and predict the effects of climate on white European bodies. But they were interested in its effects on other peoples too. One of Zilberstein's most interesting chapters details the sad story of Jamaican runaway slaves who, through a complicated series of events, were marooned in Halifax. Trying to decide what to do with these people, colonial officials argued opposing views. Some were convinced that black bodies could never sustain themselves in Nova Scotia's cold—the obverse of the idea that Europeans would wither in African climates. But other colonial entrepreneurs who had long argued that the Maritimes could work as imperial outposts adamantly insisted that the category of race hardly helped solve the great puzzle of human relationships to different environments. They saw no evidence that dark-skinned humans would fail to thrive in cold climes. The empirical evidence failed to resolve the debate, as the maroons had some success as cold-weather agriculturalists but ultimately decided to leave the Maritimes for warmer regions. The episode offers an especially interesting counterpoint to historians' oft-made claim that Atlantic colonialism encouraged Euro-Americans to move toward the essentialist racial conceptions that seemed to confirm white superiority. As Zilberstein puts it, "racial climatic determinism was an exceedingly inconvenient idea for governing settler populations in a global empire" (134). For those proposing an empire of global ambitions, it was preferable to downplay climate's deterministic importance for the human body, though eighteenth-century commentators remained deeply divided on the question.
Commentators had a much easier time agreeing on the proper form of agricultural enterprise—big and commercial was much preferred to small-scale farming. Here the presumed malleability of climate again played a key role, for colonial promoters were keen to stress the beneficial atmospheric impacts of large-scale land clearances. They were repeatedly furious at struggling colonists' inability to seize the opportunity to radically reshape northeastern America and create the ideal farming conditions that would [End Page 200] finally allow the region to prosper. Some were even more alarmist; the influential French naturalist George-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, insisted that wholescale agricultural clearances were the only way to keep North America from plummeting into another Ice Age.
Buffon's apocalyptic forecasts can also be read as a bold claim for the crucial importance of the naturalist (or, as we would now say, the scientist) in political and economic affairs. Here Zilberstein's history provides intriguing parallels for the current age of dire scientific warnings about climate change. To be sure, though, A Temperate Empire is much more concerned with the importance of these debates for the early modern world than with drawing out their implications for the twenty-first century. In that historical task, Zilberstein succeeds. Her book convinces the reader both that climatic discourse was central to the planning and assessment of colonialism at the time and that people around the North Atlantic were sure that climate was highly unstable and subject to human manipulation. It is much more difficult, at least from this book, to see how real changes in historical climate exerted a meaningful impact on agricultural colonialism in any significant way. Today, our tense relationship with the earth's climate continues—though nearly all today agree that climate matters, the hand-wringing over the Anthropocene reveals that few are as yet sure precisely when and how it does, or whom it affects most intensely. A Temperate Empire helps flesh out the genealogy of this uncertainty and restore climate to a central place in Atlantic history, while reminding us that humans have long yearned for the very global warming that many are now hoping to halt. [End Page 201]