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Changing Climates of History

JR McNeil writes in Public Books:

December 1, 2014 — Neither Thucydides, Gibbon, von Ranke, nor Braudel ever cited a paper appearing in Geophysical Research Letters. They did not worry themselves about fluctuations in the Siberian High or the Southern Oscillation. The vast majority of more recent historians also remained untroubled by such concerns. However, in the past five years, a handful of highly distinguished historians have come out with new books that put climate at the center of historical explanation. What on Earth is going on?

Perhaps a historiographical wheel is turning. A century ago, historians and other scholars of human affairs often felt quite comfortable turning to climate as explanation for both broad patterns and twists and turns in history. Those who saw in climate adequate explanation for the vigor of some peoples and the stupor of others followed in the intellectual traditions of Montesquieu, Ibn Khaldun, and Aristotle. They looked to climatic regimes to help make sense of the diverse fortunes of nations. This outlook was deeply ahistorical: the climate that allegedly made people in southern China listless a century ago is very much the same as it is today, when the people of southern China are among the most economically dynamic around. Arnold Toynbee, writing in the 1930s, believed that the bracing climate accounted for the economic vivacity of the north of England, whereas the softer climate of London and the home counties did not provide sufficient stimulus in the south, which lagged behind. This looks silly 80 years later, not least because it’s the north of England that lags behind today. Toynbee also thought the challenging climate of New England explained the domination of US history, as he saw it, by New Englanders.1 Such views, emphasizing the power of climatic regimes in human affairs, were never universally held—Hegel, among others, objected strenuously to them—but nonetheless made sense to many leading lights of the historical profession before the mid-20th century.

Climate change, on the other hand, never seemed quite as useful to historians. Some geographers, most famously perhaps Ellsworth Huntington, argued that pulses of drought accounted for the folk migrations of various pastoral peoples across Asia. His argument was taken up here and there, and others like it occasionally found favor among historians. But by and large, climate change did not figure prominently in historical explanation. No doubt this was in part because no one knew enough about past climate to make much use of it. And few people, whether historians or not, supposed that climates did change very much, or fast enough, to make much difference to human history. As late as the 1960s, the great French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie supported this position when, after a decade of careful study of the question, he concluded that climate change had mattered little in European history in the centuries since 1000 CE. In the English translation of his big book on climate history, he put it this way: “the human consequences of climate seem to be slight, perhaps negligible, and certainly difficult to detect.”2 (He now freely admits he thought climate more important than he allowed, but trimmed his sails for fear of the response from his senior colleagues in the French academic firmament.)

By the 1960s, the sciences of historical climatology and paleoclimatology had just begun to reveal the mutability of climate on historical time scales (as opposed to geological ones). Not only might ice ages come and go, but volcanic eruptions could bring a string of very cold years around the world. Droughts, especially those related to the El Niño Southern Oscillation might not only be severe, but could affect several large regions of the world at once. Evidence from European history piled up in favor of the proposition that the centuries between 1250 and 1850 were colder than those immediately preceding or following. This evidence inspired scholars to conceive of a Little Ice Age, a term first used in 1939, and in routine use among historians by the 1970s.

Since the 1980s, anxiety about contemporary climate change has inspired research that has brought a cavalcade of new evidence about past climate. New scientific techniques have emerged providing “proxy” evidence for past climate, allowing increasingly lengthy and detailed reconstructions of global, regional, and local climates. Every year the numbers of tree ring, fossil pollen, and ice core oxygen isotope analyses grows. For more than a decade now, new evidence from Antarctic and Greenland ice cores has provided a fair record of earthly climate going back more than 400,000 years. For anyone interested in the subject, these are heady times. It is easy to feel like a kid in a candy shop, with endless morsels of new data there for the grabbing.

Nonetheless, historians on the whole have resisted temptation. They are ill at ease assigning agency to anything other than people, whether individually or in groups. They may delight in arguments about the role of culture or economic structures, or the agency available to the dispossessed or subaltern, but they are usually unwilling to take seriously arguments that attribute historical agency to animals, plants, rocks, or changes in any of the Earth systems, climate included. Arguments that embrace such non-human agents are routinely dismissed as environmental determinism, which since 1945 has carried a faint whiff of the biological determinism of the Nazis. No wonder historians sought to distance themselves from it.

Historical arguments and understandings that entirely omit climate change are of course often right to do so. Depending on a historian’s subject, climate shifts might indeed be entirely irrelevant. Intellectual historians, for example, might not see any use for climate data. When studying the origins of Maoism it might not seem particularly relevant. Equally, the hordes of historians focusing on the years between 1815 and 1980, have chosen a period in which climate change was slow, extreme climate events comparatively few, and non-climatic changes dramatic—in other words, an era in which neglect of climate is minimally problematic.

But earlier periods are another matter, and it is here that a new literature foregrounding climate is taking hold. While junior scholars are wading in fearlessly, as they are expected to do, it is more remarkable that established historians are taking a climate turn. Among those eager to seize on the new evidence about old climates is Richard Bulliet. He is a distinguished historian of the Middle East, who has written reams of respected work on medieval Iran, on Islamicization, on technology, and, not least, on camels.3 Bulliet, now emeritus at Columbia University, has long been attracted by new methods, and built his reputation partly on innovative study of biographical dictionaries and the evidence provided by names therein.

In his Cotton, Climate, and Camels in Early Islamic Iran: A Moment in World History, he offers an elaborate if tentative argument to explain the rise and fall of an urbanized, commercialized, cotton-based economy in Iran from the 9th through the 12th centuries. Using the extremely slender evidence from medieval Iran, especially the names of a few hundred religious scholars, Bulliet argues for an irrigation-fed cotton boom in northern Iran in the 9th and 10th centuries, initiated mainly by immigrant Arab Muslim entrepreneurs. The cotton boom fueled urbanization and export trade, and undergirded an era of prosperity in Iran. But, employing relevant snippets of medieval Arabic texts and tree-ring analyses from western Mongolia, Bulliet identifies a century-long cold snap, beginning early in the 11th century, which he calls the Big Chill. Caused by a high-pressure cell usually anchored over Siberia that connects the climates of Mongolia and Iran, the Big Chill, according to Bulliet, undercut the cotton economy, and “triggered” the southward migration of Turkic herders from western steppe lands into Iran. In making the migration argument, Bulliet returns to his knowledge of camels and camel history, arguing that colder times made northern Iran less hospitable to the one-humped dromedary familiar in Arabia, and more suited to two-humped, shaggy, Bactrian camels (or to two types of hybrid camels that were also cold-resistant) native to the steppes. He finds implications of the Big Chill and the decline of cotton that include the exodus of many Persian literati, shifting the cultural centers of Islam westward from Iran and Iraq and spreading Persian influence far and wide. In this case, at least, if one believes Bulliet, intellectual history did have a component of climate change history to it.

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