Environmental historians of the 20th and 21st centuries should be early modernists.
That’s because, just like present and presentism, the non-specialist definition of modern (not to say modernity, modernism, and their posterior forms) makes it a necessarily relative category, a concept of time that has crept forward ever since the term modern was invented. The noun or adjective ‘modern’, claims Oxford English Dictionary, appeared in the late 15th century, when it was used to distinguish that moment’s recent events from its remote past. The periodization ‘early modern’, coined by late-19th-century moderns—meaning ‘the earliest stage of modern history’—preserved this idea of now versus then by adding an almost-now, suggesting some meaningful if incomplete continuum from the Renaissance; transoceanic encounters; the globalization of biological exchanges; extra-European colonialism; the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions; and the hegemony of nation-states.
Most historians, whatever their subfields, do not ask big questions about time division. They accept and often limit themselves to studying some standard span of decades or centuries, usually predetermined by what their predecessors deemed significant political, economic, or cultural upheavals. Whether or not environmental historians work within or across these same intervals—and the continuities, ruptures, and perspectival biases they imply—depends on whether or not they prove convenient for the questions they investigate or the historical processes and problems they decide are important to teach.
Lately, it is climate history that’s produced the most conspicuous discussions of periodization in the field. On the one hand are scholars grappling with the continuous outpouring of new climatological data about the globally heterogenous Little Ice Age of the mid-fourteenth through mid-nineteenth centuries (a time frame which is itself the subject of controversy). On the other hand there are those grappling with the precedents and implications of a proposed geological epoch, the Anthropocene—whether and when it began and how it overlaps with or challenges the conventional historical imagination.
As readers of NiCHE’s blog already know, wide and wildly ranging is the dispute over the possible origins of such an epoch (or its variants, the Capitalocene, the Plantationocene, the Chthulucene—or my personal favourite, the Misanthropocene—all in one or another way incorporating people as agents in Earth’s transformations): With the first Industrial Revolution, as Paul Crutzen first proposed, a time of steady population growth and a turn to ever-greater reliance on fossil fuels? Billions or thousands of years ago, with the advent of fire, farming, or animal domestication? After Columbus? With global deforestation beginning in 1600? Or, as the Anthropocene working group insists, with the Great Acceleration of all these human signatures combined with nuclear and plastics technologies in the years following World War Two?
These are all reasonable propositions. But I think, as someone who studies the history of science in the early modern and 18th centuries, we should avoid trying to reconcile them. Any single origin for the multiplex problems enmeshing humanity with the rest of the planet is inaccurate and misleading. Unlike stratigraphers and geologists, there is no internal pressure (and, since we thrive on debate, probably little hope) for professional historians to come to consensus and choose only one official Anthropocene. Instead, let the early modern Anthropocenes, accounting for a range of processes set within vastly difference time scales, multiply!
For me, the necessity of thinking about environmental history in terms of such discontinuities emerged from studying the production of knowledge about climate during the long 18thcentury, when inquiring minds in Britain and its colonies (let’s anachronistically call them early modern scientists) were debating whether or not human-induced climate change was possible. As one skeptic of the Anthropocene put it, North American settlers’ observations of shorter, milder winters must have been “the work of nature rather than … partial & transitory causes within the reach of man.” This was written in the late 1770s—long before the kind of climate warming we’re legitimately concerned about now was underway! Here was a mismatch between the Anthropocene as manifest phenomenon (actualatmospheric changes resulting from anthropogenic forces, documented in current scientific terms) and the Anthropocene as concept (the period of time to which we can date explicit discussion of such changes, documented in early modern terms). Put another way, in this case the striking resemblances as well as utter dissimilarities between eighteenth- and twenty-first-century debates about environmental change marked the almost-now from the now.
Sometimes it’s precisely modern (as in, contemporary) environmental crises determined by modern (as in, the most up-to-date) scientific knowledge, that provokes an interest in the early modern. The urgency of imminent species extinctions, sinking coastlines, the intensification of drought, and so many other consequences of global climate change might pull more environmental historians into pasts they might otherwise look past. Someday, moreover, all of us and our contemporary environmental problems will be material for historians. Then we will all be considered early moderns.
Anya Zilberstein is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Concordia University in Montreal. She is the author of A Temperate Empire: Making Climate Change in Early America (Oxford UP, 2016), which won the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Book Prize. She is currently working on research in the history of climate science, food sciences and the British Empire, ornithology, and migration and race. She is a member of the editorial board of the journal Isis.
Featured Image: Joseph Mallord William Turner, Heavy Clouds above a Landscape
c.1820–40, Tate Gallery, London UK. Turner’s pre-Abstractionist abstract cloud studies in this post were inspired by meteorologist Luke Howard’s cloud classification system in the same period.