Governing the environment in the early Modern world

I have written this Foreword to the forthcoming book edited by Sara Miglietti and John Morgan, ‘Governing the environment in the early Modern world: theory and practice‘, due out with Routledge in 2017.



The idea of anthropogenic climate-change, that human activities are changing the patterns of weather worldwide, has become iconic for our age.  It is an idea that not merely describes our present condition; it also interprets the human condition and through this interpretation shapes its future.  This influence is achieved not least through the way in which the idea of climate-change has prompted the conception that we are now living in the epoch of ‘the Anthropocene’ – the age of humans.  The Anthropocene opens up a new repertoire of imaginative possibilities about the future.

But anthropogenic climate-change is not just about the present and the future.  It also is an idea that can change the way we think about, write and understand the past.  Like the future, the past is malleable.  It is sensitive and responsive to how contemporary ideologies and idioms are used to select, synthesise and impart meaning to historical traces of human practices and non-human processes.

History matters, environmental history especially.  New historical narratives shaped by contemporary prejudices are needed to challenge an easy presumption that the future is merely about ‘the future’, that the arrow of time is linear.  Paradoxically, it is often a historical perspective on contemporary discourses or problems, which better equips us—or at least differently equips us–to handle the future than do the predictive tools and instruments of scientific or political analysis.

As I have written elsewhere, the idea of climate-change performs useful political and cultural work, here too in stimulating new histories of the past.  Morgan and Miglietti’s book Governing the Environment in the Early Modern World opens out a series of fresh perspectives on the contemporary politics of climate knowledge and the conundrums of climate governance.  But it does so indirectly, by taking a backward look at how early modern Europeans and Americans grappled with the challenges of living in a physical world which was less than optimal and seemingly uncontrollable.

The eight substantive cases in the book draw upon European and American thought and practice concerning ‘the environment’ in the centuries between 1500 and 1800.  The collection ‘re-discovers’ attributes about the idea of climate that had largely been erased by the hegemonic Earth sciences of the latter decades of the twentieth century, but which are essential for understanding today’s phenomenon of climate-change.

These include the observation that human knowledge about climate is more often ‘bodily’ and situated than it is detached and abstract; that both learned and popular discourses of climate and its changes co-exist in most cultures; that what is the ‘problem’ with a given climate is always contested; that human efforts to engineer the climate are usually exercises to control either communities or individuals; that climate is as much inside culture as culture is something which emerges from climate; and that the idea that either the environment ‘rules’ humans or humans ‘rule’ the environment is fallacious.

In short, climate is bound-up intimately with how people live and think and act.  Climate is, and always has been, political.

We see this clearly with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, signed in December 2015.  This Agreement represents the most inclusive and ambitious instrument of environmental governance yet constructed and was hailed at the time as a great triumph of international diplomacy.  Its 29 Articles were designed to “hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and to promote further efforts to limit the increase to no more than 1.5°C.  The Agreement recognises the importance of all levels of government—national, regional, local—and also the roles of non-governmental political and social actors for securing this goal.  The twenty-year negotiating process that led up to the Paris Agreement has normalised the idea that global climate not only can be governed, but that it must be governed to avoid undesirable climatic outcomes.

But the emergence in recent decades of global climate as an object of governance redefines the nature and scope of the political.  The Paris Agreement problematises climate in a very particular way: through global temperature.  A rise of 2°C or more above pre-industrial temperature is deemed by the world’s governments to be dangerous.  But global temperature is not an object which is directly tractable through human actions.

Governing global temperature therefore requires, at the least, governing the full range of human activities, technologies and institutions–and the imaginations which give rise to them–that emit greenhouse gases and other particulates into the atmosphere.  This in turn requires virtually every human practice becoming subject, at least in principle, to the logic of global climate governance.  Land, energy, mobility, diet, the academy, forests, procreation, design and, ultimately, all human behaviour becomes subject to the totalising idea of climate governance.  Governing global climate becomes an exercise in governing global society.

The insights into the nature of climate and its politics that Morgan and Miglietti’s book offers are increasingly recognisable today, as the hegemony of scientific knowledge about the environment has been questioned and as the meaning of climate-change has been opened up to multiple and conflicting voices.  Central to this necessary task has been the humanities, whose stock within the sciences of global environmental change has been rapidly rising.

The value of the cases brought to our attention through historians in this book is that they show how thought and practice about climate has always been thus, at least within the North Atlantic societies and cultures of the early modern period.  (There are other stories and histories yet to be told from outside this particular region, as the editors acknowledge).  Sometimes it is necessary to travel to a foreign country, where things are done differently, to see more clearly how things are done at home.  By taking its readers to the marshes of seventeenth century France, to the imperial Arctic projects of early nineteenth century Britain, to the wetlands of the newly independent east coast states of north America and to the sixteenth century Spanish colonies of south America, Governing the Environment in the Early Modern World helps us to recognise some of the less visible implications of today’s environmental governance projects.

Mike Hulme

King’s College London, 26 September 2016