[This essay is forthcoming in Gnosis, The Italian Journal of Intelligence.]
Abstract: Different cosmologies, religious thought, political ideologies, social practices and scientific paradigms of knowledge all contribute to the rich cultural matrix in which theories of climatic change and causation have emerged, flourished and declined. It is exceptional for humans to think that climates change for either natural or supernatural reasons alone. Far more common in early human history, and indeed perhaps still today, is to believe that the performance of climate is tied to the behaviours of morally-accountable human actors. We therefore tend to think that we get the weather we deserve.
Human anxieties about a disorderly climate are long-standing and are manifest today for example in the popular descriptions of climatic change as ‘weather weirding’ or ‘climate chaos’. Since climate is an idea which performs important functions in stabilising relationships between the human experience of weather and cultural life, when physical climates appear to change the search for explanation becomes pressing. Physical climates change through time; but so too do theories of climatic causation. Explanatory accounts of why climates change do not remain static. As cultures evolve, often in response to experiences of environmental change, cross-cultural encounters, new scientific knowledge and technological innovation, so too do explanations of climatic change and variability.
In this essay I briefly examine different accounts of causation which seek to make sense of changes in physical climates, with particular reference to the early-modern period. I first explore some supernatural accounts of climatic change and then briefly mention naturalistic accounts. Finally, I elaborate differing understandings of human agency and climatic change. The accounts of climatic causation that are found persuasive today inevitably reveals something of our own cosmology, ideology and belief system.
The prevalence and power of the idea of climate in human thought is due to its role in stabilising relationships between changeable weather and cultural life (Hulme 2016). The idea of a stable climate is therefore readily associated with the idea of a stable cosmic order in which relationships between humans, non-humans and the spirits or gods are as they should be. For many cosmologies, disruption to any part of this triadic relationship may yield adverse consequences for the behaviour of the weather and challenge the human experience of a stable climate. For example the Abrahamic faiths – namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam – understand a transcendent and omnipotent God to be the provider of all good things, including orderly and faithful weather. More generally, if deities or the spirits are powerful, awesome and just, then a prerequisite for retaining a beneficent climate is for humans to maintain good and appropriate relations with them. And if the gods are merely capricious, then various petitions, offerings and sacrifices are needed to appease them, thereby maintaining the orderly weather around which human life can at least survive, if not flourish.
Within such worldviews it is both normal and sensible to search for the hand and motives of a good and just God when climates start to change for the worse or to acknowledge the anger of the spirits when weather appears to become abnormally extreme or destructive. Fears and anxieties about extreme weather and dangerous climatic shifts can be made sense of, if not fully diffused, by placing responsibility for the performance of climate in the will of the divine. Such an ideology creates powerful and binding narratives about the performance of wayward climates. These narratives contribute to psychological and spiritual survival, even as all around might be physically threatened.
Explanations for changes in climate such as these are frequently found in historical cultures and remain prevalent in the world today. European societies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, struggled to comprehend a climatic period which encompassed some very severe winters and cold, damp summers. Religious songs and prayers written at the time reveal the contemporary value of a theistic explanatory framework. The German hymn writer and poet Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676), for example, wrote ‘Song of confession and prayer occasioned by great and unseasonable rain’ in the 1640s (Rockoff & Meisch 2015). In this extended poem Gerhardt looks to God for an understanding of the climatic perturbations he and his contemporaries in central Europe were then experiencing, and also for a resolution to their experience.
Other supernatural explanations of climatic misdemeanours may be more sinister, drawing attention to a Manichean struggle between good and evil. On occasions and in some cultures the devil’s work in disrupting the orderly state of climate has been accomplished through the weather-making witch. In sixteenth century continental Europe, climatic deterioration was not uncommonly attributed to the unleashing of demonic forces through witchcraft and weather magic. Misogynist elements of European society held witches directly responsible for a variety of social ills and ‘unnatural’ phenomena, not least the high frequency of damaging weather episodes, especially in winter (Behringer 1999).
Supernatural and natural theories of climatic change are not simply alternative discrete accounts which people have found useful to explain the (usually) unwelcome inconstancy of climate. They rarely present as two mutually exclusive options from which to select. Neither is it possible to develop a chronological account of changing theories of agency, in which naturalistic explanations of climatic change have gradually squeezed and then finally supplanted supernatural ones. Both categories of explanation have co-existed for most of recorded history, even if their respective salience and cultural authority has varied over time. Thus in Classical Greece, Aristotle was an early champion of materialist explanations of physical phenomena, including the weather. And it was one of Aristotle’s students, Theophrastus in the third century BCE, who left an early naturalistic account of climatic change: local warming of the climate around Philippi being attributed to the physical effects on the atmosphere of forest clearances.
Yet not only are there eras in Earth history when physical climates change rapidly. There are moments in human history when ideas of climate and its causes also change rapidly. In other words, there are particular times and places when new ideas about the world emerge and become creative, pervasive and culturally authoritative. With respect to theories of climatic change one such place and moment was western Europe in the nineteenth century. It was here and then that the novel idea that climates could change over vast epochs without reference to God’s immediate agency became rapidly accepted across the western world.
The conditions for such intellectual novelty were lain down in earlier centuries of European inquiry through the rise of empiricism, scientific instrumentation and global exploration. Also necessary for the emergence of such new theories of climatic change was a re-imagination of the European idea of time, aided by the work of eighteenth century geologists such as James Hutton. Rather than 6,000 years of a divinely maintained climate, it became possible to imagine that the Earth may have manifest many large fluctuations in climate during a ‘deep past’ consisting of millions of years. With the realisation of the vast natural forces required for global climate to vacillate through repeated glacial cycles, the search was on to identify the precise causal agents, beyond God, of such disruptions.
Supernatural entities may be believed to cause climates to change, and they may do so through either natural or supernatural means; i.e., with or without accompanying naturalistic explanations. Climates may also change for entirely natural reasons, as in the scientific understanding of glacial cycles. At best, however, this is only a partial description of how people commonly think about the causes of climatic change. Human agency is implicated in most supernatural accounts of climatic causation in diverse and complex ways. And similar complexities frequently abound when thinking about human agency and natural causation. Most cultures have been keen to accommodate human agency in these supernatural and natural chains of explanation. God does not act independently of human behaviour and nor is nature unresponsive to human actions. The question then becomes, ‘How do different cultures, and different people within particular cultures, apportion responsibility for climatic change between nature, their gods and themselves?’
The boundaries between these different modes of explanation are far from clear, are never static and are frequently contested. Aristotle and his disciples believed that human-cleared forests caused the climate of Philippi to warm. Monotheists believed that it was human wickedness which provoked God to intervene to cause the Flood. And in post-revolutionary France in the early nineteenth century, the socialist Charles Fourier was convinced there was a decline in the health of planetary climate caused by human greed (Locher & Fressoz 2012). One should be wary of a presumptive exceptionalism which thinks that it is only late-modern westernised cultures which have identified a role for human agency in causing climates to change.
The perspective on climatic causation I have summarised above is nicely illustrated through the case of a seventeenth century interpretation of Noah’s Flood. The Flood is a salient account of what might be called a global climatic catastrophe: the flooding of the world and the near extinction of humanity. It is present in the sacred texts of Jews, Christians and Muslims, but echoes of similar mythological accounts of the survival challenges which confronted nascent human societies are also found in many other early civilisational histories. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, a number of European scholars expounded on the causes and consequences of the Biblical Flood. One of these was Antonio Vallisneri (1661-1730), an Italian philosopher who was particularly interested in the effects of the Flood upon global climate. In a treatise published in 1721, Of Marine Bodies Found in the Mountains, he developed a new account of how the Flood had caused a sustained deterioration in climatic conditions around the world and of the consequences of this change in climate for humanity.
There are two elements of Vallisneri’s treatise of particular interest. For him, the mark of the deluge, and its subsequent reconfiguring of global climate, was left not just on the face of the land. Vallisneri also believed that it reconfigured the physiology of human bodies through degrading human reproductive capacity. A change in worldwide climate therefore had not just environmental consequences, but enduring bodily ones also.
But second, and more relevant to this essay, it was clear to Vallisneri that this change in climate should not simply be attributed to God’s capricious or purposeless action in the world. As the Biblical account of Noah’s Flood makes clear, it was egregious human sin which provoked God into action . Vallisneri belaboured the point: the root cause of this climate disruption was human behaviour and according to his reformist theology God was entitled to pass judgement on humanity. Wilful human transgression against the divine order had consequences, in this case a disordering of the world’s climate leading to the diminution of human health and fertility. Lydia Barnett’s study of Vallisneri’s work emphasises the point. In this early modern Protestant theology, she writes, “the function of divine justice [was understood] as the material rendering of the spiritual state of individuals in and on their physical bodies” (Barnett 2015, p.228).
Of course, neither Vallisneri nor his contemporaries offered a naturalistic account of exactly how God’s agency altered the flows of heat, air and moisture around the planet to bring about such a dramatic climatic deterioration. They were neither interested, nor able, to offer a scientific explanation for what had happened. Nevertheless, Vallisneri’s treatise offers a coherent account of the causes and consequences of global climatic change which resonated with a particular prevailing worldview. What is also striking is how recognisable in today’s dominant narrative of anthropogenic climate-change are some of the same key elements of Vallisneri’s account. The contemporary narrative runs something like this: through wilful and unconstrained consumptive behaviour humans are responsible for changing present and future climates around the world, the consequences of which are, in a general and collective sense, proportionate to the degree of human culpability. God’s agency in Vallisneri’s account is replaced by nature’s agency in the contemporary account, but the central causal role played by humans in bringing about changes to global climate remains the same.
In this essay I have argued that supernatural, natural and human explanations for climatic changes co-exist in complex ways within and across different cultures and that there is an ebb and flow to their respective cultural authority. It is exceptional for humans to think that climates change for either natural or supernatural reasons alone. Far more common, and indeed perhaps more necessary, is to believe that the performance of climate is tied to the behaviours of morally-accountable human actors. For much of the past and in most places, climate and humans have been understood to move together, their agency and fate conjoined through the mediating roles of natural processes and supernatural beings. We always get the weather we deserve.
Barnett, L. The theology of climate change: Sin as agency in the Enlightenment’s Anthropocene, Environmental History (2015) 20: pp.217?37.
Behringer,W. Climatic change and witch-hunting: The impact of the Little Ice Age on mentalities, Climatic Change (1999) 43 (1), pp.335?51.
Hulme,M. Weathered: cultures of climate Sage: London, 2016.
Locher, F. and Fressoz, J-B. The frail climate of modernity. A climate history of environmental reflexivity, Critical Inquiry (2012) 38 (3): 579?98.
Rockoff, M. and Meisch, S. ‘Climate change in Early Modern literature: Which place for humanities in the sustainability sciences?’ in S. Meisch, J. Lundershausen, L. Bosser and M. Rockoff (eds.), Ethics of Science in the Research for Sustainable Development, Baden-Baden: Nomos. pp. 269?98, 2015.