I have noticed that it is often when you think you have finally settled on a topic and an argument that you come across an article that invites you to rethink everything and broaden the scope and reach of your work. This is what just happened to me, for better or for worse.
Until now I was interested in the dissemination of climate anxieties in the French empire in the late 18th century and, in a rather materialistic approach, was mostly focused on forest conservation programs and the impacts of El Nino events. But that was before I read Jean-Baptiste Fressoz and Fabien Locher’s ‘Modernity’s Frail Climate : A Climate History of Environmental Reflexivity’ (Critical Inquiry, 38:3 (2012)),, which, in seeking to historicise the concept of the Anthropocene, studies climate as an ‘epistemic category’ during the 18th century. I therefore immersed myself in an unsuspected and fascinating wealth of ideas, discovering climate theories dating back to the Antiquity and widely disseminated throughout the Western world until the end of the 18th century. Despite their diversity, one constant emerges: the belief in humanity’s ability to modify the climate and in the mutual influence existing between climatic conditions and levels of civilisation and health.
For most of us, the idea of the Anthropocene was born in the 21st century, as a result of recent and disturbing scientific discoveries that have revealed the destructive impacts of human activities on the environment, and in particular on climate. It also carries a narrative of gradual awakening to our environmental impacts, from a blind and unconscious industrialisation period to an unprecedented contemporary level of knowledge and consciousness.
In reality, our modern and globalised societies are only rediscovering with horror what was known from the Antiquity and until the end of the 18th century. Indeed, as Fressoz and Locher’s article suggests, human agency on climate and its potential negative impacts were, especially in the later part of the 18th century, at the heart of Enlightenments’ political and social thought.
It is therefore surprising to note that, until today, the history of modernity over the last two centuries – and of its founding concepts such as capitalism, freedom, equality, progress, etc. – has been written, interpreted and analysed without taking into account an epistemic category that is now inevitable, namely the idea human societies have of the link between ‘culture’ and ‘nature’. This oversight stems from the fact that, since the beginning of the 19th century, the institutionalisation of academic disciplines has led to the separation of the fields of the natural sciences and the humanities and to the emergence of a nature/culture dichotomy at the expense of a more holistic framework.
Following the example of environmental historians seeking to bridge this nature/culture divide, it seems that a rereading of the foundations of modernity by exploring the ways in which climate as an epistemic category interacted with other structuring concepts such as colonialism, racism, equality, freedom…is necessary. Fressoz and Locher have initiated this movement by investigating the politicisation of the climate issue during the French Revolution.
The idea for my project would therefore be, instead of focusing as I had planned on Mauritius, Saint-Domingue and Paris in a transimperial perspective, to do a history of the mobilisation of climatic theories during the Transatlantic revolutions: The American revolution, the French Revolution and the Haitian revolution.
This will allow to explore the “afterlife” of climatic concepts dating from the Antiquity and mobilized during these revolutions and also, if I may say so, to reveal the “beforelife” of the Anthropocene concept. Indeed, the Anthropocene existed, at least conceptually, well before it was named in the year 2000.
Of course, rethinking my project in this way comes with a number of questions and difficulties. It means firstly that I should delve into the historiography of the Atlantic revolutions, which I am not very familiar with. I am also unsure of what to do with my idea of working on the impacts of El Nino events: I could maybe keep them as a global background to the circulation and politicisation of climatic theories, but that might just clutter up the project.