societies have been talking about it for centuries
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societies have been talking about it for centuries | Climates Changes

In 1820, worried by an increasing irregularity of the seasons and by exceptional meteorological phenomena, the monarchical government of the Restoration launched a national investigation aimed at determining the effects of the climatic disturbance that the country would have known for thirty years. Despite having produced an incredible amount of evidence on the perception of the environment, the circular noor 18 he ended his life in the boxes of what would become Météo France.

Almost two hundred years later, when environmental historians Jean-Baptiste Fressoz and Fabien Locher got their hands on these precious archives, they quickly realized they had the material for a new work. However, The riots of the sky goes beyond the scope of this investigation alone and broadens the historical perspective to cover the entire modern era, from XVis to XIXis century. And it proves it, contrary to the great history of the awareness environmentalist in the 70s, it was not necessary to wait for the XXis century to discover the environmental cost of human societies. On the contrary, one of the characteristics of modern times is that of to think, with fear but above all exaltation, of the power of man over nature .

This belief in the power of human action has its origin in the colonization of the Americas. If Christopher Columbus, arriving in the Caribbean, immediately dreamed of transforming their tropical forests into agricultural plantations, it is because his project benefited from a favorable historical situation. It is in fact the moment of the encounter between the thirst for an imperial European government and the dream of a control of nature. The colonial optimism with which Columbus and his successors adorned themselves then sold the American colonies to various European rulers as proving ground for the philosophy of nature control and for a government guided by political arithmetic .

The fundamental shift from colonizing optimism to anxiety about environmental collapse

However, the colonial planning and land use project had to face a formidable enemy: the immense American forests. According to a scientific belief of the time, they were accused of attracting both rains and extreme cold and thus hindering the agricultural development of the colonies. As a result, European settlers embarked on a vast deforestation venture and subsequently boasted that they had tempered and dried up a climate deemed too unstable.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the supposedly more rational exploitation of American natural resources stimulated the scientific imagination, starting with that of the great French naturalist of the XVIIIis century, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon. The latter was accomplished the herald of an Earth history that makes humanity a planetary force capable of shaping the climate . And for good reason: it has identified a global meteorological threat, the progressive cooling of the planet, perceptible on the scale of a human life, maintained and aggravated by the extension of the forest massifs. To combat this phenomenon, he launched into a real one climate utopia : Joining European forces against the cooling of the Earth by deforestation enough to reverse the trend and warm the Earth. In counterpoint, the first signs of a hierarchy of human societies based on their effect on climate appeared, as Amerindians and Africans were judged inferior to Europeans due to their (allegedly) less interventionism on the environment.

Buffon (1707-1788) designed a “ climate utopia »(Portrait of François-Hubert Drouais).

In this long history of representations of climate change, the French Revolution has operated a fundamental passage from colonizing optimism to the anxiety of environmental collapse . While revolutionaries have perpetuated the positivist tradition of human action by wishing to regenerate a people and a climate degraded by feudalism through the nationalization of forests, they have also posed the question that will punctuate political debates. for all XIXis century: how to govern, after the end of feudalism, the rural populations in their relationship with their environments ?

In fact, the peasants not only appeared rebellious and undisciplined, but were also accused of upsetting the climate with excessive deforestation. However, these same popular uses of forests have arisen in reaction to the abuses of private property. From the middle of XVIIIis century, the lords and the great owners of forest massifs transformed their woods into commercial monocultures, in particular destined to the then national navy, to the detriment of the ancient collective uses. In doing so, the authors’ criticism here joins the analyzes of Jean-Baptiste Vidalou, in Be forest, on the resistance to the state that this natural environment has historically allowed.

This alleged threat to private property fueled lengthy debates during the Restoration on whether or not to privatize forests to control the popular masses, debates that led to circular noor 18 of February 1820 which we mentioned above. According to Fressoz and Locher, the aforementioned investigation was aimed at guide the search for managers of deforestation and climate change ever since thirty years. The date is not anecdotal: as the authors show, it was a question of putting the Revolution on trial by making the trees speak out against it.

Dreaming finally emancipated perhaps, one day, completely from the moods of the atmosphere

Paradoxically, the industrial revolution saved Europe’s forests from deforestation. Having become more resilient to weather hazards thanks to technological innovations, Western societies believed they were forever immune to climate change. Thus was born the tale of infinite progress: The climate empire retreated – for a while – from the tech empire. In this new world made up of rails, locomotives, telegraph wires, mountains and forests at attention, one can dream of finally emancipating oneself, perhaps, one day, completely from the moods of the atmosphere.

Conversely, if the forests of Europe and America, replaced by coal as a source of energy and steel for construction, benefited from a respite, the forests of the new African and Asian colonies have discovered the Western interventionism. It’s in front of colonized peoples accused of degrading their climate, Europeans have set themselves the mission to protect and restore the climate so in Algeria, in the Sahel as in the British Indies. This ecoracism it can still be found at work in African national parks, as historian Guillaume Blanc recently described in The invention of green colonialism.

While the colonized peoples underwent the expropriation of their territory, Westerners, for their part, gradually forgot the effect of their way of life on the climate. Up to the famous awareness of the 70s. This is largely a myth, which Jean-Baptiste Fressoz and Fabien Locher do not fail to deconstruct by recalling that the story of the precursors of climate change secretes a doubly positivist view of contemporary environmental issues: it gives the impression that the climate alarm arose spontaneously from advances in science and that climate change was “discovered” by a handful of great heroic scholars . However, the two authors’ long history of representations of climate change and the role of human societies belies this naïve view. No awareness here, but rather the industrial and scientific production of a form of apathy in the face of climate action from XIXis century.

Now it is up to us to pick up the thread of this long story and try to divert it.




  • The riots of the sky. A history of climate change XVisXXis century, by Jean-Baptiste Fressoz and Fabien Locher, Le Seuil editions, L’Univers historique collection, October 2020, 320 p., € 23.


Source: Maxime Lerolle for Reporter

Images :

. chapô: The harrow, by Charles Beauverie (1839-1923) (public domain), presented during the collective exhibition “ The eternal farmer », From May to October 2010, at the Monts du Forez ecomuseum, in Usson-en-Forez.

. Buffon: Wikipedia (public domain)

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