By the middle of the 18th century, the French colonists of Quebec were convinced that the climate was getting warmer. The winters that had shocked earlier settlers now seemed less harsh: frosts arrived a little later in the year, snows thawed a little earlier, and harvests were more abundant. Quebec soon became an improbable cause célèbre of Enlightenment climatology. For Pehr Kalm, a disciple of Linnaeus, it was a paragon of good colonial husbandry. The French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon went further. He saw in the changing weather the possibility of not just continental but planetary improvement: developments in the New World showed that a new geological ‘age of mankind’ was underway, with the spread of civilisation from Europe reversing the otherwise inevitable cooling of the Earth. By cutting trees, draining marshes and tilling the soil, European colonists had inaugurated an era of global warming that would save the planet.
Buffon was probably alone among his contemporaries in anticipating the Anthropocene. But theories of man-made climate change were widespread in the 18th century. Like their French counterparts to the north, the colonists of British North America were eager to find proof of the righteousness of their colonial project. The Harvard minister Samuel Williams went round New England collecting plant specimens, plunging thermometers into deep-water wells and tracking the migratory patterns of birds, in order to confirm his theory that the arrival of Christianity and industry on the continent had induced a more temperate climate – a view shared by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Gibbon read meteorological reports from the colonies and drew a parallel between 18th-century Canada and ancient Germany, where, before the bogs were drained, forests cleared and the soil exposed to the warming effects of the sun, the climate had been equally unforgiving. Contemporary writers made predictions about the future course of warming, some of which have proved surprisingly accurate. The Jamaican plantation owner Edward Long envisaged something not unlike the American Midwest of today – an agroindustrial ecotopia where the climate would be warmed by the ‘fires and smoke of ten thousand crowded cities hereafter to be built, and by a general subjection of the soil to agriculture, carried on to the Arctic circle’.
Long was being ironic, which goes to show that not every Enlightenment thinker believed that the climate was changing, or changing for the better. Some subscribed to Buffon’s theory that the planet was losing heat without sharing his faith that the process could be delayed, still less prevented, by the spread of civilisation; for them the apparent creep of glaciers down the valleys of Chamonix and Grindelwald portended the apocalypse. Kalm celebrated the political and social order of Quebec, but elsewhere in North America he saw humans and livestock getting smaller and weaker, species becoming extinct and soil less fertile – all of which he attributed to colonisation. He was one of many Enlightenment scientists who thought that nature could be improved, but only if its complex laws were understood and obeyed. Too much cultivation, or cultivation of the wrong kind, could easily disrupt the water and nitrogen cycles that naturalists and agronomists were only just beginning to understand.
Attention to nature didn’t always serve Promethean notions of dominance or Baconian instrumental reason. It could, as the historian Richard Grove argued in Green Imperialism (1995), just as easily prompt anxieties about the harmful effects of human activity. Grove argued that modern environmentalism emerged at the peripheries of 18th-century European empires, especially in the plantation economies of the Caribbean and the Mascarene islands. Functionaries like Pierre Poivre in Mauritius and Alexander Anderson in Saint Vincent combined Enlightenment ideas about agronomy and plant chemistry with a proto-Romantic appreciation of nature, and, above all, a sensitivity to the impact of capitalist agriculture on tropical island ecosystems. These fertile, fragile environments were particularly prone to betraying signs of overexploitation, most often in the form of soil exhaustion or deforestation, because they were small and had no scope for expansion. But Grove pushed his argument a little too far: if colonial administrators cared about ecological damage, it was mostly because they were worried about the sustainability of cash-crop production and not about nature itself. Subsequent historians have quibbled with him, but tend to agree with his basic premise: that 18th-century thinkers were unusually sensitive to the ecological demands of commercial modernity.
Even the economists cared about nature. Adam Smith was a theorist of what the economic historian E.A. Wrigley called an ‘advanced organic economy’, and so had to think about land. Such an economy relied entirely on the soil as a source of energy and raw materials. Production could be expanded only by squeezing more value out of existing farmland, or by bringing inferior land under the plough. Commercial progress was undoubtedly possible: it could be seen across Europe, especially in England, the Dutch Republic and parts of France. Populations were growing, urbanisation was gaining pace, luxury goods were available to a greater share of the population. But growth, as Wrigley insisted, would always be constrained by the limits to the supply of land.
In Affluence and Freedom, the French philosopher Pierre Charbonnier builds on Wrigley’s argument to offer an unlikely environmental history of Enlightenment political and economic thought – a body of texts that seem, at first glance, to have nothing to do with the environment. Smith, Hume and the physiocrats thought about growth not in terms of the capacity of nature but in terms of the proper arrangement of markets: protecting property rights and enforcing contracts, ensuring the efficient allocation of capital, promoting free trade, reducing arbitrary taxation, encouraging specialisation and the division of labour. For Charbonnier, however, such policies sought to generate ‘intensive growth’ in an economy whose material basis could only be extended so far. Recognition of nature’s finitude served as a ‘conceptual a priori to economic thought’, if not undermining optimism then at least providing a note of caution in an age otherwise obsessed with perfectibility and progress. If even the most optimistic climate theorists were haunted by the prospect of degradation and, in extreme cases, apocalypse, it was because they lived in Smith’s world, where the pursuit of prosperity was partly motivated by a ‘permanent anxiety’ about the limits of nature.
Charbonnier’s goal is to explore the challenges climate change poses to modern ideas about politics and economics, so it’s somewhat surprising that his argument begins with the theorists of the early modern organic economy and not with the mineral economy of the industrial revolution. But it was in the 18th century that what Charbonnier calls the modern project of ‘abundance and autonomy’ properly took shape; the later extraction of enormous stocks of carbon from the ground, which liberated European economies from dependence on the sun and the seasons, merely allowed this project to be realised. Even before Watt’s steam engine and the first factories, it became possible to imagine and even expect a gradual collective emancipation from lack, thanks in large part to the greater availability of stuff – stuff that satisfied basic needs, such as food, but also luxuries, such as fashionable clothes. This material prosperity went hand in hand with the confidence that society could organise itself: that it could reject any form of dependence, whether on God, the king or indeed nature. Questions around ecological constraint and the sustainability of capitalist agriculture were so important to Enlightenment thinkers precisely because their worldview was based on this notion of abundance and autonomy, the idea that society was getting richer and could take charge of its own destiny. Natural scarcity was just another kind of arbitrary authority, another palace to be stormed.
In many ways this is an unfashionably sympathetic portrait of the Enlightenment. After all, for the philosophes to be able to reason in coffee houses the earth had to be hammered and ploughed by slaves on Caribbean plantations. Charbonnier acknowledges that Smith’s concept of ‘intensive growth’ relied on low-cost raw materials sourced from imperial lands, and that Europeans have never been good at living up to their own principles. Clearly, affluence and freedom, the two concepts Charbonnier places at the heart of modernity, haven’t always been compatible: affluence has often relied on domination. But it’s worth taking seriously the collective desires that were invested in the transition away from a traditional economy of scarcity and salvation towards one of relative plenty which sought comfort and happiness in this world. The 17th century was a Little Ice Age of prolonged frosts, late harvests and recurrent demographic crisis. In France the Great Famine of the 1690s accounted for 1.3 million excess deaths out of a population of around twenty million; in the same decade, Scotland and Scandinavia, which would become centres of Enlightenment thought, also suffered terrible famines. It isn’t hard to see why an intellectual project that sought to conquer ‘the permanent resistance of nature’ would gain widespread support, and why it might be hard to give up.
Seventeenth-century Europeans thought about natural disaster in biblical terms. But they also held humanity responsible for environmental change. As Lydia Barnett has shown in After the Flood, Noah’s Flood provided theologians with a model for attributing ecological catastrophe to human sin. Others took more optimistic lessons from scripture. The geologist John Woodward thought Protestant industriousness would save mankind from sin and restore to the soil the natural fertility lost in the Flood. Barnett argues that the secularising impulses of the 18th century – which separated human history from the natural deep time of the Earth, and downgraded God’s influence on the landscape – meant that progress came to be understood in strictly social terms. This echoes Dipesh Chakrabarty’s assertion in an influential article published in 2009 that no thinker since the Enlightenment has considered the geological dimension of freedom. Charbonnier is able to tell a different story by teasing out the ecological assumptions that structured political economy, whether its authors recognised them or not. If you were to take the confident statements of those theorists at face value, it might be easy to conclude that they dismissed any natural limits to progress, or were oblivious to its impact on the environment. But the modern project of autonomy and abundance if anything made it easier to attribute ecological change to human agency. It’s just that this agency was understood in different terms, not sin and providence, but sustainability and the optimal use of resources. Far from rendering the environment invisible, the Enlightenment turned it into a subject of political and economic debate.
Ecological anxieties weren’t restricted to the colonies. In France, vast areas of marginal land were brought under cultivation in the mid-18th century as a result of swamp drainage and forest clearance: more than 350,000 acres of woodland were cleared between 1766 and 1774 alone. By the eve of the French Revolution, scientists were beginning to consider the unintended consequences of this heedless growth. Deforestation was a particular concern, blamed for drought in summer and the high price of firewood in winter. In 1784 the agronomic society of Lyon held an essay contest on the question of how to make chimneys more efficient, so that homes could be heated with less wood. One entry had an illustration linking the need for reforestation with the fate of the planet: the globe hangs from an ominous cloud of smoke, balanced precariously on a scale by nothing but an acorn.
Climate change continued to be a topic of debate throughout the revolution, as Jean-Baptiste Fressoz and Fabien Locher show in Les Révoltes du ciel: Une histoire du changement climatique XVe-XXe siècle.Drought and desiccation were blamed on feudal avarice and aristocratic disregard for communal rights over the forests; there was an urgent need to ‘regenerate’ the nation and its soil. For the most part the revolutionaries wanted the same things as Enlightenment political economists – freedom and growth – and had the same blind spots. They also had the same worries about sustainability and degradation. In 1795, a year after the fall of Robespierre, the chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet speculated that the deserts of Asia had once enjoyed a temperate climate, before ‘tyranny and the most barbarous ignorance’ cleared the lands of forests. For Berthollet, the environmental impact of ‘civilisation’ was not to be found in America, where it had just arrived, but in the place where it had been established the longest, the Middle East.
This critique didn’t survive the revolution. When Charbonnier moves on to the era of industrial modernity, he shows how the likes of Mill, Marx and the marginalist economists didn’t feel compelled, as their Enlightenment forebears had, to think about the land. Barring the odd panic about ‘peak coal’ or ‘metabolic rift’, Europeans stopped considering the ecological costs of growth after they began taking carbon out of the Earth and putting it into the atmosphere. Fossil fuels and chemical fertilisers helped insulate humanity from scarcity and disaster while making it possible to extend the liberal project of private property and material accumulation. Society had overcome its last form of dependence and detached itself from the land.
Energy historians like to point out that resource transitions don’t take the form of a simple replacement of one fuel source by another – coal for wood, or wind for oil. Rather, the effect is additive: the number of horses used for transport peaked well into the 20th century, long after the invention of the motor car. Perhaps the same could be said of ideas about the environment. Agrarian notions of collective labour and equality, rooted in what Marc Bloch called the ‘rudimentary communism’ of the village, lingered awkwardly in an early modern world of self-interest and long-distance trade. The desire for abundance and autonomy will probably outlive the factory farm and the oil rig. All the more reason, then, to pay attention to the relationship between ideas and the material realities they addressed, ignored or sought to transcend.
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