J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Bergman on Zilberstein’s A Temperate Empire

Last month James Bergman reviewed Anya Zilberstein’s A Temperate Empire: Making Climate Change in Early America, published in 2016 by Oxford University Press, for the H-Net.

European settlers found the climate of North America to be more extreme than what they had known at home (often while sticking to a smaller range of latitudes). Winters were colder, summers hotter. But, many declared, the New World was becoming more healthy by the decade!

Here are some extracts from the review:
Zilberstein’s book comes amid what she calls a “spate” of efforts to situate the early modern colonial project in the climate of the Little Ice Age, and indeed, such studies as Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis and work by Dagomar Degroot and Sam White have taken climate from a historical backdrop, a condition merely to be overcome, to a historical actor in its own right. The atmosphere, these works effectively argue, should not just be used for atmosphere.

Zilberstein’s contribution to this literature is to situate these efforts in the scientific debates among elites about natural history. She finds that these debates were inextricable from the colonial project. Boundaries between biogeographic regions were often conflated with political boundaries. Networks of correspondence about natural history were often bound up in political and cultural connections between elites on both sides of the Atlantic. And settler colonialism was often “naturalized” by describing the way different racial bodies were suited to different climatic regions (p. 95).

Zilberstein focuses on the American Northeast, an area that would now encompass New England and Nova Scotia, but whose boundaries were much more fluid and contested in the eighteenth century. This focus permits a rich treatment of the archival material she has amassed, which includes promotional material, government documents, correspondence between elites, and treatises on the environments of the different colonies. From these texts emerge an extremely open-ended and heavily debated understanding of the climate of different regions. This revolved around several different questions: Where was the “temperate” zone? Who could settle there? And were the climates of the American colonies becoming more “temperate”?

Zilberstein traces the substantial instability of the basis for these questions, beginning with the question: what did it mean for a climate to be “temperate,” anyway? Before the seventeenth century, this zone tended to center around the Mediterranean. With the northward movement of political power in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries came a northward movement of that zone to center around England and France. With the settlement of New England and the endurance of its harsh winters came a new valuation of a temperate climate among the colonial elites. The cold climates of Vermont and New Hampshire were not “stupefying,” as some commentators believed. They provided “vigor,” according to local colonial elites writing to skeptics across the Atlantic (pp. 34, 38).

Likewise, John Wentworth, the governor of Nova Scotia, countered attacks by abolitionists that relocating escaped Jamaican slaves (maroons) in Nova Scotia was cruel—prevailing views on race held that African bodies were suited to different climates than white bodies—by stating that, in fact, the climate was temperate enough for all bodies. This was, in fact, part of Wentworth’s campaign to convert his colony from one of English garrisons and absentee landowners to one of “useful and loyal settlers” (p. 117). . . .

Climate change was part of discussions about agricultural improvement and settlement, but the reverse was also true: the perception of climate change depended on the ambitions of the settlers. . . . Studies by twentieth- and twenty-first-century historical geographers, for instance, have found that the climate was, in fact, not getting “more temperate,” but getting colder (p. 2). This is especially important to note, as it allows her to point out that the perception of climate, and climate change, has historically been bound up in the logic of “improvement.” To understand current perceptions of climate change, Zilberstein argues, we need to recognize this, as it has become that much more urgent, with the current consensus on climate change, that those sensibilities be reversed.
“Improvement” in this case meant not (just?) creating better conditions but getting use out of resources.

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