Three things historical literature can teach us about the climate crisis



Albert Bierstadt, Rocky Mountain Landscape, 1870.

David Higgins, University of Leeds and Tess Somervell, University of Leeds

New novels about climate change – climate fiction, or cli-fi – are being published all the time. The nature of the climate crisis is a difficult thing to get across, and so imagining the future – a drowned New York City, say; or a world in which water is a precious commodity – can help us understand what’s at stake.

This is unsurprising in these times of crisis: fiction allows us to imagine possible futures, good and bad. When faced with such an urgent problem, it might seem like a waste of time to read earlier texts. But don’t be so sure. The climate emergency may be unprecedented, but there are a few key ways in which past literature offers a valuable perspective on the present crisis.

1. Climate histories

Historical texts reflect the changing climatic conditions that produced them. When Byron and the Shelleys stayed on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816, the literature that they wrote responded to the wild weather of the “year without a summer”.

This was caused largely by the massive eruption of the Indonesian volcano Mount Tambora the previous year, which lowered global temperatures and led to harvest failures and famine. Literary works such as as Byron’s “Darkness”, Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein reveal anxieties about human vulnerability to environmental change even as they address our power to manipulate our environments.

Many older texts also bear indirect traces of historical climate change. In Paradise Lost (1667), Milton complains that a “cold climate” may “damp my intended wing” and prevent him from completing his masterpiece. This may well reflect the fact that he lived through the coldest period of the “Little Ice Age”.

Hendrick Avercamp, Winter Landscape with Skaters, c. 1608.
Rijks Museum

Even literature’s oldest epic poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1800 BC), contains traces of climate change. It tells of a huge flood which, like the later story of Noah in the Old Testament, is probably a cultural memory of sea level rise following the melting of glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age.

These historical climatic shifts were not man made, but they still provide important analogues for our own age. Indeed, many cultures have seen human activity and climate as intertwined, often through a religious framework. One of the ironies of modernity is that the development of the global climate as an object of study, apparently separate from human life, coincides with the development of the carbon capitalism that has linked them more closely than ever.

2. How we view nature

Reading historical literature also allows us to trace the development of modern constructions of the natural world. For example, the Romantic ideal of “sublime” nature, which celebrated vast, dramatic landscapes like mountains and chasms, has influenced the kinds of places that we value and protect today in the form of national parks.

When we understand that such landscapes are not purely natural, but are produced by cultural discourses and practices over time – we protect these landscapes above others for a reason – we can start to debate whether they can be better managed for the benefit of humans and non-humans alike.

Past ideas of ‘sublime’ nature have bled into the landscapes we protect today.
Hendrik Cornelissen/Unsplash, FAL

Or consider how in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the work of nature writers such as Thomas Bewick, Charlotte Smith and Gilbert White played a powerful role in promoting natural theology: the theory that evidence for God’s existence can be found in the complex structures of the natural world. Past literature has also been crucial in disseminating new scientific ideas such as evolutionary theory, which understood natural phenomena as entirely secular. Literature does not just reflect changing views of the natural world; it shapes them.

Studying historical texts helps us to understand how modern cultural attitudes towards the environment developed, which in turn allows us to perceive that these attitudes are not as “natural” or inevitable as they may seem. This insight allows for the possibility that today, in a time in which our attitude towards the environment could certainly improve, they can change for the better.

3. Ways of thinking

Some of the attitudes towards the natural world that we discover in historical literature are contentious, even horrifying: for example, the normalisation of animal cruelty portrayed in books such as Black Beauty.

But we can find more promising models too. Voltaire’s poem on the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, for example, has been used to think about the ethics of blame and optimism in responses to modern disasters, like the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.

Reading past literature can also help us to appreciate the natural world for its own sake. Samuel Johnson commented of the natural descriptions in James Thomson’s poems The Seasons (1730) that the reader “wonders that he never saw before what Thomson shows him and that he never yet has felt what Thomson impresses”. Amid the frenzied distractions of modern life, the work of authors like Thomson, Dorothy Wordsworth and John Clare can help us to slow down, notice and love nature.

Historical literature can remind us of our own vulnerability to elemental forces. The famous depiction of a storm in King Lear, for example, mocks Lear’s attempt:

In his little world of man to out-scorn
The two-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain.

Shakespeare might appear to aestheticise dangerous weather, but the play reminds us that the storm is far bigger and messier than any human attempt to represent and interpret it.

Lear and the Fool in the storm, Ary Scheffer, 1834.
Folger Shakespeare Library, CC BY-SA

At the same time, literature can remind us of the need to take responsibility for our own impacts upon the environment. We may not want to follow pre-modern and early modern literature in viewing climate change as divine punishment for bad behaviour. But when Milton suggests that it was the fall of man that brought in “pinching cold and scorching heat” to replace the eternal spring of Eden, his narrative has clear figurative resonance with our present crisis.

Historical literature can show us how writers responded to climate change, trace how they influenced modern ideas about nature, and reveal valuable ways of relating to and thinking about nature. The climate crisis cannot be addressed only through technological solutions. It also requires profound cultural shifts. To make those shifts requires an understanding of past ideas and representations: both those that led to our current predicament and those that might help us address it.The Conversation

David Higgins, Associate Professor in English Literature, University of Leeds and Tess Somervell, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in English, University of Leeds

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Article: The Rotating Book Server


The link below is to an article that considers an historical book server.

For more visit:
http://www.core77.com/blog/furniture_design/from_the_wtf_department_a_rotating_book_server_designed_during_the_renaissance_recreated_and_mis-built_by_architecture_students_destroyed_by_terrorists_24448.asp

Article: Books for Soldiers


The link below is to an historical piece on book collecting for soldiers overseas during World War I.

For more visit:
http://twentytwowords.com/2012/10/19/a-massive-monument-of-books-collected-for-soldiers-overseas-1919/

Article: Historical Bad Reviews of Eventual Classics


The link below is to an article that looks at the reviews of eleven books that eventually became classics. Earlier opinions on each of the books mentioned in the article were hardly flattering.

For more visit:
http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/124207

Video: New York Public Library – Milstein Division


Historical & Geneaological Research

The following video is about a department of the New York Public Library – the Milstein Division.

For more, visit:
http://www.nypl.org/blog/2012/03/01/behind-scenes-milstein-suspense-trailer

History of the United States, from the Discovery of the American Continent – Volume 1, by George Bancroft


I have been working on getting this volume onto the Tracing our History – History website for some time. I did have about three chapters on the site in HTML format, but have now begun getting the volume up in PDF format. This is taking some time, especially with the large number of footnotes in the text, which I am seeking to have available quickly via links to the footnotes and links that return to the text from the footnotes. The time being spent on this will allow a very good and useful ebook when completed I think. I do have plans to make the entire set of volumes on the History of the United States available over time.

I would recommend the volume I am currently reading (volume 1) as a very good treatment on the European discovery and colonization of the United States. For those outside of the United States (like me) – and quite possibly many within the United States – this work provides a very easy to read and informative history of this period. For those interested in further research, the footnotes provide plenty of material for further reading and investigation, drawing on a wealth of historical material and treatments.

‘Shameful Flight – The Last Years of the British Empire in India,’ by Stanley Wolpert


Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

‘Shameful Flight’ relates the history of the final years of the British Raj in India, including the partition of India into both Pakistan (West and East) and India, and the early hostility of the two new nations destined for perpetual warfare in such regions as the Kashmir.The history of this era of political instability on the subcontinent includes all the main players from Great Britain, India and Pakistan.These main players include Winston Churchill, Viceroy Louis Mountbatten, Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru and Quaid-i-Azam Jinnah. There is not a single figure in this history of India’s partition who comes out of it in a good light, though several seem to have had very well-intentioned aims and motivations. It is the true story of lost opportunity and the devastating consequences of human pride and selfishness that have reverberated down through the decades to the present day and remain visible in the continuing clashes between India and Pakistan, as well as in the extremism expressed in both the Islamic and Hindu communities throughout the sub-continent. It is a story of perpetual tragedy and human suffering with no end in sight.

This book is extremely easy to read, passes on a wealth of historical information and whets the appetite for further research on the India/Pakistan situation. It provides enlightenment, by bringing understanding to the current political instability in both India and Pakistan, by clearly revealing the root of the problem – the manner of the birth of both nations out of British imperialism and that nation’s final haphazard departure aptly described as a ‘Shameful Flight.’ This is a great book for understanding the sub-continent and the wounds it still carries to this day.

This book was provided to me for review by Oxford University Press – www.oup.com

LIFE AT THE BOOKSHELF: A Life Around Books


I have spent a lot of my time around books. I love books. I can’t have enough books – at least it certainly seems that way. I’m always on the lookout for books. I don’t buy a lot of new books these days, however, if there is a good one – well, I just have to buy it.

I’ve always read a lot. Early in life I probably read more out of necessity in order to pass subjects and exams. It wasn’t until I left school that I really got a passion for books. What spurred my passion for books was my growing interest in Christianity and my subsequent embrace of it. I just wanted to learn and to learn as much as I could. So I started to buy books

Somewhere along the track I became interested in reading books of other subjects as well, especially books to do with history. I also read novels, but for me to read a novel it has to have a great plot. One of my favourite authors is Tom Clancy, which probably gives you some idea of the type of novels I read.

Of course I collected books on horticulture (I trained as a horticulturist), cooking, computers, travel, wilderness and other areas that I was interested in. However my real passion in books has always been theological and historical.

At the moment my life is in a ‘treading water-like’ situation. I’m probably still another 6 months away from moving into another home to rent (I currently live in a caravan park in a cabin), so the vast majority of my books are in storage and I can’t get at them because they are quite some distance away and I don’t have a car. There probably isn’t a day that goes by that I wish I had access to some book or another. I am longing for the day when I’ll be able to make use of all my books again.

I’ve probably managed to collect another couple of boxes of books in the time I have been away from them and I am slowly accumulating a collection of them in the cabin. They are enough to get me by at this stage, but my various interests are crying out for the books to assist me in them.

I have begun to place a listing of the books I own on my web site at particularbaptist.com and will eventually add them to my Shelfari presence as well. A look at the list (which is nowhere near complete) soon gives an idea of the number of books I have.

See the list at:

http://www.particularbaptist.com/kevins/kevinslibrary.html

See my Shelfari Profile at:

http://www.shelfari.com/particularkev

I have also started accumulating books online at both the particularbaptist.com website and the Kevin’s Family – History Site. These two virtual libraries encapsulate the two main areas of my passion for books – theology and history.

It is for these two libraries (other than my own interest of course) that I am buying out of copyright theological and historical books. Gradually I am building up my collection of online books in these libraries, sharing my passion for books and the wealth in books with a much wider audience.

Visit the libraries at:

http://particularbaptist.com/library/libraryindex.html

http://particularbaptist.com/matthewshistory/library/articles.html

Not only do these libraries contain the works that I have collected and put online, they also have many links to others works that others have placed online. In short, these two virtual libraries have an enormous amount of resources in them – enough to keep the most avid reader going for a life time.

I have now started the ‘At The BookShelf’ Blog and the ‘Reformed Reading Group’ at Shelfari to provide another aspect to sharing my passion for books, especially in the two areas I have mentioned – theology and history. With these two latest sites I will be able to interact with visitors and discuss various books, what we have learnt, questions and issues raised, enjoy fellowship, etc. So I am really hoping that my visitors will join the Reformed Reading Group (I am thinking especially of Reformed Christians here obviously – though others are most welcome) and get involved in the discussion, as well as having visitors interacting via the comments provision here at ‘At The BookShelf.’

Visit the Reformed Reading Group at:

http://www.shelfari.com/groups/36946/about

What I intend to post here in the Blog are reviews of the books I have read and possibly some quotes from some of the books also. I will probably also be posting URLs for new books (old books) I post in the two virtual libraries also.

What else is left to say but please get involved at some of the sites I have mentioned? You won’t regret it.