Climate of Enlightenment

This review appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 25 August 2007

Jan Golinski, British Weather and the Climate of Enlightenment, University of Chicago Press, £22.50, 284 pp.

When the Rt Rev Graham Dow, Bishop of Carlisle, described last month’s Yorkshire floods as “a strong and definite judgement” on Britain’s moral failings, he can not have been all that surprised by the derision that greeted his pronouncement. Such views, after all, were supposed to have been swept away by the rising tide of Enlightenment thought that came in during the 17th century, and which (in much of the West, at least) served to undermine clerical authority through the promotion of a modern, sceptical materialism based on the application of reason.

But, as Jan Golinski argues in this thoughtful and deeply researched account of how weather and climate consistently challenged the scientific certainties of the Enlightenment project, ancient attitudes, such as those of the Bishop, have always proved hard to dislodge. Take “weather-wising”, for example, the time-honoured ritual of invoking signs and sayings foretelling local weather events, a habit that remains popular even among professional forecasters: “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb” was, as Golinski notes, a particular favourite of the BBC weatherman Michael Fish, yet it was just this kind of proverbial reflex that early scientific meteorologists strove to replace with a sober and standardised vocabulary. It was clear from the outset that this was not going to be an easy task, and when Robert Hooke distributed detailed instructions to the fellows of the newly founded Royal Society, urging them to fill out daily weather charts covering eight separate observable phenomena — winds, temperature, humidity, pressure, clouds, lightning, prevailing illnesses, and the tides — not a single fellow acted on the advice. Even the few who did attempt to maintain weather records did so in the form of pleasingly hypochondriacal diaries, in which reflections on the weather were interspersed with complaints about the writer’s state of health. “A chill driving Rain”, wrote one, was “a kind of weather as never fails to discompose me”, while the heat of July “made me feint & allmost swoon & even wasted me to the degree of deliquium animi (failure of spirit).” Golinski quotes generously from these long neglected journals — one of the aims of his research, he writes, is “to give the weather diarists of the time their due” — and their words do much to bring this book to life, elevating it from a somewhat specialist account of the state of early atmospheric science, to a vividly drawn excursion into an age besotted with the emerging languages of nature.

Much of this sense of philosophical adventure flowed from discoveries being made in the new colonies, especially those of North America, and Golinski’s best chapter gives an illuminating account of how the early American colonists, like the British before them, “came to value their weather as a national resource, one that contributed to their destiny.” Strange as it may seem today, many eighteenth-century Europeans regarded North America as more-or-less uninhabitable, due mostly to its extremes of climate. Too hot in summer, too cold in winter, and battered all year round by hurricanes and tornadoes. How could any form of civilisation be expected to thrive in such conditions? The answer, according to American naturalists, was widespread deforestation, which, along with the draining of marshland and the cultivation of crops, did much to moderate the colonies’ seasonal extremes. By the 1780s, according to Thomas Jefferson, “both heats and colds are become much more moderate within the memory even of the middle aged”, and as Golinski points out, the colonists’ belief that they had succeeded in improving not only their land but their very climate became a key component of American self-confidence, and was taken to heart by the settler population of the newly independent United States.

Such pride in their founders’ ability to modify the nation’s climate makes it even more disheartening that so many Americans today seem reluctant to acknowledge their ongoing contribution to globally changing conditions. Hurricane Katrina may have been an American tragedy, but it was also a world event, one that, as Golinski notes in the conclusion to this rich and timely volume, invites us to reflect on the worrying limitations of our own incompletely enlightened age.

Richard Hamblyn

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