Other Writing

‘Something to be Clever About’

This essay was published in A Book of King’s: Views of a Cambridge College, ed. Karl Sabbagh (Third Millennium Publishing, 2010).

A plaque on the wall of the Eagle pub on Bene’t Street, Cambridge, just around the corner from the old Cavendish laboratory, records the moment, on 28th February 1953, when Francis Crick and James Watson burst into the saloon bar and announced to the bemused lunchtime drinkers that they had discovered the secret of life. Though it sounds like the opening premise of a thousand well-worn jokes – ‘a man walks into a bar. . .’ – the pair had been in earnest, for they and their co-researchers had long been aware that unravelling the structure of DNA would transform forever the understanding of all life on earth. ‘Of course they never meant to call it DNA’, as one of those thousand jokes goes on; ‘they just ran in to the bar and shouted: “We’ve discovered the secret of life! Danaaaa!”’

Crick and Watson, the great double-act, were inseparable during those two Cambridge years (1951-53), in the lab, down the pub, on their long daily walks along the Backs, although they fell out badly in 1968 after Watson published The Double Helix, much of which was written in a room in King’s – ‘overlooking the big green lawn that fronted Clare College’, he recalled – where Watson spent his 1965 sabbatical at the invitation of the biologist Sydney Brenner. Prickly, boastful, and sexist beyond parody (women are referred to throughout the book as ‘popsies’), Watson’s account of the great discovery was nevertheless a revelation, and did much to change the way that scientists were perceived by the wider culture. From its opening line: ‘I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood’, the book set out to expose the tensions, jealousies, intrigues and infighting that attended the most important scientific achievement since Darwin’s Origin of Species. As Sir Lawrence Bragg observed in the foreword that he agreed to write before he’d seen the finished thing, ‘those who figure in the book must read it in a very forgiving spirit.’ Crick had been especially annoyed by Watson’s descriptions of his manic personality and overloud laugh, for which Crick’s friends blamed his perennial failure to secure a college fellowship. ‘There was always King’s’, as Watson recalled, ‘opulently nonconformist and clearly capable of absorbing him without any loss of his or its character. But despite much effort on the part of his friends, who knew he was a delightful dinner companion, they were never able to hide the fact that a stray remark over sherry might bring Francis smack into your life.’

In fact Crick’s antipathy to college culture ran deeper than Watson realised. As a convinced atheist who detested the material trappings of religion almost as much as its mental symptoms, he hated the sight of the college chapels, especially the inescapable hulk of King’s chapel, which he and Watson passed every day during their post-lunch walks along the Backs. He thought such places incompatible with education, and even put up the £100 prize-money for an essay competition on ‘What should be done with the college chapels?’ As he told the editor of Varsity, Christianity was all very well between consenting adults in private, but it should not be taught to the young. Only a secular college would do, and in 1960 he became a founding fellow of Churchill College which, as a specialist centre for science teaching, was to be the only Cambridge college without a place of worship. The following year, however, the Churchill trustees voted to accept a generous donation towards the building of a chapel, at which betrayal, as he saw it, Crick immediately resigned his fellowship. So it’s a little ironic that one of the best-known photographs of Crick and Watson together, taken during one of their riverside walks, features the great stranded ark of King’s College chapel rearing behind them in the rain, blocking out the afternoon sky.

I often thought about Crick and Watson’s collaborative adventures during the four years I spent at King’s, to where I’d moved in 1990 to study for a PhD on eighteenth-century topography. My supervisor, Dr (now Professor) Peter de Bolla, the college’s Director of Studies in English, had published an acclaimed book on eighteenth-century aesthetics and was buoyantly enthusiastic about my research proposal, an evasively-worded document that I had attempted to reinforce with an armoury of terms – ‘apprehension’, ‘ideology’ and ‘the gaze’ – that I had picked up only a short time before. I was, I discovered, Pete’s first doctoral supervisee – at least the first that he had taken on from scratch – so the situation was new to both of us; but little did I know, when I climbed to the top of E staircase for the first of our many supervisions in his capacious, sunlit office in the Gibbs Building, that I was embarking on a journey that would change the course of my life. That series of supervisions – at least one per month for the four years I was there – remains the most stimulating intellectual and imaginative encounter that I have ever known, an unfolding four-year conversation that centred on eighteenth-century books and ideas, but from which emerged new ways of thinking about historical research, about what it means to try to think about the past, about the rise and divergence of academic disciplines, and the painfully apparent distinction to be made between ‘writing’ and ‘writing up’.

For the first few months, at Pete’s suggestion, I let the direction of my research be dictated by the primary sources, and, sure enough, as I began to plough through the eighteenth-century holdings of the University Library’s Rare Books Room, I soon alighted on a theme worth pursuing, in the form of the competing meanings that congregated around certain landscape locations, particularly those landscapes in which new kinds of knowledge about the earth were being revealed. Time and again, a handful of recurring places – the Inner Hebridean island of Staffa; the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim; the Derbyshire Peak with its geological ‘wonders’; the lakes and lead mines of Cumberland and Westmorland; the smoking crater of Mount Vesuvius – seemed to preoccupy the Georgian cultural imagination, and it was the curious narrative potency of these spaces, with their layerings of human and geological history, that became my subject during my time at King’s, and has remained my favourite subject ever since. I had found what I wanted to write about, but the problem was it wasn’t very ‘literary’ – at least not in the way that English literature tended to be studied at Cambridge. I was, after all, a member of the English faculty, and although the pursuit of cross-disciplinary research was not officially discouraged, it remained the case that the single-author study was the department’s dominant research model, and I was always being asked who rather than what I was working on. But though one or two of the older professors were unhappy about my proposed research (and I had to argue my case when it came to applying for faculty funding), it turned out that I had been particularly fortunate in my choice of college. King’s had a long tradition of testing disciplinary boundaries, and among its recent English fellows had been such luminaries as Norman Bryson, John Barrell, Colin MacCabe and Lisa Jardine, scholars whose research had migrated freely across academic borders, greatly influencing not only their own areas of literary study, but also those of other, neighbouring disciplines such as the history of art, the history of ideas, and the history of science. Pete had himself been taught at King’s by Barrell and Bryson, and was sympathetic to the idea of pursuing a non-literary subject in a non-literary way from within the confines of an English department. So my interest in the history of science was free to flourish, and by the end of my second year I was attending the weekly graduate seminars at the History of Science faculty on Free School Lane, just around the corner from the Eagle pub, while immersing myself ever more deeply in the arcana of scientific knowledge, in the folds of which lay hidden – as it seemed to me in that first rush of unschooled enthusiasm – the greatest stories, the greatest narratives, the greatest dramas in the world. Nothing in the literary canon could compete with the fantastical realities (and unrealities) of scientific thought, while few of the writers whose lives I had studied seemed anything like as intellectually playful, restless and alive as did many of those long-dead scientists whose works I was excitedly devouring.

The truth was, I had always regretted not studying science. At school I had drifted towards the arts and humanities for the simple reason that I liked reading and didn’t dislike writing essays. I had always been interested in science and mathematics, and had chosen to study biology over classics at ‘O’-level, but by the time it came to picking a subject to pursue at higher level, carrying on with English seemed the most natural – not to mention the easiest – choice. Plus, there was a certain cultural cachet that attached itself to the arts and humanities, an aura suggestive of creativity and the complex pleasures of the imagination, as well as an appealingly urbane indifference to official forms of knowledge such as science. The arts were cool; the sciences were not. As the biologist and Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar famously complained in the New York Review of Books in 1968, “there is a widely prevalent opinion that almost any literary work, even if it amounts to no more than writing advertising copy or a book review, not to mention that Ph.D. thesis on ‘Some little known laundry bills of George Moore’, is intrinsically superior to almost any scientific activity.” And although that particular outlook is beginning to disappear – due in part to the revival of popular science writing – there remain ‘two cultures’, as C. P. Snow famously characterised them, the literary and the scientific, whose respective practitioners seem content to misconstrue one another from across the disciplinary divide.

I’m convinced that much of this mutual mistrust stems from a cultural misunderstanding of the creative nature of science. Unravelling the structure of DNA, for example, was never a straightforward matter of plodding through laboratory results, testing them against an array of hypotheses until the ‘prettiest’ one emerged; it was more akin to the kind of intellectual games played by philosophers or literary theorists, in which moments of insight – inspiration, even – forged esoteric connections between ideas and observations that advanced the patterns of understanding. One of the more surprising disclosures of Watson’s The Double Helix concerned the pair’s unusual work routine, which involved taking long post-lunch walks around Cambridge, talking all the while about everything and anything as they meandered through the college courtyards and out along the Backs, so that ‘talk replaced work, or rather work became talk’, in the words of Crick’s biographer, Matt Ridley. According to Watson, this regular truanting from the rigours of the lab had been a contributing factor in their bold creative breakthrough:

‘The following morning I felt marvellously alive when I awoke. On my way to the Whim I slowly walked towards the Clare Bridge, staring up at the gothic pinnacles of the King’s College Chapel that stood out sharply against the spring sky. I briefly stopped and looked over at the perfect Georgian features of the recently cleaned Gibbs Building, thinking that much of our success was due to the long, uneventful periods when we walked among the colleges or unobtrusively read the new books that came into Heffer’s Bookstore.’

Such youthful informality hardly fitted the popular image of Nobel Prize-winning laboratory science, and a number of reviews of The Double Helix expressed dismay at the candour of Watson’s revelations as well as disbelief that such a pair – ‘two loudmouthed young men who devoted more time to talking and drinking than to experiment’ – could have brought about the greatest triumph of twentieth-century science. Yet all those post-lunch peregrinations, all those evenings talking nonsense in the pub – none of it had been a waste of time, it had all been part of the creative process, and had the pair been poets or painters rather than molecular biologists, the world would have indulged them with a smile. Once again it was Sir Peter Medawar who pointed out that, in Britain at least, a teenager of Watson’s imaginative gifts would almost certainly have been steered towards literary studies; but though the Cambridge English faculty of the 1950s produced a number of graduates of outstanding ability – ‘brilliant, inventive, articulate and dialectically skilful; right up in the Watson class’ – ‘Watson had one towering advantage over all of them: in addition to being extremely clever he had something important to be clever about.’  And that, as Medawar went on to suggest (to the immense irritation of some of his readers) is the advantage that scientists continue to enjoy over most other people engaged in intellectual pursuits: they have something to be clever about. This, of course, is not to say that one cannot be clever about Shakespeare or Kierkegaard or Morecambe and Wise; it’s just that the great scientific questions seem somehow bigger, more looming, more outwardly urgent – life, the universe and everything – and, like W. H. Auden, who said that the company of scientists made him feel like a shabby curate who had wandered by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes, I was (and remain) slightly in awe of the territory they command.

*

Twenty years later, science remains my subject as a writer and historian, though I have long since abandoned the romanticised view of it that drew me towards it in the first place. I still experience the occasional moment of regret at having not pursued it through the proper channels, but there are advantages to maintaining an outsider’s perspective on scientific matters, not least when trying to understand them in their wider cultural context. Climate change, for example, might have started off as a data-driven scientific concept, an hypothesis to be tested like any other, but it has since grown into the overarching narrative of our age, a kind of secular prophecy that feeds into a wide range of cultural anxieties about our relations with the natural world, our obligations towards developing nations, and our responsibilities to the generations to come. It’s a subject that impinges upon everything and everyone, so I’m pleased to see that King’s College library – where I once manned the desk on the graveyard shift for £2.20 an hour – has built up an important and near-comprehensive collection of several hundred climate change publications from a wide range of disciplines across the sciences and the humanities. The King’s College Global Warming Collection, to use its official title, is prominently housed in the main library, just beyond the issue desk, where it stands as a visible reminder of the cultural and scientific challenges that face us as we head off deeper into the twenty-first century, as well as a symbol of my old college’s continuing commitment to encouraging the variously fragmented disciplines to talk to one another across the echoing cultural divide.

Richard Hamblyn

* * *

‘The Whistleblower and the Canary: Rhetorical Constructions of Climate Change’

This article appeared in the Journal of Historical Geography, vol 35 (2009), pp. 223-36.

This paper is intended as an overview of some key rhetorical strategies underpinning the presentation of the issue of climate change. There is, of course, a well-established literature on environmentalism and the media, much of which has focused on aspects of the communication of risk.[i] In recent years, as climate change has escalated from an environmental news story to the dominant overarching narrative of human responsibility — a ‘secular prophecy’ as Bill Cronon has called it — , science communication scholars have begun to explore the means by which this increasingly prominent media narrative has been presented to lay audiences, looking in particular detail at the communication of scientific uncertainty.[ii] All narratives of climate change deal inescapably with uncertainty, whether they are supportive of the consensus scientific view or not, while detailed scientific claims and counter-claims only add to the sense of confusion apparently felt by lay audiences. The personal credibility of whoever is advancing an argument thus becomes as important as what they might be saying.[iii] This paper is concerned with the historical dimension of the current situation, and argues that the history of the understanding of climate change has itself become embedded in the rhetorics. Key moments of disclosure and revelation, such as the publication of Charles Keeling’s saw-toothed graph, or James Hansen’s appearance before the United States Senate, have become central to the ways in which climate change has been presented as a persuasive narrative of risk and risk reduction. This paper takes a discursive approach to exploring the background of these signal moments in climate change history, and aims to show how they have contributed to the shape of the current debate.

i

On 11 December 1895, the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius read a paper at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences — ‘On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground’ — in which he outlined the likely impact that increased concentrations of carbon dioxide (‘carbonic acid’) in the atmosphere would have on the surface temperature of the Earth. The paper, which was published in an English translation the following year, pointed out that the Earth’s heat budget was greatly influenced by the presence of trace constituents in the atmosphere, notably carbon dioxide, water vapour, ozone and hydrocarbons. Using the published results of John Tyndall’s 1860s research into the heat-absorbing and radiative properties of atmospheric gases, Arrhenius calculated that the removal of all atmospheric CO2 would cause the Earth’s temperature to drop by at least 20-30 degrees Celsius, and, conversely, that the doubling of atmospheric CO2 (from its 1890s concentrations of c. 300 parts per million) would cause average global temperatures to rise by around 5 degrees C, with the greatest increase being seen at the pole, where ‘the temperature of the Arctic regions would rise about 8 degrees or 9 degrees Celsius.’[iv]

Arrhenius had first embarked on these calculations as part of his research into the cyclical nature of the Earth’s ice ages, but their implications had soon led him towards the novel prediction that significant increases in industrial emissions would contribute to future rises in average global temperatures. As he went on to argue in Worlds in the Making, a widely translated work of popular science that first appeared in 1906, ‘the percentage of carbonic acid in the air must be increasing at a constant rate as long as the consumption of coal, petroleum, etc., is maintained at its present figure, and at a still more rapid rate if this consumption should continue to increase as it does now.’[v] Arrhenius went on to claim that the increased burning of fossil fuels could even lead to temperature rises high enough to avert the Earth’s next ice age. ‘Is it probable that we shall in the coming geological ages be visited by a new ice period that will drive us from our temperate countries into the hotter climates of Africa? There does not appear to be much ground for such an apprehension. The enormous combustion of coal by our industrial establishments suffices to increase the percentage of carbon dioxide in the air to a perceptible degree’; Arrhenius also responded to what he described as growing ‘lamentations that the coal stored up in the earth is wasted by the present generation without any thought for the future’, by suggesting that the likely doubling of atmospheric CO2 over the next two to three thousand years could also lead to a period of global runaway warming that would allow the world’s population ‘to enjoy ages with more equable and better climates, especially as regards the colder regions of the earth, ages when the earth will bring forth much more abundant crops than at present, for the benefit of rapidly propagating mankind.’[vi]

Arrhenius’s description of a hypothetically warming world is notably preoccupied by many of the issues around which climate change is debated today. These include the consequences of increased reliance on finite fuel resources; the stresses of global population increase; the mass migration of climate refugees; the prospect of human actions exerting long-term influence over weather and climate; and the concept of major feedback mechanisms in nature. All have become central conceits within the 21st-century debate, yet all seem to have emerged fully formed at the moment when the novel hypothesis of anthropogenic warming was first being tentatively proposed.

What renders this so striking, at least from a science history perspective, is that Arrhenius’s predictions were clearly directed towards a hypothetical distant future, and had not been made in reaction to any measurable consequences evident in the 19th-century present. His conjectures had been arrived at in the context of imagining the effects of long-term chemical processes in the atmosphere, not those of any historically observed phenomena. In other words, Arrhenius’s hypotheses were shaped by conjectural imagery, his projections constructed and argued through what amounted to literary conceits or tropes.[vii] Such conceits were characteristic features of nineteenth-century scientific popularisation, yet Arrhenius’s hypotheses, as outlined above, have continued to shape the terms of the present debate.[viii] As Sir Nicholas Stern pointed out in his economic Review, the parameters of Arrhenius’s calculations may have changed over the past 100 years, but the central, hypothetical image of human-enhanced runaway warming that was first introduced in 1896 remains powerfully influential, even if ‘the atmosphere is much more complicated than [his] simple models suggest.’[ix]

Svante Arrhenius, the progenitor of so much early climate change imagery, has himself become an environmentalist icon, fêted in recent years as ‘the father of climate change science’, and the founder of a 100-year-old meteorological — and rhetorical — lineage that extends into the present.[x] In spite of his lesser-known conclusions concerning the future benefits of an anthropogenic warming phase, the iconography of Arrhenius as the father of climate science has served to place him at the head of a line of climate change whistleblowers, with his hypothetical conjectures repurposed as a prescient warning to mankind. This has led to some misrepresentation of his work and its intellectual context; he has, for example, often been credited with the much-cited observation that ‘we are evaporating our coal mines into the air’, but as recent research has shown, the phrase was not his, but a product of a number of later commentaries; and not only was it not written by Arrhenius, it could not have been written by him or anyone else at the turn of the twentieth century, given the state of atmospheric understanding at the time.[xi]

The figure of the whistleblower — the concerned individual who takes on the vested interests of an established consensus — has become something of a fixture in environmental communication, particularly in contested policy areas, such as nuclear power, pesticides, or GM foods.[xii] The ecologist Bill McKibben has described climate scientists and activists inhabiting ‘one of those strange dreams where the dreamer desperately needs to warn someone about something bad and imminent; but somehow, no matter how hard he shouts, the other person in the dream — standing smiling, perhaps, with his back to an oncoming train — can’t hear him.’[xiii] It is often a difficult decision for an academic research scientist to drop his or her perceived political neutrality in order to advocate a change in public policy, but in the case of global climate change, much of the public debate has been led by just this kind of intervention. James E. Hansen’s appearance before the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on 23 June 1988 was the first and most high profile such episode, and has attracted the attention of sociologists and science historians as something of a communication watershed.[xiv] Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, told the Senate that ‘global warming has begun’, claiming that he was ‘99 percent confident’ that rising temperatures represented a warming trend rather than any kind of natural variability: ‘we are loading the climate dice.’[xv] Hansen’s graphic warning received what R. A. Pielke described as ‘unprecedented levels of attention from the public, media, and policy makers’ partly because it coincided with a record-breaking heatwave in the United States.[xvi] As environmental sociologists have long noted, single visible events or phenomena are often taken to stand for wider and more complex patterns of change, and the stifling heatwave of 1988 supplied an ideal context for the launch of ‘global warming’ as a public issue in the United States.[xvii]

One consequence of Hansen’s high-profile testimony is that the image of the lone voice has come to occupy a central position at the heart of the global warming story. Historical accounts of the subject tend to hinge on moments of individual conviction or testimony, the ‘lone voice in the greenhouse’, as a headline in Nature dubbed the early twentieth-century climate scientist Guy Stewart Callendar.[xviii] Like Hansen and Arrhenius, Callendar has come to feature regularly in historical narratives of climate change, Spencer Weart’s The Discovery of Global Warming (2003), for example, beginning with an admiring description of Callendar’s 1930s research into the phenomenon of human-enhanced warming. Unlike that of Arrhenius, Callendar’s work was undertaken in response to an observed 20th-century warming phase, although in common with Arrhenius, Callendar was on his own when it came to ascribing a central role to the increased combustion of fossil fuels. Weart’s account of a lecture delivered by Callendar to the Royal Meteorological Society in 1938 drew less on the precedent of Arrhenius’s earlier paper than on a series of associated ideas concerning the integrity of the unbiased amateur. ‘One man challenged the consensus of the experts’, he wrote:

Callendar was out of place, for he was no professional meteorologist, not even a scientist, but an engineer who worked on steam power. He had an amateur interest in climate and had spent many hours of spare time putting together weather statistics as a hobby. He had confirmed (more thoroughly than anyone else) that the numbers indeed showed global warming. Now Callendar told the meteorologists he knew what was responsible. It was us, human industry. Everywhere we burned fossil fuels we emitted millions of tons of carbon dioxide gas (CO2), and that was changing the climate.[xix]

Weart’s account makes direct appeal to the image of the doughty British engineer as a man whose professional successes derive from defying ‘the consensus of the experts’, conformists whose only role in the story is to claim that something can’t be said or done. The scope of Callendar’s labours was certainly impressive given his status as an amateur meteorologist (he was by profession a steam engineer attached to the British Electrical Research Association); having compiled a vast body of worldwide temperature data, including those taken from his own Sussex garden, he applied it to measurements of rising concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide since pre-industrial times, as well as to recent and historical accounts of observed glacial retreat. Callendar’s suggestion that glacial loss might be connected to increased fossil fuel use would be the most influential idea that he introduced – the icon of melting ice having proved the most enduring single climate change image of the past 30 years — although in common with Arrhenius, Callendar was entirely unperturbed by the prospect, concluding his paper by expressing the hope that ‘the return of the deadly glaciers should be delayed indefinitely’ by runaway global warming.[xx] He concluded that the worldwide use of fossil fuels had caused a rise in atmospheric CO2 of about 10 percent from nineteenth century levels, his projections suggesting a global temperature rise of around 1 degree C by 2200, less than the rise that Arrhenius had proposed (and less than current IPCC projections of a ‘likely’ rise somewhere between 1.1 and 6.4 degrees C by 2100).

Although intervening decades have seen the rise of a near-universal consensus concerning the reality of the threat posed by global climate change, the image of the lone voice has remained central to the story, even if the role has changed to one of endorsing rather than defying the consensus view. This is particularly the case now that policy makers have begun to determine the direction of the climate change debate. In an article published in Science in January 2004, for example, Professor Sir David King (at the time the UK government’s Chief Scientific Adviser) famously described climate change as ‘the most severe problem we are facing today — more serious even than the threat of terrorism’, his comments quickly finding their way into newspaper headlines across the world.[xxi] By setting up a direct rhetorical contest between the two leading narratives of the age, King’s soundbite had apparently gifted news editors with a scientifically accredited promise of something more terrifying than terror, and the comparison was quickly established as a fixture in climate change discourse. ‘Is it possible that we should prepare against other threats besides terrorists?’, as Al Gore asked in the cinema trailer to his feature-length documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006). The question accompanied a computer generated image of the World Trade Center Memorial site being engulfed by a rising sea. As one icon of global terror was slowly erased by another, the policy implication was plain to see: where is the corresponding global war on warming? — a question that has been repeated by others, most recently by the physicist Stephen Hawking, who said: ‘Terror only kills hundreds or thousands of people. Global warming could kill millions. We should have a war on global warming rather than the war on terror.’[xxii] As Dorothy Nelkin observed in Selling Science, most news outlets prefer the kinds of science story which end in ‘-est’: the fastest, the biggest, the greatest threat, so the lasting editorial appeal of such a direct rhetorical contest is only to be expected.[xxiii]

What happened a few weeks after the comment was first published, however, overshadowed any kind of policy debate that King might have hoped to initiate. At the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference, held in Seattle in February 2004, a freelance science reporter named Michael Martin happened to pick up a computer disk that had been left behind at the end of a roundtable discussion at which King had been a participant. When he opened the disk Martin found a copy of a memo from Ivan Rogers, Tony Blair’s chief private secretary, which advised King not to make any further statements comparing global warming with global terrorism, since they ‘run the risk of turning the debate into a sterile argument about whether or not climate change is a greater risk.’[xxiv] The memo then went on to give detailed instructions on what to say should King find himself being questioned on the matter by American reporters, including scripted answers to 136 anticipated questions. If asked, for example, to compare estimated numbers of future deaths likely to be caused either by climate change or terrorism, King was instructed to say: ‘the value of any comparison would be highly questionable — we are talking about threats that are intrinsically different’, and if pressed on which of the two he considered the greater risk to life, his answer was to be the noncommital: ‘both are serious and immediate problems for the world today.’ King’s terrorism comparison was to be edited out of the climate change repertoire, since, in Downing Street’s words, the image ‘distracts from our wider efforts to engage the U.S. on climate change . . . this kind of discussion does not help us achieve our wider policy aims.’[xxv]

The story of the leaked directive was given prominent coverage in the British press, much of which recycled the image of the lone whistleblower, casting King in the role of the dedicated expert who had stumbled across something alarming, only to find himself abruptly silenced by his political paymasters — ‘Blair Science Adviser ‘gagged’ by No 10 after warning of global warming threat’ (The Independent); ‘Downing St ‘gags chief adviser on global warming’’ (The Daily Telegraph) — in a manner reminiscent of the coverage of the death of the UN weapons inspector David Kelly a few months before.[xxvi] In both cases the press went out of its way to portray the individual scientist as a man of integrity, whose unbiased reading of ‘the evidence’ had forced a dramatic confrontation with the political machine, an image long familiar from classic whistleblower narratives such as James Bridges’s The China Syndrome (1979), Mike Nichols’s Silkwood (1983) and Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999), and one which characterises narratives of climate change, whether supportive of the consensus view or not. Indeed, many leading climate change sceptics such as the Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg, and the American physicist S. Fred Singer, have sought to appropriate and repurpose the role, portraying themselves as the lone, sane whistleblowers pitted against the unthinking consensus promoted by the self-interest of scientists.[xxvii] William F. Ruddiman, Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia, has described this reversal as ‘the “white knight” or “hero” syndrome’, the conviction that only heroic action in uncovering the truth will save humanity from disaster or folly: ‘many contrarians appear to see mainstream scientists as dull-witted sheep following piles of federal grant money doled out by obliging federal program managers. In this view, only those who toe the party line that the global-warming problem is real, large, and threatening will get their hands on federal money. And of course only the lone visionary with clear vision can save the day.’[xxviii]

ii

Natural-world understudies for the shifting role of whistleblower are regularly supplied by what could be characterised as ‘canaries’: individualised instances of warning signs or wake-up calls, that alert us to the presence of wider perils, analagous to the caged birds that were taken into British coal pits until the closures of the mid-1980s. In the context of climate change concern such canaries have usually been glaciers or icecaps, seen either in retreat or in dramatic fragmentation — as in the case of the Larsen B ice-shelf off the Antarctic Peninsula, which broke up over the course of a month in early 2002 — or they are examples of a single threatened or displaced species, such as the starving polar bear filmed swimming through what ought to have been a solid platform of spring ice.

The first species extinction that was ascribed primarily to climate change was that of the golden toad, a species that was only discovered and named in 1966. Unique to the high mountain rainforests of Costa Rica, the golden toad spent its days shrouded in mist at the cloud-line. As a consequence of abrupt rises in sea-surface temperatures in the central western Pacific, however, Costa Rica’s cloud-line has risen year by year until, by the late 1980s — when the toad became extinct — the base of the clouds sat some metres above the now mist-free forest.[xxix] The dessicated toad’s extinction, however, according to the ecologist Tim Flannery, was ‘not in vain, for when the explanation of its demise was published in Nature, the scientists could make their point without equivocation. The golden toad was the first documented victim of global warming. We had killed it with our profligate use of coal-fired electricity and our oversize cars just as surely as if we had flattened its forest with bulldozers.’[xxx]

In common with climate change whistleblowers, these climate change canaries tend also to be presented as lone voices, single examples of a species or object, presented in emotive isolation from their ecological contexts, in line with the news media’s long-established preference for strongly visual, event-centred components when covering environmental stories. As one BBC environment correspondent who was interviewed by Alison Anderson put it, ‘we’re about pictures . . . we’re about words as well but words are captions to pictures, essentially . . . global warming is very difficult because you can’t actually see global warming.’[xxxi] The role of climate change canaries is thus to render global warming visible, to provide a sequence of what Kevin DeLuca has called ‘image events’: easily recognised iconic scenes, such as crumbling ice-caps or dried-up riverbeds, which stand for the wider issues.[xxxii]

Canaries also feature heavily in the eyewitness testimonies which appear in the letters pages of journals and newspapers, in which the strangeness of the seasons is attested to by concerned individual observers bearing witness to local, small-scale effects, the assumed causes of which, by contrast, are global and unimaginable in scale. In one recent four-week period, for example (mid-November to mid-December 2006), the letters page of the Guardian newspaper carried phenological reports of the early birth of ‘spring’ lambs, raspberries and strawberries being picked and eaten, fruit trees in full blossom, along with delphiniums, poppies, daffodils and gorse, unseasonably active bees, wasps, mosquitoes and dragonflies, as well as the occasional historical corrective in the form of parallel reports from the past: ‘“11th December 1848 – a most beautiful and mild day; more like spring than December” (Journal of Gideon Mantell)’.[xxxiii] As environmental sociologists such as Anderson have noted, broadsheet newspapers receive voluminous correspondence from their readers on environmental matters, which tends to impact on their editorial policies, creating ‘a community  of interest’ between readers and their newspapers that is missing from other news media.[xxxiv] Yet such testimonies also bear witness to the need to link empirical weather observations made on a day-to-day basis to wider hypotheses concerning longer-term climatic change, in order to make the latter seem real, or at least narratable within an easily graspable framework. Even if climate change itself cannot be seen, its visible effects on the ground can be converted into first-person testimonies, and its truth established not only by the pronouncements of climate scientists, but by the power of a collective narrative that upholds the regular climate as a benevolent medium, integrating humanity into the natural environment, while fearing any sign of visible change as an unnatural harbinger of woes to come, whether in the immediate or long-term future.

iii

In May 2006 the television naturalist Sir David Attenborough claimed that he had abandoned his earlier climate change scepticism only when confronted by a graph produced by researchers at the Hadley Centre, the climate change wing of the Met Office. The graph featured three jagged lines, one red, one green and one yellow, representing, respectively, average recorded temperatures, natural climatic variability, and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, each plotted over a 150-year period (from 1850 to 2000). Up until the middle of the 20th century, the three lines rose and fell together, but after that point, while the green line rose only very slightly, the red and yellow lines shot up in tandem, J-curving dramatically from 1970 onwards. As Attenborough pointed out, ‘the coincidence of the curves made it perfectly clear that we have left the period of natural climatic oscillation behind’, and that our climate is now, effectively, man-made.[xxxv]

Graphic representations of data have come to assume another key role in the climate change debate, often presented in the manner of exhibits at a trial, credited with the irrefutability of unmediated information. They are often accorded the status of found (rather than made) objects, particularly by non-scientists, who rarely treat them as though they were carefully constructed visual statements.[xxxvi] Perhaps the best-known example of the genre is the Keeling curve, which shows atmospheric concentrations of CO2 from recordings made at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, first published by Charles Keeling in 1960, and continuously updated ever since.[xxxvii] The relentless rise of the saw-toothed line has come to symbolise the inevitability of anthropogenic climate change, particularly in the way that the natural oscillations caused by the annual wintering and greening of the northern hemisphere are dwarfed by the line’s steady 45-degree upward rise. The graph succeeds in visualising the concept of the subordination of a natural process by an anthropogenic intruder, and is one of the most widely reprinted sets of natural science data ever collected.[xxxviii]

The iconic Keeling curve was the first of a suite of graphs that featured in Al Gore’s PowerPoint documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006). Gore claims to have been among the first non-climatologists to see the Keeling curve, having attended the Harvard lectures of the oceanographer Roger Revelle in the mid-1960s. Revelle had been instrumental in setting up the Mauna Loa Observatory, and had hired Charles Keeling to conduct the research in 1958 (the International Geophysical Year, another of Revelle’s initiatives), so Gore’s recollection of the encounter serves to cast him in the role of eyewitness to the early unfolding of the climate change story, as well as one of its disciplinary descendents. Much of the information in Gore’s film is presented in graph or table form, as is the film’s most dramatic moment, when Gore is hoisted by hydraulic lift some 10 or 12 metres up the y axis of an elongated graph that plots likely atmospheric CO2 concentrations, projected to the year 2100. After 2050, when a projected concentration of 550 parts per million has been reached, the line goes vertical, soaring high beyond the reach of the lift. This visual literalisation of the statistical concept of a measurement going ‘off the scale’ is the film’s best-known moment, although the shape of such curves, indeed of the circulation of such graphs in general, has not been without controversy.[xxxix] This is especially the case with the ‘hockey-stick’ curve, a term coined in 1998 by the climate scientist Jerry Mahlman to describe the shape of Michael Mann’s graphic representation of temperature changes over the past 1,000 years, drawn from proxy data such as ice cores, tree rings and isotopic analyses of coral.[xl] The 900-year flat line (the ‘hockey stick’s ‘shaft) J-curves abruptly from the turn of the twentieth century, to form the characteristic rising ‘blade’. Mann’s methodology, however, has been contested by a number of scientists and statisticians concerned at the way that past temperature variabilities were apparently underestimated in order to create a smoother historical line — thereby giving a misleading visual and statistical impression that recent rates of warming are unprecedented. His critics, such as the climate scientist Hans von Storch (who is not sceptical about climate change itself) have pointed out that the graph contains assumptions that are not permissible, even though they agree that the data employed does show an overall rise temperature rise occuring over recent decades.[xli]

The presentation of statistical evidence is an issue that has troubled scientists for centuries. As Mary Poovey has noted, when the British Association for the Advancement of Science was founded in 1831, its founding members agreed that statistics had no place in their organisation, because science, in their view, was theoretically based, value free, and impervious to political controversy, while statistics was none of those things, being entirely governed by the values and assumptions of its practitioners. In the words of the BAAS president Adam Sedgwick, to allow statisticians over the threshold would be to ‘open a door of communication with the dreary world of politics; that instant would the foul demon of discord find his way into their Eden of philosophy.’[xlii] When it comes to the visual presentation of statistical data, the problem for lay audiences is that the data can easily be presented as significant without meeting the statistical criteria for significance.[xliii] This is something with which the statistician and graphic designer Edward Tufte has long been concerned; Tufte sees the manipulation of graphs and charts in the service of visual advocacy as part of a wider phenomenon of ‘corruption in evidence presentation’, characterised by a growing reliance on ‘effects without causes, cherry picking, overreaching, chartjunk, and the rage to conclude’.[xliv] In the particular case of climate change, much of the visual impact of the scientists’ graphs is expressed through the suggestive shapes drawn by the plotted lines, the ‘fearsomeness’ of their rise usually controllable by the choice of historic start-date, a choice which regulates the amount of information disclosed along the x-axis. ‘This is how the world ends: not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but with a PowerPoint presentation’, as the Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman wrote at the Paris launch of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report in February 2007, where a series of graphs, ‘projected on to a vast screen above the heads of the assembled scientists . . . showed how global temperatures have skyrocketed in recent decades, and how they would skyrocket further in the immediate future, and they brought the words “hell” and “handcart” to mind.’[xlv]

 iv

Climate change is the first major environmental crisis in which experts appear more alarmed than the public.[xlvi] Most other environmental risk stories, from ‘global cooling’ in the 1970s, to MMR/autism, GM technology and mobile phone masts in the 1990s and 2000s, have seen expert voices recruited to calm the wildly inflated (and often media-driven) technological fears of an ill-informed public.[xlvii] In the case of climate change, by contrast, quiet unease appears to be the overriding public response, in contrast to the escalating warnings of many climate scientists. As Bill McKibben notes, the climate scientists have simply added ‘another line to the long list of human problems — people think about ‘global warming’ in the same way they think about ‘violence on television’ or ‘growing trade defecits’, as a marginal concern to them, if a concern at all.’[xlviii] Despite their inescapable presence in the news schedules, climate change narratives must still compete in what Sheldon Ungar has called ‘the attention economy.’[xlix] As has already been suggested, one of the main barriers to communicating climate change is the invisibility of most atmospheric processes, while the very high visibility of events such as hurricanes and floods — one-off crises which might well be unconnected to increased levels of CO2 — have come to stand as potent symbols of a looming worldwide catastrophe. Environmental coverage has always tended to be characterized by a strong visual component, as Anderson has noted, with events such as floods and oil spills being inherently more visual than a notion as abstract as ‘global warming’.[l] Such imagery, however, has an alarmist function, which can lead to a rhetorical mismatch of scale between grim apocalyptic warnings and the cheerfully mundane policy solutions proffered as useful actions: ‘use less hot water’; ‘check your tires’; ‘plant a tree’, as Al Gore suggests in his list of ‘10 Things to Do’ which appears at the end of An Inconvenient Truth, in marked contrast to the alarmist rhetoric that informs the rest of the film. Such bland assurances can make the problem seem more, rather than less, overwhelming, for how on earth will half-filling our kettles have an impact on a climate regime that is already committed to several degrees of future warming, regardless of any measures we might put in place today? A report published in August 2006 by the Institute for Public Policy Research, entitled Warm Words: How are we telling the climate change story and can we tell it better?, criticised the outright alarmism of much British media and scientific communication on climate change, arguing that the drawback of employing a quasi-religious register of doom and irreversibility was that the sheer scale of the problem serves to exclude the possibility of any meaningful action on the part of the reader or viewer. The more we are bombarded with images of the devastating effects of global warming, the more likely we are to switch off altogether, retreating into helplessness, outright scepticism, or what the authors of the report call ‘British comic nihilism . . . a sunny refusal to engage in the debate.’[li]

In the United States, by contrast, climate change is more often perceived as an engineering problem in search of top-down technological solutions, while in northern Europe, particularly in Britain, it is often cast as a moral question, to which every individual is urged to contribute a share of responsible action.[lii] These historic attitudes have given rise to something of a mitigation culture clash, in which concrete macro-engineering solutions, such as cloud seeding, giant sunshades, or the switch to a hydrogen fuel economy, are ranged against the more abstract virtues of reducing personal energy consumption in the form of the ‘carbon footprint’, a complex spatial metaphor used to express notional volumes of emitted CO2. While the proponents of these apparently antagonistic approaches continue to disagree, more wide-ranging creative approaches continue to be in short supply. ‘Engineers are very useful people, but they are not going to give us the answer here’, as Mike Hulme, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, has commented; ‘we need a far richer array of intellectual traditions and methods to help us analyse and understand the problem — behavioural psychologists, sociologists, faith leaders, technology analysts, artists, political scientists, to name a few.’[liii] The reality of global climate change needs to be embraced as a stimulus to creativity, as a permanent and inescapable part of human societal development, rather than just a looming technical problem to be fixed.[liv] And though the success of the 1987 Montral Protocol, which introduced a worldwide ban on CFCs in the wake of the discovery of the ‘ozone hole’, offers a compelling precedent for the conversion of scientific fears into effective international action, climate change presents a more technically challenging, historically layered, and rhetorically complex set of problems.[lv] As the historian James Fleming has observed, ‘climate apprehension did not begin in 1988 or in 1957, or even in 1896. There were colonial, early modern, and even ancient precedents. From a climate discourse steeped in the tradition of literary analogy, through a long and continuing effort to establish positive climate science, we have arrived, late in the twentieth century, at a climate discourse that is again saturated with metaphor, values and apprehensions.’[lvi]


[i] See especially: E. Singer and P. M. Endreny, Reporting on Risk, New York, 1993; D. Nelkin, Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology, rev edn, New York, 1995; A. Anderson, Media, culture and the environment, London, 1997; J. Gregory and S. Miller, Science in Public: Communication, Culture, and Credibility, New York, 1998;  K. M. DeLuca, Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism, New York, 1999B. Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, Cambridge, Mass., 2004; R. Cox, Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere, Thousand Oaks, Ca., 2006.

[ii] Studies which deal specifically with rhetorics of climate change include: L. Wilkins and P. Patterson, Science as Symbol: The Media Chills the Greenhouse Effect, in: L. Wilkins and P. Patterson (Eds), Risky Business: Communicating Issues of Science, Risk and Public Policy, Westport, CT., 1991, 159-76; C. Trumbo, Constructing climate change: claims and frames in US news coverage of an environmental issue, Public Understanding of Science 5:3 (1996), 269-83; K. M. Wilson, Communicating climate change through the media: Predictions, politics and perceptions, in: S. Allen, B. Adam and C. Carter (Eds), Environmental Risks and the Media, London, 2000, 201-17; S. C. Zehr, Public representations of scientific uncertainty about global climate change, Public Understanding of Science 9:2 (2000) 85-103; A. C. Revkin, Climate Change as News: Challenges in Communicating Environmental Science, in: J. F. C. DiMento and P. Doughman (Eds), Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren, Cambridge, Mass., 2007, 139-59.

[iii] S. Shapin, The Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England, Chicago, 1995.

[iv] S. Arrhenius, On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground, The London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science 41 (1896) 237-76; reprinted in H. Rodhe and R. Charlson (Eds), The Legacy of Svante Arrhenius: Understanding the Greenhouse Effect, Stockholm, 1998, 173-212; see also E. Crawford, Arrhenius: From Ionic Theory to the Greenhouse Effect, Canton, Mass., 1996, 145-55; J. R. Fleming, Historical Perspectives on Climate Change, Oxford, 1998, 65-82.

[v] S. Arrhenius, Worlds in the Making: The Evolution of the Universe, trans. H. Borns, London & New York, 1908, 57-58; first published in Swedish as Världarnas Utveckling, Stockholm, 1906.

[vi] S. Arrhenius, Worlds in the Making, 61-63.

[vii] See Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism, London, 2004,  5-10.

[viii] See J. Gregory and S. Miller, Science in Public, 20-26.

[ix] N. Stern, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, Cambridge, 2007, 7.

[x] I. Sample, The Father of Climate Change, Heat supplement, Guardian, June 30 2005, 8-9. See also H. Rodhe and R. Charlson (Eds), The Legacy of Svante Arrhenius.

[xi] M. E. Q. Pilson, We are Evaporating our Coal Mines into the Air, Ambio 35:3 (2006) 131-33.

[xii] While there is no specific literature on the role of the whistleblower in science communication, the figure of the ‘concerned scientist’ is discussed in R. Cox, Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere, 351-56.

[xiii] B. McKibben, Worried? Us?, Granta 83 (2003) 8.

[xiv] See K. M. Wilson, Communicating climate change through the media, 201-17; J. R. Fleming, Historical Perspectives on Climate Change, 134; G. E. Christianson, Greenhouse: The 200-year story of global warming, London, 1999, 196-98; R. A. Pielke, Policy history of the U.S. Global Change Research Program: Part 1, Global Environmental Change 10:1 (2000) 9-25; E. Kolbert, Field Notes From a Catastrophe, London, 2006, 98-99.

[xv] For the full text of Hansen’s deposition see J. E. Hansen, Opening Statement, in: Hearing on the Greenhouse Effect and Global Climate Change, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, U.S. Senate, 100th Congress, Washington D.C., 23 June 1988.

[xvi] R. A. Pielke, Policy history of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, 9.

[xvii] A. Anderson, News and the social construction of the environment, in: Media, culture and the environment, 107-35; R. Cox, Visual Rhetorics: Portraying Nature, in: Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere, 62-67; J. Shanahan and J. Good, Heat and hot air: influence of local temperature on journalist’s coverage of global warming, Public Understanding of Science 9:3 (2000) 285-95.

[xviii] R. J. Charlson, A lone voice in the greenhouse Nature 448 (19 July 2007) 254.

[xix] S. R. Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming, Cambridge, Mass., 2003, 2; see also G. E. Christianson, Greenhouse, 141-2; J. R. Fleming, The Callendar Effect: The Life and Work of Guy Stewart Callendar (1898-1964), the Scientist who Established the Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climate Change, Boston, Mass., 2007.

[xx] G. S. Callendar, The Artificial Production of Carbon Dioxide and its Influence on Climate, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society 64 (1938) 223-40.

[xxi] D. A. King, Climate Change Science: Adapt, Mitigate, or Ignore?, Science 303 (2004) 176-77. King’s terrorism quotation is reproduced in lieu of a pre-publication blurb on the front cover of K. Dow and T. E. Downing’s The Atlas of Climate Change: Mapping the World’s Greatest Challenge, London, 2006.

[xxii] US must win the war on climate change, says Charles, Guardian, 29 January 2007; Hawking quoted in the Times, 31 January 2007, 3.

[xxiii] D. Nelkin, Selling Science, 1-2. Nelkin was paraphrasing the words of the early 20th-century science writer Edwin E. Slosson.

[xxiv] M. Martin, Cooler Heads on Climate Change, ScienceNow 217 (2004) 2 (sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2004/217/2.).

[xxv] M. Martin, Cooler Heads on Climate Change.

[xxvi] A. Grice and S. Connor, Blair Science Adviser ‘gagged’ by No 10 after warning of global warming threat, Independent, 8 March 2004; R. Highfield, Downing St ‘gags chief adviser on global warming’, The Telegraph, 8 March 2004. Like King, David Kelly had been reprimanded by Downing Street officials after straying off-message over a key policy issue, having voiced doubts over the legitimacy of the evidence being assembled to justify the imminent invasion of Iraq.

[xxvii] See M. T. and J. M. Boykoff, Balance as bias: Global warming and the U.S. prestige press, Global Environmental Change 14 (2004) 125-36.

[xxviii] W. F. Ruddiman, Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans took Control of Climate, Princeton, 2005, 187.

[xxix] J. A. Pounds, M. P. L. Fogden, and J. H. Campbell, Biological response to climate change on a tropical mountain, Nature 398 (1999) 611-15.

[xxx] T. Flannery, The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change, London, 2005, 118-19.

[xxxi] A. Anderson, Media, culture and the environment, 121-22; see also R. Silverstone, Framing Science: The Making of a BBC Documentary, London, 1985, 106-60; R. Cox, Visual Rhetorics: Portraying Nature, in: Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere, 62-67.

[xxxii] K. M. DeLuca, Image Politics, 3.

[xxxiii] Letters, Guardian, 12 December 2006.

[xxxiv] Anderson, Media, Culture and the Environment, 174.

[xxxv] Interview on the BBC Ten O’Clock News, 23 May 2006.

[xxxvi] E. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantative Information, Cheshire, CT, 1983; see also F. C. von Roten, Do we need a public understanding of statistics? Public Understanding of Science 15 (2006) 243-49.

[xxxvii] C. D. Keeling, The concentration and isotopic abundances of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Tellus 12 (1960) 200-203.

[xxxviii] J. R. Fleming describes the Keeling curve as ‘an icon of global warming’, in Historical Perspectives on Climate Change, 127.

[xxxix] E. Tufte, Visual Display;  see also T. M. Porter, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life, Princeton, NJ, 1995.

[xl] M. Mann et al, Global-scale temperature patterns and climate forcing over the past six centuries, Nature 392 (1988) 779-87.

[xli] H. von Storch et al, Reconstructing Past Climate from Noisy Data, Science 306 (2004) 679-82; see also S. McIntyre and R. McKitrick, Corrections to the Mann et al (1998) Proxy Data Base and Northern Hemisphere Average Temperature Series, Energy and Environment 14 (2003) 751-71; these critiques prompted a lengthy published correspondence between Mann et al and McKintyre & McKitrick, which culminated in a Congress-appointed National Research Council report, Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Past 2,000 Years, Washington D.C., 2006, which concluded that any statistical shortcomings in Mann et al’s analysis were too minor to have influenced their overall findings.

[xlii] M. Poovey, Figures of Arithmatic, Figures of Speech: The Discourse of Statistics in the 1830s, in: J. Chandler, A. I. Davidson, and H. Harootunian (Eds), Questions of Evidence: Proof, Practice, and Persuasion across the Disciplines, Chicago, 1994, 401-21.

[xliii] F. C. von Roten, Do we need a public understanding of statistics?, 244.

[xliv] E. R. Tufte, Beautiful Evidence, Cheshire, CT, 2006, 140.

[xlv] Oliver Burkeman, The scientists spoke cautiously but the graphs said it all, Guardian, 3 February 2007, 1.

[xlvi] A. C. Revkin, Climate Change as News, 144.

[xlvii] H. A. Cohl, Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?, New York, 1997; A. M. Major and L. E. Atwood, Environmental risks in the news: issues, sources, problems, and values, Public Understanding of Science 13 (2004) 295-308; F. Drake, Mobile phone masts: protesting the scientific evidence, Public Understanding of Science 15 (2006) 387-410.

[xlviii] B. McKibben, Worried? Us?, 8.

[xlix] S. Ungar, Knowledge, ignorance and the popular culture: climate change versus the ozone hole, Public Understanding of Science 9:3 (2000) 302.

[l] A. Anderson, Media, culture and the environment, 121-22. See also S. Cottle, TV news, lay voices and the visualisation of environmental risks, in: S. Allen et al, (Eds), Environmental Risks and the Media, 29-44.

[li] G. Ereaut and N. Segnit, Warm Words: How are we telling the climate change story and can we tell it better?, London, 2006, 15. A follow-up report, entitled Warm Words II: How the climate story is evolving and the lessons we can learn for encouraging public action, appeared in September 2007.

[lii] A. Carvalho, Ideological cultures and media discourses on scientific knowledge; J. F. C. DiMento and P. Doughman, Climate Change: How the World is Responding, in: J. F. C. DiMento and P. Doughman (Eds), Climate Change, 101-38.

[liii] M. Hulme, MicroTate Environment Special, TateEtc 9 (2007) 109.

[liv] R. J. Bord et al, In what sense does the public need to understand global climate change?, Public Understanding of Science 9:3 (2000) 205-18.

[lv] R. Grundmann, Ozone and Climate: Scientific Consensus and Leadership, Science, Technology, & Human Values 31 (2006) 73-101; S. Ungar, Knowledge, ignorance and the popular culture, 301

[lvi] J. R. Fleming, Historical Perspectives on Climate Change, 136.

Richard Hamblyn

* * *

‘Notes from Underground: Lisbon after the Earthquake’

This article appeared in the journal Romanticism vol 14 (2008), pp. 108-18

“I arrived at Lisbon just in time to hear the house crack over my head in an earthquake. This is the seventh shock that has been felt since the first of November. They had a smart shock on the 17th of this month, but the Connoisseurs in earthquakes say, that this last, though of shorter duration, was the most dangerous, for this was the perpendicular shake, whereas the other was the undulatory motion.”       Robert Southey, Letters Written during a short Residence in Spain and Portugal, 2 vols (Bristol, 1797), i, 260

The earthquake and tsunami which devastated the city of Lisbon on 1 November 1755 have come to occupy a canonical place in Enlightenment historiography, the transformative nature of the episode’s wide-ranging religious, philosophical and scientific repercussions having served to define it as the first great test of emerging Enlightenment values. ‘Perhaps the demon of terror had never so speedily and powerfully diffused his terrors over the earth’, as Goethe recalled in the opening pages of Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811), and he credited the universal shock of the earthquake with the unprecedented outbreak of scholarly attention that was soon being paid to the neighbouring, if quarrelsome, discourses of theodicy and natural philosophy.[i] Within a year of the event, Immanuel Kant had published a trio of natural-philosophical essays on the earthquake’s seismic significance, in which he argued that the occasional tremor was the price that mankind was obliged to pay for the otherwise beneficial subterranean forces that generated hot springs and mineral ores, while for Voltaire, notoriously, the episode proved ‘the sad and ancient truth, recognised by all men, that evil walks the earth’, a reflection that prompted Adorno’s comment (in the course of his essay ‘After Auschwitz’) that ‘the earthquake of Lisbon sufficed to cure Voltaire of the theodicy of Leibniz.’[ii] As Susan Neiman observed, in her introduction to Evil in Modern Thought (2002), ‘the eighteenth century used the word Lisbon much as we use the word Auschwitz today . . . it takes no more than the name of a place to mean: the collapse of the most basic trust in the world, the grounds that make civilization possible.’[iii]

But in spite of the centrality of the destruction of Lisbon to the history of the development of European thought, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the complex history of the city’s physical reconstitution in the decades following the earthquake, and even less to the series of contested meanings, memories and reflections that the radical redesign of Lisbon provoked, both among its surviving citizens and its stream of foreign visitors.[iv] Southey, for example (as will shortly be seen), was not alone in feeling that the once golden city had suffered a secondary disaster in the form of its austere rectilinear reconstruction, while Henry Matthews, the travelling invalid, was also not alone in viewing the rebuilt city as seismically doomed: ‘repeated shocks have been felt of late years’, he reported, ‘and to an earthquake it may look, as its natural death.’[v] This was, in fact, a widely-held view of a city that, though it had been rebuilt to a novel antiseismic design, continued to be shaken by powerful aftershocks for decades after the event.

This paper sets out to explore the competing imaginative geographies of Lisbon that emerged in the wake of the city’s reconstruction, spanning the technological optimism of the planners and surveyors, the theological objections of certain sections of the clergy, and the aesthetic reactions of later foreign travellers, for whom Lisbon remained an enduring symbol of violent subterranean transformation, both physical and philosophical.

The Pombaline Reconstruction

At around 9:40 a.m. on All Saints Day, 1755, a powerful offshore earthquake with a likely epicentre some 200 km southwest of the city, suddenly and noisily reduced much of Lisbon’s elegant fabric to rubble. As a series of fires broke out among the ruins, caused mainly by the large number of votive candles that had been lit to mark the religious holiday, hundreds of survivors made their way down to the Terreiro do Paço (‘Palace Terrace’), Lisbon’s spacious ceremonial square, on the north shore of the Tagus estuary. Some forty minutes later, however, a series of powerful tsunami waves (precipitated by the submarine earthquake) funneled through the neck of the estuary and surged into downtown Lisbon, drowning many of the refugees who had sought sanctuary in the riverside square. The fires, meanwhile, had coalesced into a powerful crescent of flame that burned for a week, consuming most of what was left of the ruined city centre. Estimates of casualties range from between 15,000 and 90,000 dead, from a population of just over a quarter of a million.[vi] ‘It is not to be express’d by human tongue how dreadful and how awful it was’, as a letter from an eyewitness described the scene: ‘Terror in beholding frightful pyramids of ruined fronts, some inclining one way, some another; then horror in beholding dead bodies by six or seven in a heap, crush’d to death, half buried and half burnt; and if one went through the broad places or squares, nothing to be met with but people bewailing their misfortunes, wringing their hands, and crying: the world is at an end.’[vii]

Within a matter of days, however, the survivors’ mood had apparently changed, and though Lisbon remained ‘one continued heap of rubbish and ruins’, as a letter written on 20 November described it, ‘notwithstanding that, they talk of nothing but rebuilding it.’[viii] In fact the clearance process had already begun, under the energetic direction of Portugal’s reforming first minister, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Mello (the future Marquis of Pombal), and by the end of the following summer most of the ruins of central Lisbon had been removed, leaving a flat, evacuated central area of some 200,000 square metres: Lisbon’s ground zero. Since the alluvial soil beneath this low-lying area had been churned into unstable mud by the combined effects of the earthquake and tsunami, a consignment of 20,000 timber pylons was shipped down from Hamburg and hammered into the sodden ground as upright antiseismic stabilisers. The new streets and buildings of the Baixa Pombalina (as the new city centre would soon be known) would then be constructed, Venice-like, on a series of mortar boards fixed to the summits of this sunken northern pine forest.

But as the clearance continued into the 1760s, doubts began to be raised concerning the scale and cost of the planned reconstruction, as well as the scheme’s wider moral foundations. In September 1760, for example, the Italian writer Guiseppe Baretti, on his way home to Genoa after ten years in London, spent a week in Lisbon (‘a city not to be rebuilt in haste’, as he described it), at the end of which he sadly concluded that ‘if half the people that have escaped the earthquake, were to be employed in nothing else but in the removal of that immense rubbish, it is not very clear that they would be able to remove it in ten years.’[ix] He worried, too, where the materials for rebuilding the shattered city would be found: ‘It is true, that the country round abounds with marble enough to build twenty Lisbons. But still, that marble must be cut out of the quarry, must be shaped, must be carried to town. And is all this to be done in a little time? and by people who have lost in the conflagration whatever tools they had?’ And even were the city to be rebuilt in brick rather than marble, Baretti pointed out that ‘the making millions of millions of bricks (even supposing the proper clay quite at hand) is not the work of a day. And kilns must be erected, and wood must be got to burn them. But where is that wood, in which I am told the country is far from abounding? And where are the thousands of brick-makers to make those numberless millions of bricks? Yet give them brick-makers, clay, and wood as much will suffice, where is the lime, the iron, and the other materials?’ (Baretti, i, 102). As Baretti saw it, the destructive effects of the earthquake’s seismic waves had radiated out across the whole of Portugal, supplementing the initial physical damage to the nation’s capital with a comprehensive loss of manpower and organisation, while also extending underground to threaten the very raw materials, whether marble, brick, lime or iron that were necessary for the rebuilding. In fact the tirelessly repeated claim that the city ‘is soon to be built over again, quite regular, quite fine, finer than ever it was’, became for Baretti as much a symptom of the earthquake’s violent assault on the collective reason of Lisbon’s inhabitants as was the sight of the ruins themselves: ‘indeed they [the survivors] give me no very high notion of their common sense when they abandon themselves so much to their fiery imaginations’ (Baretti, i, 101). The earthquake not only destroyed the city while disabling the nation’s infrastructure, it also undermined the morale of the survivors themselves, leaving them in a state of helpless excitation.

As it turned out, however, Baretti need not have worried about the availability of marble or brick, since neither would be widely used in the rebuilding. The choice of materials, as well as of the design for the replacement city, were made by Pombal and his team of military engineers, following a lengthy consultation period, during which — according to the detailed minutes kept by General Manuel de Maia (Pombal’s chief military surveyor) — a variety of historical precedents were discussed. These included the reconstruction of London after the fire of 1666; the rebuilding of Noto (Sicily) on a nearby area of safer ground, following its destruction by an earthquake in 1693; and the creation of Turin’s rectilinear new town as an adjunct to the old city during the early 18th century (see Maxwell, 29-30). All these competing urban precedents were eventually rejected in favour of the more radical raze and rebuild approach, of the kind that Christopher Wren had proposed for London in the wake of the fire, but which had been overruled in favour of preserving existing street and property lines.[x] Pombal had been greatly impressed by Wren’s vision of a resolutely mercantile city, with wide streets radiating from a large commercial piazza, with the new stock exchange at the centre, and Lisbon’s rectilinear street plan, which began to be laid out in the early 1760s, owed much of its spatial grammar to the century-old London blueprint, featuring as it did a central commercial plaza (the Praça do Comércio, home to both the customs house and the newly-built stock exchange), as well as a sizeable grid of purpose-built, low-rise shophouses, ranged along a series of parallel streets with names that reflected the hierarchy of trades: Gold street, Silver Street, Leather Street, and so on. In contrast to Wren, whose vision for London had been democratically overruled, Pombal was able to impose his radical redesign on Lisbon by virtue of having taken over the reigns of state from the traumatised Portuguese King, José I. Thus, among the consequences of the Lisbon earthquake was the advent of Europe’s first modern dictator.

Pombal’s choice of grid-plan design was of a kind already familiar from Spanish-built cities in South America, as well as from European new towns such as Turin, but Lisbon’s new layout had also been designed to cope with the observed effects of earthquakes on buildings, as described in the numerous eyewitness testimonies that circulated for years after the disaster. In contrast to the maze-like arrangement of Lisbon’s narrow pre-quake streets, the new rows were unusually widely spaced, in order to grant survivors of future earthquakes safe passage in the event of structural collapse, while each building itself was constructed around a light wooden frame known as a gaiola (‘bird cage’). The antiseismic effectiveness of the gaiola’s design had been tested by Pombal’s military engineers, who had had a column of soldiers jump up and down around a half-scale model in attempted simulation of an earthquake. The results of the experiment — the first of its kind — indicated that a flexible wooden frame could withstand prolonged vibration better than any of the stone-built structures that had collapsed during the earthquake’s early stages. The frames were installed throughout the Baixa Pombalina, with high brick walls erected between each property as a precaution against the spread of fire. Each building was then reinforced with stone, and clad with tile and stucco exteriors, produced to a uniform neo-Palladian design (see Maxwell, 28-35). Almost everything used in the building process, whether ironwork, wood joints, tiles or ceramics, was prefabricated off site, partly to speed up the building process, partly to create a continuous, uniform architectural space, and partly as a means of encouraging Portuguese national enterprise, which had declined in the face of mass emigration to the gold and diamond mines of Brazil, as well as from the century-old economic stranglehold of the dominant British merchant communities in Lisbon and Oporto.[xi] The overall effect was one of striking uniformity: ‘Whole streets and adjoining squares were planned in a single sweep: there was no place for individual variation’, observed major William Dalrymple in 1774; ‘in the New City there is great attention to uniformity; and the houses, being built of white stone, have a beautiful appearance, though they are certainly too lofty for a place where earthquakes are still frequent, being four or five stories.’[xii]

But in spite of the rapid pace of reconstruction, not everyone was pleased by the civic implications of Pombal’s new urban design, the emerging layout of which featured some telling omissions: the Inquisition headquarters on the Rossio, for example, was never rebuilt (it was rumoured to have been the first city centre building to collapse); and neither were many of the city’s ruined churches, most notably those of the Jesuit order (which Pombal had expelled from Portugal in 1759 on charges of financial impropriety), while the few that were rebuilt were forbidden to feature conspicuous towers or domes. Pombal’s resolutely secular vision for the future of this most clerical of nations was thus given concrete architectural expression in the ground plan of Lisbon’s new commercial centre — a factor which led to further conflict with sections of the priesthood already resentful that their spiritual exhortations had been insufficiently attended to in the aftermath of the disaster. Now it appeared that their previously powerful architectural presence was to be shunted into the margins of Pombal’s post-quake version of the city, while in the case of the Jesuit order — responsible for some of the loudest objections to Pombal’s antiseismic designs — it was to be physically erased altogether. Pombal’s conflict with the Jesuits culminated in the public execution of the Italian-born Jesuit priest Gabriel Malagrida in September 1761, for the crime of preaching against the reconstruction in a sermon on ‘the real cause of the earthquake’, a printed copy of which he pointedly sent to Pombal. In common with the majority of sermons that were prompted by the Lisbon disaster, Malagrida’s began by denouncing all natural philosophical speculations on the geophysical causes of the earthquake, but it ended with the unusual demand that the heretical reconstruction of a city destroyed ‘not by comets, stars, vapours and exhalations, and similar natural phenomena’, but by the vengeful agency of God, be immediately abandoned in favour of the mass repentance of the survivors (Kendrick, 89). As far as Malagrida was concerned, Pombal’s use of antiseismic technology constituted an heretical attempt to subvert divine providence in the form of future tremors — an argument analagous to the clerical objections to lightning rods that were also voiced throughout Europe during the 1750s and 1760s.[xiii]

The clergy was not the only group to protest against the physical diminution of its pre-quake presence in the city. The most obvious absence from post-quake Lisbon was the vast royal palace that had once dominated the city centre, along with the handsome riverside houses and mansions of the nobility. King José I, who had survived the earthquake by the lucky accident of being away from home on an All Saints’ Day coach-ride with his family, vowed never to set foot in the city again — he relocated to his other royal palace in nearby Belem, where he spent much of his time in a marquee in the garden, refusing to sleep indoors for the rest of his life — gifting the old ceremonial Terreiro do Paço to Pombal and his surveyors, who eventually reduced it in size, built the stock exchange and government buildings where the ruined palace had once stood, and renamed the new square Praça do Comércio (‘Commercial Plaza’), symbolically effecting the city’s post-quake transformation from a royal to a mercantile centre (see fig. 1). The departure of the Portuguese royal family, however, put the Lisbon nobility at a distinct disadvantage, since ‘if the king was prepared to give up prime real estate, then it would be difficult for anyone else not to do so’ (Maxwell, 30). Unlike the seismophobic José I, ‘a king without a capital’, as he took to describing himself, many among the nobility were unhappy at the loss of Lisbon’s pre-quake street and property lines, the ruins of their old mansions having been cleared by Pombal to create a space ‘fit for a new middle class on whom national prosperity would depend’ (Jack, 15).[xiv] Pombal’s ‘radicalism’, as Malcolm Jack characterises the blend of anti-clericalism and economic nationalism that lay at the heart of his post-quake reforms, caused great resentment among the Portuguese nobility, but in 1758 the opportunity arose for Pombal to excise all opposition ‘from the old aristocrats’, when a group of leading conservative nobles plotted against the life of the king in a failed coup d’état (Jack, 17). Pombal’s retaliation was brutal in the extreme, the public torture and execution of several members of the prominent Tavora family, along with the confiscation and destruction of their property at Belem, serving to tighten his grip on all aspects of the city’s affairs, in which he remained in unopposed charge until the death of his patron, José I, in 1777. When the Duke de Chatelet visited Portugal just after José I’s death, he stood at the site of the demolished Tavora mansion, where a pillar ‘commemorating the crime’ had been erected, the whole area ‘sprinkled with salt, in order, as it was said, to prevent it from producing any thing.’[xv] Even as the rest of the surrounding city was slowly being reinstated, the site was kept bare as a public reminder of the consequences of civic dissent.

City of Death

The gruesome executions which punctuated Pombal’s reign did much to perpetuate Lisbon’s reputation as a city of violent death. Although this idea was intensified by news of the earthquake, the notion long predated the disaster, having chiefly arisen from the notorious severity of the Portuguese Inquisition, which by the mid-18th century had grown into an object of fascination on the part of northern European Protestants. The presence of the Inquisition, the Lisbon headquarters of which was established in the early 1530s, loomed large in reality as well as in rumour, and in the century before the earthquake some 45,000 people, most of whom were Jewish converts (the so-called ‘New Christians’), had passed through the underground interrogation chambers located beneath the Rossio, to the north of the Terreiro do Paço (where the annual autos da fé were staged). Although Pombal scaled down the Inquisition’s activities — the last auto-da-fé was held in 1766 — and its imposing headquarters was not rebuilt following its destruction by the earthquake, it nevertheless remained an icon of dread for decades after, especially among the British, several thousand of whom were long-term residents of the city. The scale of the British presence was due to a series of binding trade agreements dating back to 1385, when England had agreed to protect the vulnerable Portugal ‘as though she were England herself’, in return for the right to export and sell unlimited quantities of valuable homespun textiles and, later, port wine; these agreements proved so favourable to British commercial interests that by the time Charles II married the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza (whose legendary dowry included Bombay, Tangier and the Sri Lankan port of Galle), the bulk of Portugal’s valuable import and export business was being handled by British merchants, whose offices and warehouses commandeered the length of the Lisbon waterfront.[xvi]

The relationship between the Lisboetans and the growing British merchant community was generally cordial, although each expressed ambivalent feelings towards the religious practices of the other. The Portuguese clergy had been fiercely opposed to the building of Protestant places of worship, and particularly the British burial ground, which was eventually established in 1729 after a century of diplomacy. Shielded behind a high wall on the edge of the city, the Protestant cemetery soon begun to fill with increasing numbers of consumptive Britons, who had been despatched to the warmth of Lisbon for the sake of their health, but never made it home. The novelist Henry Fielding remains its most celebrated burial; he died in October 1754 after three painful and dispiriting months in the city, during which he quarrelled with most of the merchants he encountered there, ‘a Set of People who are tearing one anothers’ Souls out for Money’, as he described them in his posthumously published journal.[xvii] Regular funeral-going became a way of life for Lisbon’s British residents and visitors, a circumstance which continued long after the earthquake. ‘We have now lost most of our hill acqaintance’, as Southey noted during his second stay in Lisbon, in June 1800; ‘and I have only been three months in Portugal. . .  ‘Tis like the end of the Pilgrim’s Progress — one by one our friends go before us, and leave us at the side of the Great Water that we all must cross’.[xviii] Earlier, in 1785, when Mary Wollstonecraft set sail for Portugal to comfort the dying Fanny Blood, she shared her cabin with a consumptive ‘so opprest by his complaints I never expected he would live to see Lisbon — I have supported him hours together gasping for breath, and at night if I had been inclined to sleep his dreadful cough would have kept me awake’.[xix] Henry Matthews actually served as a pall-bearer at the funeral of a fellow invalid whom he had befriended on the boat from England  — ‘It may be my turn next’, he wrote, ‘he lodged next door’ (Matthews, 26). Death and interment remained much on Matthews’s mind during his fretful weeks in Lisbon. ‘The inquisition is still an object of mysterious dread’, he wrote: ‘A young man of considerable fortune disappeared about a year ago, and it was supposed for some time that he was murdered. A large reward was offered for the discovery of his body, but the river was dragged, and every well and hole in the town explored without success. It is the opinion of many, that he is now immured in the prisons of the inquisition.’ (Matthews, 23). Though the inquisition headquarters had been demolished more than fifty years earlier, the idea that its dungeons had survived intact was much entertained by visitors to the city, drawn to imagining unseen violence going on beneath the pavements. It was as though Lisbon had been built and rebuilt over a pit of horrors, to which the earthquake had given concrete geophysical expression. This release of buried or repressed power is a familiar preoccupation of gothic novels, such as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), with its ‘curtained recesses, subterranean passages, and dingy vaulted dungeons’, as Markman Ellis has characterised its key narrative spaces.[xx] Throughout such novels, places of safety are transformed into places of darkness and danger, a repressive transformation that also features in numerous Lisbon travel accounts, Guiseppe Baretti, for one, declaring that post-quake Lisbon resembled ‘the work of some benevolent Necromancer’ (Baretti, i, 81). The memoirs of the Grey family, describing a three-year sojourn in Portugal during the 1820s, were also much preoccupied by thoughts of threatening spaces lurking beneath the city, especially by the idea that family excursions through the rebuilt streets might carry them directly over subterranean torture chambers: ‘At the Rossio, Mr. Grey called the attention of his little party to the remarkable features of the place on which they stood. He pointed out the buildings erected since the earthquake, and those that had survived its influence’:

“and here, underneath the very spot on which we now stand, are the dungeons of the Inquisition.” There was, at these words, a general start amongst his auditors; but the next moment they drew closer to him, eager to hear more. “They are said to exist no longer,” resumed Mr. Grey, “and I thank God that there is reason to believe the assertion true; but it must always be a melancholy reflection, that while all above was light and life, and liberty and enjoyment, scenes were acted below too fearful to dwell upon.”[xxi]

As has been seen, the image of prisoners immured beneath the pavement was an established feature of visitor accounts of the city, the dungeons of the Inquisition (in tandem with the associated image of thousands of nuns ‘buried alive’ in the city’s many convents) looming large in the representation of Lisbon as a place of cruelty and fanaticism. ‘The particulars of that odious institution are but too well known’, as the Duke de Chatelet observed in 1777; ‘the picture which I should exhibit of its dungeons, its fetters, its faggots, and of all the tortures invented to honour a God, who, we are told, is love itself, could not add to the universal horror which it excites’ (Travels, i, 90). Many of the sermons published immediately after the earthquake had pointed to the presence of the Inquisition as a particular affront to God, ‘that bloody House of Mercy’, as John Wesley described it in his hastily-written response to the disaster, declaring that: ‘it is not surprizing that He should begin there, where so much Blood has been poured on the Ground like Water’.[xxii] Such anxieties over Lisbon’s subterranean cruelties had unnerved Protestant visitors for centuries, but they escalated in the years following the earthquake, with the idea of peril beneath the pavements apparently amplified by visions of the ground beneath the city swallowing its victims alive, in ‘an Inquisition for Blood’, as Wesley characterised the convulsion (Wesley, 4) It was as though the city itself had become the victim of its own hidden subterranean regime. Five years on from the disaster, Baretti remained haunted by the thought of what might lie beneath his feet as he clambered over the ruins: ‘My whole frame was shaking as I ascended this and that heap of rubbish. Who knows, thought I, but I stand now directly over some mangled body that was suddenly buried under this heap! Some beautiful woman! Some helpless infant! A whole family perhaps!’ He then encountered an old woman who told him how she had become trapped beneath the ruins: ‘do you see this cellar?’, she asked; ‘My house tumbled as I was in it, and in this cellar was I shut by the ruins for nine whole days’. (Baretti, i, 97-98). Her home, along with much of the rest of the city, had been transformed into an underground dungeon. Like the cellars of the Inquisition, which remained intact though the buildings above them had all been razed, these underground spaces became refuges and tombs for thousands of Lisbon’s homeless. Stories of survival fixated on events occurring below ground. The Greys, for example, were told of someone ‘swallowed up by the earthquake, and again thrown upon dry land by a second convulsion, and thus restored to life’, while Henry Matthews’s landlady, Mrs. Dacey, ‘an old Irish woman, above eighty years old’, was a fount of stories relating to ‘the horrors of that awful event’ (including the claim that earthquakes ‘were occasioned by a synod of Ghosts assembled under ground’) (Matthews, 18).

By then, the earthquake itself was beginning to fade from living memory, although the frequent aftershocks did much to keep the subject at the forefront of people’s minds. In January 1796, for example, Robert Southey (who was visiting his uncle, the Revd Herbert Hill, Chaplain to the British Factory in Lisbon) reported that an earthquake, ‘the severest that has been felt since the great one’, shook the city the day after his arrival. ‘The people are very much alarmed’, as he noted in a letter, dated 26 January 1796; ‘it is the seventh shock since the beginning of November. Some walls and a cross from one of the churches was thrown down by it; and they say most houses must be weakened so much that another shock, if equally strong, would destroy them’ (Letters of Robert Southey, 11). There had been another tremor only ten days before, but, as Southey pointed out in his Letters Written during a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (1797), ‘the Connoisseurs in earthquakes say, that this last, though of shorter duration, was the most dangerous, for this was the perpendicular shake, whereas the other was the undulatory motion’; Lisboetans, long accustomed to thoughts of subterranean disturbances, impressed Southey with the the calm manner in which they set about extinguishing all stoves and candles, ‘because the fire does more mischief than the earthquake’ (Short Residence, i, 260).

Yet Southey was less impressed by the architectural appearance of post-quake Lisbon, complaining that ‘Pombal ordered all the churches here to be built like houses, that they might not spoil the uniformity of the streets. This villainous taste has necessarily injured the appearance of the city’ (Short Residence, i, 388), a sentiment that was later expanded upon by Henry Matthews, who claimed that ‘there is something in the appearance of Lisbon that seems to portend an earthquake; and instead of wondering that it was once visited by such a calamity, I am rather disposed to consider its daily preservation as a standing miracle.’ (Matthews, 12). Antiseismic Lisbon, in other words, looked not merely post-quake, but pre-quake, its wide streets and stocky buildings constituting a built-in reminder of the earlier disaster, with the expectation of future quakes written in to the very design of the new fabric, as if contemplating imminent calamity. This air of future threat was inescapable, particularly given the growing opinion of natural philosophers such as John Michell, deviser of the theory of seismic waves, that certain areas of the earth are ‘subject to the returns of earthquakes’, and that, moreover, the streets and squares of Lisbon are sited directly over one of the northern hemisphere’s most seismically active areas.[xxiii] Compared to London after the fire — a phoenix of commerce that rose from the flames — Lisbon continued to conduct itself like a city under threat of siege. The city may have been rebuilt from ground level up, but underneath, the forces that destroyed it (both seismic and psychological) remained latent. As the Duke de Chatelet observed in 1777, the earthquake may have ‘excited the curiosity of the most celebrated philosophers’, but ‘the result of their observations is an inexhaustible source of alarm for the unfortunate inhabitants’:

“for it seems to have been demonstrated, from the ravages produced by that calamity, particularly on the spot where the city is built, that the focus of the fermentation is situated exactly beneath its scite. For near a thousand years its inhabitants have, from age to age, experienced periodical earthquakes which have ruined and destroyed the city, and in building it again, they may actually be considered to say: ‘‘Our children and grand-children shall be buried under the ruins of the edifices which we are erecting upon the shattered relics of those which overwhelmed our fathers.” (Travels, 34).

The fabric of Lisbon had been erased and rebuilt many times before, and would doubtlessly be erased again by the destructive forces at work beneath its pavements. Though the Portuguese Inquisition was suppressed soon after the earthquake, memories of its terrors persisted long after the reconstruction of the city, lingering even as memories of the earthquake itself began to fade. The earthquake gave expression to all the unearthly and subearthly terrors that had come to define the city. As the philosopher Walter Hamacher has commented, the figure of the earthquake has grown to exemplify the irrational, the uncontrollable, and the unsurpassable. Ever since the Lisbon disaster, ‘which touched the European mind in one of its more sensitive epochs, the metaphorics of ground and tremor completely lost their apparent innocence: they were no longer merely figures of speech.’[xxiv]


[i] The Autobiography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Dichtung und Wahrheit), tr. John Oxenford (London, 1971), 25-6; see also Robert H. Brown, ‘The “Demonic Earthquake”: Goethe’s Myth of the Lisbon Earthquake and Fear of Modern Change’, German Studies Review, 15. 3 (October 1992), 475-91.

[ii]Kants Gesammelte Schriften (13 vols, Berlin, 1900-10), i. 456-8. Walter Benjamin claimed, in 1931, that Kant’s reaction ‘probably represents the beginnings of scientific geography in Germany. Certainly the beginning of seismology’; see Walter Benjamin, ‘The Lisbon Earthquake’, tr. Rodney Livingstone, in Selected Writings 2, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge, MA, 1999), 536-40. Voltaire’s comment appears in the preface to Poemes sur la Religion Naturelle, et sur la Destruction de Lisbonne (Geneva, 1756); Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, tr. E. B. Ashton (London, 1973), 361. See also Gene Ray, ‘Reading the Lisbon Earthquake: Adorno, Lyotard, and the Contemporary Sublime’, The Yale Journal of Criticism, 17:1 (2004), 1-18.

[iii] Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought: An alternative history of philosophy (Princeton, 2002), 1.

[iv] Portuguese studies include an exhibition catalogue published by the Câmara Municipal de Lisboa, Exposição Iconográfica e Bibliográfica Comemorativa da Reconstrução da Cicade Depois do Terremoto de 1755 (Lisbon, 1955); José-Augusto França, Lisboa Pombalina e o Illuminismo (Lisbon, 1977), and João Duarte Fonseca, 1755: O Terramoto de Lisboa (Lisbon, 2005), while those in English include Jorge Morarji Dias Mascarenhas, ‘A study of the design and construction of buildings in the Pombaline quarter of Lisbon’, unpublished PhD Diss., (Glamorgan, 1996); ‘Kenneth Maxwell, ‘Lisbon: The earthquake of 1755 and urban recovery under the Marquès de Pombal’, in Out of Ground Zero: Case Studies in Urban Reinvention, ed. Joan Ockman (Munich, 2002), 20-45; and Malcolm Jack, ‘Destruction and regeneration: Lisbon, 1755’, in The Lisbon earthquake of 1755: Representations and reactions, ed. Theodore E. D. Braun and John B. Radner (Oxford, 2005), 7-20.

[v] Henry Matthews,  The Diary of an Invalid; being the Journal of a Tour in Pursuit of Health; in Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, and France in the years 1817, 1818, and 1819 (London, 1820), 12.

[vi] See T. D. Kendrick, The Lisbon Earthquake (London, 1956), 29-36.

[vii] ‘Letters from Lisbon Harbour’, The Gentleman’s Magazine, 25 (December 1755), 560-2, 561.

[viii] The Gentleman’s Magazine, 25 (December 1755), 559.

[ix] Joseph Baretti, A Journey from London to Genoa, through England, Portugal, Spain, and France (2 vols, London, 1770), i, 96-102.

[x] Cynthia Wall, The Literary and Cultural Spaces of Restoration London (Cambridge, 1998), ch. 2. See also Lisa Jardine, On a Grander Scale: The outstanding career of Sir Christopher Wren (London, 2001), 259-67.

[xi] See A. J. R. Russell-Wood, ‘Colonial Brazil: the gold cycle, c. 1690-1750’, in The Cambridge History of Latin America, ed. Leslie Bethell (10 vols, Cambridge, 1984-95), ii, 547-600.

[xii] William Dalrymple, Travels through Spain and Portugal, in 1774; with a Short Account of the Spanish Expedition against Algiers, in 1775 (London, 1777), 140. William Beckford took Dalrymple’s book with him on his 1787 tour, but found it ‘dry, tiresome, and splenetic’. See Rose Macaulay, They Went to Portugal (London, 1946), 426.

[xiii] See I. Bernard Cohen, Benjamin Franklin’s Science (Cambridge, MA, 1990), 120-60. A variant note of morally-inflected caution against the race to reconstruct the city was struck by Voltaire, in the preface to his Poeme sur la Destruction de Lisbonne: ‘If, when Lisbon, Mesquinez, Tetuan, and so many other towns were swallowed up in the month of November 1755, philosophers had called out to the miserable individuals who barely managed to pull themselves out of the ruins, ‘Tout est bien. The heirs of the dead will get rich; the construction workers will make money rebuilding houses; animals will fatten themselves on the bodies buried under the rubble. This is the necessary consequence of inevitable causes; your personal ill-fortune is of no account, for you contribute to the overall well-being,’ such a speech would certainly have been as cruel as the earthquake was destructive’; Voltaire, Candide and Related Texts, trans. David Wooton (Indianapolis, 2000), 98.

[xiv] Elias Nason, Sir Charles Henry Frankland, Baronet: or, Boston in the Colonial Times (Albany, NY, 1865), 62.

[xv] Travels of the Duke de Chatelet in Portugal, comprehending Interesting Particulars relative to the Colonies; the Earthquake of Lisbon; the Marquis de Pombal, and the Court, ed. J. Fr. Bourgoing, tr. John Joseph Stockdale, 2 vols (London, 1809), i, 166.

[xvi] See David Francis, Portugal 1715-1808: Joanine, Pombaline and Rococo Portugal as seen by British Diplomats and Traders (London, 1985), 31-145.

[xvii] Cited in Martin Battestin, Henry Fielding: A Life (London, 1989), 596.

[xviii] Letters of Robert Southey: A Selection, ed. Maurice H. Fitzgerald (London, 1912), 36-45.

[xix] Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Ralph M. Wardle (Ithaca and London, 1979), 101.

[xx] Markman Ellis, The History of Gothic Fiction (Edinburgh, 2000), 13.

[xxi]  Portugal; or, the Young Travellers: Being some account of Lisbon and its Environs, and of a Tour in the Alemtéjo . . .from a journal kept by a lady during three years’ actual residence (London, 1830), 27-28.

[xxii]John Wesley, Serious Thoughts Occasioned by the late Earthquake at Lisbon (London, 1755), 4.

[xxiii] John Michell, Conjectures concerning the Cause, and Observations upon the Phænomena, of Earthquakes; particularly of that great Earthquake of the first of November 1755, which proved so fatal to the City of Lisbon, and whose Effects were felt as far as Africa, and more or less throughout almost all Europe (London, 1760), 6.

[xxiv] Werner Hamacher, ‘The Quaking of Presentation: Kleist’s “Earthquake in Chile”’, in Premises: Essays on Philosophy and Literature from Kant to Celan, tr. Peter Fenves (Cambridge, MA, 1996), 263-64.

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