This is the tenth post in the series Historians Confront the Climate Emergency, hosted by ActiveHistory.ca, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment), Historical Climatology, and Climate History Network.
Dr. Thomas Wien, Université de Montréal
The next Ice Age is behind schedule. Now for the bad news: the infernal and, for many in the northern hemisphere, eye-opening summer of 2021 has shown that global warming’s effects are reaching critical levels sooner than expected. Worsening drought and extreme weather events afflict the hotter parts of the globe, already sorely tried. The rapidly warming Arctic, devastating fires and floods in places like British Columbia, Siberia, or the Rhine Valley, and a stray hurricane over Newfoundland suggest that the “cool blue north” isn’t quite what it used to be (you may remember that Jesse Winchester first sang those words in 1977…).
Using uncharacteristically blunt language, experts confirm this impression of acceleration. And over the past decade or two, they have added an order of magnitude to the uncertainty: no longer does the worsening seem linear (“one additional degree will cause more such-and-such”), conjuring up situations that while alarming, at least present a threat that is directly proportionate to the amount of carbon (etc.) in the atmosphere – and to human action or inaction. Rather, the warning now is “such-and-such may happen regardless,” or even “all hell may break loose,” as sudden, irreversible shifts and catastrophic chain reactions within the Earth System become more likely.
For it seems that we humans (some of us much more than others, of course, historically and presently) and the other species we have dragged into this are closer than ever to truly formidable tipping points. The destabilization of the oceanic system picturesquely known in English as AMOC (Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation), is only the latest of these to attract attention. Dying coral reefs, rapidly melting ice in high latitudes or altitudes, methane suddenly unleashed from permafrost and ocean sediments, are some of the others. Imagine: a prospect even more worrisome than the climate deteriorating a step, a degree at a time. Amok indeed.
Short of such extreme scenarios and their associated dystopias (imperialistic deserts, drowned cities…), getting some sort of handle on warming in a few short years promises not a quick return to friendlier conditions, but an unprecedently difficult climatic future. In its recent report, to me all the more ominous in that it dwells so little as yet on the suffering the current and coming geophysical changes will cause, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change laconically speaks of “commitment”: “unavoidable future climate change resulting from inertia in the geophysical and socio-economic systems.”
In 2018, a group of Earth System specialists already specified what this might mean. The best that can be hoped for, they argued, is “stabilization in a range of intermediate temperature rises,” well beyond the range seen over the Holocene’s dozen millennia. This for centuries and centuries to come, the time it takes for anthropogenic carbon, half of it accumulated since 1990 (!) to leave the atmosphere. Here it is, the future the past summer portends. A future of avoiding the worst. At best.
Yet all this, too, is in the process of becoming old news. I repeat it here in part as a kind of mantra, as a way of summoning up, momentarily, a crisis so enormous that it continuously repels our gaze. Even – especially? – now that it has begun to loom over our present. But I include my amateur climate bulletin also by way of describing this moment’s specific combination of certainty and uncertainty. And of pointing to a further possible tipping point that would see many – too many – of our contemporaries proceed from inertia to resignation, without passing go, without coalescing sufficiently to move or remove the people and the systems that are so powerfully arrayed against rapid climate action.
“The new challenge”, remarked journalist David S. Wallace just the other day about climate writing in general, “[…] is to capture the feeling of our predicament, along with its facts: not merely to convince people, but to galvanize them out of despair or fatalism.” If that is what needs to be done, historians hardly seem likely galvanizers. At least as historians: think of E.P. Thompson, who 40 years ago threw himself into the campaign against the nuclear arms race, putting aside his astounding historical work – although he did forge “exterminism” during this period, a notion that remains useful, even though warheads no longer top the list of threats to humanity. Short of dropping our own astounding work, and after having given hard thought to our personal contribution, both to climate change and to the struggle to reign it in, there remains the question: what historical narratives for this apprehended future?
In 2003, François Hartog attributed to a weakening sense of progress in Western societies (a destabilized temporal AMOC?) the rise of what he called “presentism”. In the later twentieth century, he argued, an increasingly “opaque and threatening” future encouraged Westerners to adopt a precautionary attitude, along the lines of philosopher Hans Jonas’s “imperative of responsibility”, making avoidance of future harm the supreme criterion of present action. When looking backward, they waxed commemorative, making the past resurface in the present in the form of heritage or memories of historical injustices. Hartog concluded a touch regretfully that “today, enlightenment has its source in the present, and in the present alone” and that his fellow historians, at least those who continued to view the past “from afar,” faced marginalization.
“Presentism” has been much debated, up to and including environmental historian Grégory Quenet’s recent suggestion that the climate emergency has jolted us out of it. However that may be, it seems useful in this context to recall what goes without saying for environmental historians and their readers: that a precautionary approach to the future, reflecting in this case ecological and climatic concerns, necessarily influences one’s approach to the past. That applies most obviously to environmental history’s eminently precautionary mission of fostering ecological – and increasingly, interspecies – consciousness, in an attempt to chip away at humans’ sense of entitlement. In its more combative form, environmental history can nourish activism more directly, while still avoiding the search for heroic ancestors, another, problematic form of presentism.
A recent, stimulating example comes to mind: Jean-Baptiste Fressoz and Fabien Locher’s Les révoltes du ciel (2020). The study explores some five centuries of discourse and initiatives on climate change in Europe (often France) and other places variously appropriated by Europeans. Aside from demonstrating that climate change has long been a preoccupation in a surprising range of contexts, the authors show how tenaciously, over the centuries, a supposedly beneficial effect on climate was used to justify European colonization (including in New France, my specialty). There and elsewhere, controlling nature was intimately bound up with controlling humans and hence with power and inequality. Which enables the authors to argue that however unprecedented our current situation, climate change is a political phenomenon, past, present, and future.
That observation reads like a call to arms. What is particularly galvanizing about work of this sort – about nature, ironically – is its insistence on denaturalizing present conditions. If such is history’s main purpose – to show the seemingly inevitable as contingent, opening a space for alternatives and political struggle to attain them – perhaps a broader range of histories, beyond the environmental, qualify as precautionary. I’m thinking more specifically of counterfactual history: less of the experimental, playful, what-would-have-happened-if-Hitler-had-been-admitted-to-art-school variety, than of one more broadly interested in historical actors’ options, perceived or not, and in roads not taken.
Implicit in much historical reasoning, the approach surfaces not just in counterfactual history per se, but also in historians’ critique of often national teleology, for example, and cultural history’s insistence on individual subjects’ views of the world and of the future. A recent survey of history in this vein sees as a sign of uncertain times a kind of counterfactual sensibility that has emerged over the last few years.
A history giving more thought to futures past depicts our predecessors or near-contemporaries exploiting their maneuvering room, weighing their options as they see them, and dealing with contingency. Precautionary, it keeps open this space for action in the future. It offers encouragement, as the climatic chickens come home to roost.
Thomas Wien teaches the history of New France and the French Atlantic World at the Université de Montréal, including the course on “Crises et catastrophes” that has inspired this post. He is currently editing for publication an account of the cooper J.P. Reichart’s visit to Canada (1723-4).
This is the ninth post in the series Historians Confront the Climate Emergency, hosted by ActiveHistory.ca, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment), Historical Climatology, and Climate History Network.
Dr. Philip Gooding, McGill University
John Crome, A Windmill near Norwich, 1816, Wikimedia Commons. The style of this painting is characteristic of the Romantic movement, whose dates (c.1790-1850) roughly correspond to those of the late Little Ice Age (c.1780-1840). Crome painted this image in the 'Year Without Summer,' a year of severe cold in Europe and other global regions following the eruption of the Tambora volcano, in present-day Indonesia, in 1815. 
I recently taught a remote, intensive Summer course entitled ‘Themes in World History’ at McGill University. This course was aimed mostly at second- and third- year undergraduate students. I chose as my theme ‘Climatic and environmental change.’ This provided me with many opportunities, one of which was to teach students a historical perspective on the current climate emergency. What follows is a description of the thought processes behind my course design and its objectives, as well as a reflection on its successes and shortcomings.
World history and the climate emergency are highly compatible subjects for two core reasons. First, the climate emergency has no respect for human borders, and so, like world history, it transcends traditional spatial paradigms in the humanities and the social sciences, such as nation states and area studies. Second, world history courses tend to attract students with vastly different disciplinary backgrounds, not just history majors and minors. A historical perspective on the climate emergency, which students are generally conscious of and interested in, therefore, can act somewhat as an entry point into the study of history more broadly. Additionally, understanding the role of climate in history necessitates a high degree of interdisciplinarity, incorporating climatological and other perspectives from the natural sciences. Students can engage with climate history from a variety of disciplinary standpoints.
At the outset, I posed two core questions to my students, which we returned to throughout the course. These were, first: If the present and future of humanity are to be indelibly shaped by how it responds to the current climate emergency, how have past human societies also been affected by climatic and environmental changes? And second: How can historians and historical methods help to build strategies to mitigate against the effects of global warming in the present and future? Exploring answers to these questions formed a core feature of the course. This exercise emphasized the urgency of the endeavor undertaken in the course and encouraged students to think about the wider (inter-)disciplinary implications of the topics they studied.
The course, being an intensive summer course, took place over five weeks. This meant that it naturally broke down into five sub-topics. The first sub-topic was thematic in focus. It asked students to examine the origins of the current climate emergency. This led them to encounter critical approaches to the popularized Anthropocene, first conceived of in the early 2000s by natural scientists, Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer. Students read articles on the Capitalocene and listened to a podcast on the Plantationocene (developed by Donna Harroway, a scholar of feminist studies, and Anna Tsing, an anthropologist). Students were asked to think about what processes have contributed to the current climate emergency over the long-term. This demonstrated that the climate emergency cannot solely be understood as a ‘modern’ problem, illustrating the need for historical and other interdisciplinary perspectives.
The subsequent four sub-topics focused on different periods in world history during which global climatic factors were particularly adverse, often leading to turning points in several societies’ histories. The aim was to show how states and societies adapted (or failed to adapt) to periods in history during which global climate was particularly extreme or erratic, such as which is projected to characterize conditions under current global warming. These periods were respectively: c.1585-1610, c.1585-1715 (the seventeenth-century general crisis; there was clear overlap with the first period here), c.1780-1840 (the late Little Ice Age), 1876-78 (the ‘global famine’). For each, students had to complete two core tasks. Firstly, they were asked to establish what global climatic factors contributed to adverse conditions, such as El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), volcanic eruptions, and solar activity. Secondly, they had to examine in what ways states and societies responded to adverse conditions, exploring factors that contributed to vulnerability or resilience therein.
Climatological sources were integral to responding to achieving the first task. Since the 1990s, the climate emergency has inspired a lot of scientific research on past climatic conditions. For earlier periods (pre-mid-nineteenth century), this is largely through analysis of proxy records, such as tree rings, ice cores, and corals. These can give information on, for example, rainfall and temperature in their locales. Moreover, recently, analysis of several of these records has been used to model global climatic oscillations, such as ENSO, which is known to have teleconnections with regional climates as distant as northern Peru and eastern Africa. They give an impression of past global climatic conditions, thus inviting historians to explore their effects on world history.
What can historians do with this new climatic information? Students explored answers to this question in their first assignment, a Source Analysis Paper, which asked them to analyse the utility of Joëlle L. Gergis and Anthony M. Fowler’s 2009 article in Climatic Change, ‘A history of ENSO events since A.D. 1525: Implications for future climate change,’ to world historians. Using various proxies, this article provides a timeline for El Niño and La Niña events since 1525. Sub-questions that students thought about included: How do we, as historians, deal with uncertainty in the proxy records? What opportunities do they provide if they are analyzed alongside ‘traditional’ historical material, such as archives or oral traditions? And, how could ‘traditional’ historical methods be used to validate or question Gergis and Fowlers’ conclusions? Critically evaluating the article in the context of historical methods enabled students to think about how and what we know about past climates, and how to integrate that knowledge into an understanding of world history.
Case studies formed the basis of the second core task per weekly sub-topic, that is, assessing the effects of adverse climatic conditions in world history. Students answered two essay questions related to this task, always considering the extent of our knowledge of past climates as they did so. Notwithstanding some notable success stories in the face of adverse climatic conditions (for example, the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ coincides almost exactly with the seventeenth-century general crisis), disasters and state collapse were recurrent themes, whether discussing the seventeenth-century Ottoman Empire, the French Revolution, or the 1876-8 ‘global famine.’ Governments and/or rulers were frequently unable or unwilling to mount effective responses to adverse climatic and environmental conditions, despite the urgency of the situation.
The themes of the course were frequently morbid, and this took its toll over the course of the five weeks. The relentlessness of difficult material is something that I will account for in advance if I teach this course in such an intensive format again. However, in order to give students (and myself) relief this time around, I re-arranged and re-designed course materials, especially in the final weeks. I organized more break-out sessions, in which students could collectively discuss and digest materials, instead of just absorbing them on their own (isolation in this context was certainly exacerbated by the fact that I taught the course remotely during the Covid 19 pandemic). I also designed a digital methods session in which students used the KNMI Climate Explorer to map the 1876-8 ENSO event and resultant ‘global famine.’ This gave students a hands-on opportunity to explore primary materials and their implications in a digital environment. The maps that students made and the ways some of them deployed them in their final essays were extraordinary. One student (a computer programming major) even went so far as to design and share a tool to make the Climate Explorer’s rain gauge data more accessible and analyzable through conversion of its tables into CSV files. In so doing, they showed the interdisciplinary potentialities of climate history in action.
Of course, though, the morbidity of the themes covered in this world history course has direct implications for how we understand the current climate emergency. The climatic conditions under review, whether during the seventeenth century general crisis or the late Little Ice Age, mostly represent relatively minor natural oscillations compared to our current plight in the face of unprecedented global warming. Moreover, the effects of past adverse climatic conditions were frequently exacerbated by imperial and capitalist expansion, especially in the Global South. The course emphasized the urgency of the current climate emergency, especially as, in line with patterns from the past, capitalism is exacerbating vulnerabilities to adverse climatic conditions in several regions, and governments appear unable or unwilling to build effective mitigative strategies. Current responses to the climate emergency were shown partly as a longer-term continuum of ineffective mitigation strategies across large areas in the face of adverse climatic conditions.
As a rule, I designed the course with a view to exploring the multitude of ways in which different people(s) have experienced adverse global climatic factors in world history. This meant not just teaching about empires and states, but also about ‘stateless’ societies, such as indigenous populations in present-day Alaska in the aftermath of the 1783 eruption of the Laki Volcano in Iceland. I also exposed students to variations across socio-economic class, examining how it was frequently the poor and/or bonded/enslaved who experienced the worst effects of adverse climatic conditions. But there is more that I could and should have done here. Gender and generation were themes that I neglected – a significant oversight given that several studies show that it will be women and children (especially girls) who are bearing the brunt of the current climate emergency. Thus, while climatic and environmental change lends itself to teaching a thematic course on world history for the ways it transcends borders, there is a need to also bear in mind what is going on within those borders as well, and to not smooth over social and other differences within them. This will be a challenge when teaching the climate emergency in (world) history moving forward.
Dr. Philip Gooding is a postdoctoral fellow at the Indian Ocean World Centre, McGill University working on a SSHRC-funded Partnership project led by Prof. Gwyn Campbell: ‘Appraising Risk, Past and Present: Interrogating historical data to enhance understanding of environmental crises in the Indian Ocean World’. He is also the recipient of a SSHRC Insight Development Grant for his own project: ‘Climate History and Human-Environment Interaction in Equatorial Eastern Africa, c.1780-1900.’
A syllabus of the course can be found here.
 According to Zachary Hubbard, 'Crome’s attention to the skies allowed him to give an accurate view of the “year without a summer.”... Within this work, the view is blocked by a lingering darkness. The sky is unquestionably dim and heavy with haze. The volcanic sulfates surrounding the world at this time obstructed the view. Looking at the art as it is now, an observer will notice that not only is the sky dark, but the entire picture is bleak. Crome illustrates a dismal time with the darkness of starvation, poverty, and lingering death, instilling a feeling of dread in the viewer' (Zachary Hubbard, ‘Paintings in the year without a Summer,’ Philologia (2019)). In my course, students studied such images and their representations as examples of the effects of global climatic anomalies on human societies, the kind of which are projected to become more frequent and severe during the ongoing climate emergency.
This is the eighth post in the series Historians Confront the Climate Emergency, hosted by ActiveHistory.ca, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment), Historical Climatology, and Climate History Network.
Emma Moesswilde, Georgetown University
This summer, the raspberry crop at Daisy Chain Farm was much smaller than usual. The variable winter weather meant that abnormal freeze-thaw cycles caused the raspberry canes to lose their resistance to cold in periods of thaw, making them more susceptible to damage when the weather turned icy again. In comparison to last year’s bumper crop, whose flavor and color filled my family’s freezer and lifted our spirits through a pandemic winter, this year’s raspberries were nowhere near as abundant.
Thanks to the observations of farmers and other food-producing folks, and to the work of climate scientists, we know that such variable weather and its impacts on agriculture and food production are consequences of human-created, or anthropogenic, climate change. For decades, despite insidious efforts to suppress the overwhelming scientific consensus on human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and their impacts on the earth’s systems, it has been clear that changing ecological realities due to climate change have the potential to severely disrupt the systems that provide humanity with sustenance, from industrial-scale grain cultivation to small family farms to fisheries to my local raspberry crop.
Like many other aspects of the climate emergency in which we find ourselves, such disruption is a daunting prospect. When I grew up in midcoast Maine, in a rural community in a rural state, the rhythms of the seasons and changes in land- and seascapes were reflected, first and foremost, on the table. To witness agricultural disruptions and to hear about future agricultural threats in a rural state is to acknowledge a shifting cultural and economic landscape that goes far beyond a field, orchard, or lobster boat.
My own experiences with environmental and agricultural policy have underscored the importance of a resilient food system and agroecology to ensure a sustainable and equitable future which has the potential to be severely disrupted by the impacts of climate change. Maintaining the integrity of soils, woods, and waters, supporting a new generation of young farmers, and working towards a low-carbon future should continue to take top priority for policymakers at regional, state, and local levels.
Such policies and community projects, some of which I have had the privilege to be involved with, deal mostly with the present and the future. Yet for decades, climate historians have also looked to the past to more fully understand the relationship between human history and the Earth’s climate systems. Agriculture has been at the center of many of these studies, as many pre-industrial societies relied on largely on arable crop outputs whose success was contingent on specific meteorological and ecological conditions. All methods of food production, from farming to hunting, fishing, and foraging, were intimately linked to seasonal, annual, and decadal variations in weather and climate. For agrarian societies who relied on arable staple crops such as wheat or rice, the success or failure of a harvest had multifold ramifications for individuals, communities, and economic systems.
Many climate historians have therefore focused on the fluctuations of these staple crop yields, considering them in the context of climate variability documented in “proxy” sources such as tree rings, ice cores, or lake and ocean sediments which preserve a record of past changes in Earth’s systems that “signal” variations in the climate. Staple crop yields, such as wheat, can provide a similar signal that demonstrates an abundance or shortage of grain, which in turn can be connected to a failed harvest. A great deal of scholarship has examined the relationship between well-documented grain prices and meteorological shocks which may provoke harvest failures and even – some argue – trigger devastating episodes of, for example, famine or civil unrest. This is especially common for the period known as the “Little Ice Age,” where the global climate system experienced widespread disruption due to the interaction of volcanic eruptions, decreased solar activity, and atmospheric circulation shifts. These climatic disruptions manifested in different ways and at different times between 1300 and 1800 CE, and were especially notable in the Northern Hemisphere, where cooler-than-average temperatures and unpredictable, often extreme storms and weather patterns characterized much of the period.
As influential and valuable as some of these perspectives are, I find it difficult to make connections between the rise and fall of pre-industrial grain prices during past episodes of climatic extremes, and the realities I’ve witnessed in agricultural communities today. Such analyses offer, at best, a bird’s-eye view of complex processes of ecological change, agricultural work, and large-scale economic shifts. Often, though, this kind of simplification obscures many of the nuances of the relationships between climate and agriculture, including local processes of adaptation in the past which can offer perspectives on the impacts of climate change on our present and future. It also focuses historical perspectives on periods of extreme climate change, crisis, and disaster, when research has shown that unpredictable, variable weather patterns, rather than isolated events, often presented the greatest ongoing challenge to farmers.
Today, as in the past, farmers, food producers, and communities that depend on agricultural and rural work are coping with the consequences of a warming climate and disrupted earth systems that impact countless local agroecological factors. Efforts to mitigate immediate risk, build a climate-resilient agricultural system, and remain financially viable all require time, expertise, and resources. The realities of food and economic systems today mean that it is enormously challenging to meet all these goals, let alone in the same way and at the same time. As has become abundantly clear over this past summer of extremes – in case it wasn’t evident enough before – the impacts and consequences of the climate emergency are multifold and sometimes difficult to distill into price series or other quantitative data. An over-emphasis on markets, rather than human beings and ecosystems, is an abstraction of the complicated role of climate change which can often be illuminated more effectively through storytelling projects and firsthand experiences.
As a climate historian living in the climate emergency with deep concern for its impacts on the rural places and people most dear to me, my research on the impacts of climate change on agriculture is personal as well as academic. The questions I ask of my sources in the past are the same ones that I and many others ask in the present and future: What changes can we make? How can we restore what has been lost? What does adapting for next year look like? How about the following year, or ten or twenty years after that? These answers have layers of urgency: my own scholarly curiosity, my concern for my own communities and the many others like them, and my hope for policy agendas that foster the adaptations needed to ensure the safety and resilience of agricultural land and those who live and work with it.
My recent research into the long-term consequences of extreme weather on English agriculture has been conducted in two modes. In the first, I look for stories, not of loss, but of gain: the experience of farmers that encouraged them to diversify the crops they sowed, change the recipes of the bread they baked, and recognize the impacts of frigid temperatures on soil fertility to change their sowing and harvest schedules accordingly. In the second mode, with an eye on today’s unseasonable weather and an ear to the often-bleak news cycle, I look for hope; a reminder that agricultural communities have often persisted, in the past, with flexibility, commitment, some loss, and some luck, in the face of adverse climatic conditions.
I am under no illusions that agricultural techniques from pre-industrial England are a panacea for the challenges facing my own community – nor does my research into adaptation strategies offer an exact roadmap for agricultural policy in New England. The stakes are very, very high – we stand to potentially lose much more than a year’s raspberry crop. But the research that I and others are conducting now, oh-so-urgently, also offers examples of local adaptation supported by widespread participation on multiple scales to create resilient communities and food systems.
There are more variable frost and thaw cycles to come; challenges to climate resilience seem to be around every corner. But next year’s harvest is not yet determined – new irrigation strategies, hardier crop varieties, and carbon-sequestering till methods are just some of the strategies Daisy Chain Farm and others like it has been introducing to mitigate the effects of a changing climate. When the problem of climate change seems too large, I think of stories like this one, where two years’ worth of raspberry crops illuminate the challenges we face in the climate crisis as well as the resilience of humans and agricultural ecosystems in the face of change. In my own research, I look for more stories that highlight the expertise, adaptation, and hard work of rural communities during periods of climate change in the past. I know these stories exist because I grew up in such a community myself, and history is rich with others like it. Bringing the intertwined histories of rural life and climate resilience forward offers not only potential adaptation strategies for agricultural communities today, but the hope needed to continue working for good harvests of all kinds in the years to come.
This is the seventh post in the series, “Historians Confront the Climate Emergency,” hosted by ActiveHistory.ca, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment), Historical Climatology and Climate History Network.
Dr. Alan MacEachern, Western University
They say that climate is what you expect but weather is what you get. Or they used to say that. Now, the climate seems to be changing as quickly and unexpectedly as weather. When New York’s Central Park receives a record 48 millimetres of rain in one hour and then, just ten days later, a different storm system dumps 79 millimetres in one hour, it feels as though more than just weather is at work. And why wouldn’t climate be changing rapidly? It used to take millennia for atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to fluctuate just ten parts per million. Now it takes five years. That cannot be good news for anyone.
I taught environmental history for twenty-plus years before developing a course in climate and weather history. It had taken me a while to recognize the centrality of climate change to environmental affairs, longer to become well-informed on the topic, longer still to feel competent enough to teach it, and longer still to determine how to structure such a course and what I might contribute. But in 2014, having helped bring Environment and Climate Change Canada’s extant historical weather observations to my university’s archive on long-term loan, I knew it was time to take the plunge. I developed a course around the meteorological collection, used its material in lectures and seminar activities, and devoted full assignments to it.
And the course was a bust.
As impressive as the Environment Canada collection is – the continuous record of a single, long-running and still-operating meteorological service across one of the largest countries on earth – it simply did not work as the course’s foundation. I had hoped to connect nineteenth century nations’ commitment to “inventory science," including the gathering of information about weather, to our gradual understanding of climate, then climate change, and then the fact that we are changing it. But I was largely unable to help students make the leap from the prosaic, daily, local observations of weather to the vital, long-term, global matter of climate. Whereas, for example, the story of one soldier can stand in for an entire battle or army or war when teaching, a single weather observation or observer or station can hardly do the same. If anything, weather got in the way of climate. Students may well have felt that climate was what they expected, but weather was what they got.
So I switched to teaching a new course on the Anthropocene, the idea that humans are now having such an unprecedentedly massive and for all intents and purposes permanent effect on the planet that it constitutes a new epoch not just in human history but in Earth history: we are in a new geological age. Climate plays a major role in the course, but it is joined by discussion of biodiversity loss, land use change, population, resource extraction, and much more. This has been a far more successful course and has attracted more students. What students appreciate, I think, is that the course calls on them to consider the dramatic changes in how people have lived in the recent past, and the dramatic changes that has had on the planet, but also how individual people, objects, and moments have contributed to or illustrate these changes. What I appreciate is that history arrives as something of a Trojan horse: if we accept that we are now in the Anthropocene, when did it begin, what has sent us down this path? Teaching the Anthropocene has proven a useful way to introduce history to environmentally minded students from across the university.
But no matter how much discussion of climate the Anthropocene course contains, there is little room in what is essentially a jam-packed history of the world for discussion of weather and meteorology. What I love about the Environment Canada meteorological collection, and what I had hoped to share with students, was the chance to observe Canadian weather observers volunteering to regularly and faithfully maintain and submit environmental information about their hyper-local circumstances, with only the promise of the most nebulous long-term national and societal goals to sustain them. And I wanted students to see how Canadians of the past knew weather and nature, what they found worth mentioning, and how they expressed it. But such topics have not fit easily into the Anthropocene course, and have been relegated largely to my research.
I wonder if, in essence, my experience teaching climate and weather has ended up mirroring the topics themselves. With climate moving at the speed of weather of late, there has been far more interest in climate and weather – but in weather (other than in terms of the immediate effects of extreme events such as hurricanes) largely because of its relationship to climate. As journalism is said to be the first draft of history, weather is the first draft of climate, and has become of general interest largely because of that, not as a subject to be explored and understood in and of itself. And that’s a shame.
This is the sixth post in the series Historians Confront the Climate Emergency, hosted by ActiveHistory.ca, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment), Historical Climatology, and Climate History Network.
Molly Swain, University of Alberta
Molly Swain is a Métis woman, or otipêmsiw-iskwêw, from Calgary, Alberta (otôskwanihk), in Treaty 7 territory, Métis Nation of Alberta (MNA) Region 3, currently living in amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton), MNA Region 4, Treaty 6 and Nehiyaw-Pwat (Iron Confederacy) territory. A PhD student in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, Molly also co-hosts otipêyimisiw-iskwêwak kihci-kîsikohk (Métis in Space), an Indigenous feminist science fiction podcast, along with Chelsea Vowel. She is part of the directorship of the Métis in Space Land Trust and a member of Free Lands Free Peoples, an anti-colonial penal abolition group.
Politically, Molly describes herself as an Indigenous, specifically Métis, anarcha-feminist, with the goal of “total anti-colonial liberation,” including “the destruction of white cis-hetero-patriarchal supremacy, colonialism, capitalism, ableism, and states, as well as the regeneration of both new and remembered ways of living together with the land and with one another,” humans and other-than-humans alike.
Series co-editor Edward Dunsworth spoke with Molly over Zoom on 14 July 2021. Transcript edited for clarity and length.
Edward Dunsworth: Thank you, Molly, for speaking with ActiveHistory.ca. We are thrilled to have you participate in this series. To begin, could you tell me a bit about Back 2 the Land: 2 Land, 2 Furious? But before we get to that, you must tell me: are you excited for the release of F9?
Molly Swain: So, full disclosure, the Fast and Furious franchise is very much my co-host [of Métis in Space] Chelsea’s jam. I can’t really watch car crash movies.
Back 2 the Land: 2 Land, 2 Furious is sort of an extension of our science fiction podcast. They may seem very different, but in our minds, they’re quite intimately connected. When Chelsea and I started the podcast in Montreal back in 2014, one of the things that we wanted to do was to get back to our home territories in Alberta, which finally was able to happen in 2016. Our initial plan was to live outside of Edmonton, in Chelsea’s community of Lac Ste. Anne (manitow-sâkahikan). And things didn’t really work out that way. But it’s something that always sort of stuck in our minds, that it’d be great to have land that we could bring people out to, especially folks who live in the inner city of Edmonton, who maybe don’t have access to non-urban spaces to do traditional activities, learn skills, to form those kinds of relationships that are often harder to do in urban spaces – especially in the inner city which is so heavily policed, both by actual cops as well as by settlers.
So we talked about it and said, “Let’s just put it out into the world and see what happens.” We started a fundraiser, thinking that it would take probably two to three years to approach the amount of money that we would need to buy a piece of land. And lo and behold, a couple of weeks later, a guy from the States, who we call our “sugar settler,” got in touch and said, “Hey, I have tons of money. And I would like to give you money to buy a piece of land.”
And we said, “Okay, buddy, tell us another one. Like, we’ll send you our credit card information, we’ll give you our social insurance numbers, right?” We were like, “it’s a scam.” But as it turns out, he was completely serious. So our two- to three-year timeline shrunk to about three months, and we found a piece of land that is absolutely incredible. Chelsea calls Lac Ste. Anne County an exercise in futility to make it really productive agricultural land. It’s sort of semi-muskeggy, semi-forested – just not the best for agriculture, but it’s perfect for what we’re interested in. So we have most of a small lake, we have sort of a swampy muskeggy area, we have some rolling hills, and we have some forests. The biodiversity is amazing.
ED: How does “land back” relate to the climate emergency? And what role should the return or transfer of land and resources to Indigenous and other historically dispossessed peoples play in climate politics?
MS: The first thing that comes up for me is that well-trod statistic that Indigenous peoples protect 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. I think that’s a good place to start when we’re thinking about land back in relation to climate change and the climate crisis. But the other thing that we miss out on, thinking about this from a historical perspective, is that while Europe was stripping its land base of things like arable soil, forests, fish, other resources, Indigenous peoples in the Americas were living lives of incredible abundance in balance with the land. You read old missionary journals, and the missionaries are stunned at the abundance and the wealth that they’re encountering. They’ll write about how they can just pick food up off the ground, it’s just lying there ready to eat, right? So we have to understand that Indigenous peoples continue to protect biodiversity and biodiversity is also, in a lot of ways, a form of wealth and abundance. And that so much of European history, particularly in the modern and colonial periods has been about extracting that abundance and that wealth and moving it because they’ve already stripped their own lands of those resources.
Indigenous peoples are [engaging with the land] in balance. There are instances where an imbalance occurs, but you also hear about how Indigenous peoples took active steps to correct imbalances right away, which requires a level of scientific and relational knowledge that really continues to elude Euro settlers and these contemporary settler states. Dr. Paul Gareau has referred to this as the technology of relationality. I think it’s really important that we understand this knowledge as something that’s spiritual and cultural, but that is also scientific and technological.
[On the other side], to me, it really boils down to what Aileen Moreton-Robinson has called white possessiveness. Her theory is that whiteness exists in order to possess, to transform relations into possessions, into things to be owned, used, exploited, etc. And so we can really see white possessiveness as this foil to a more relational way of understanding the world and all of the beings in the world. One of the questions that I have and have been thinking about in relation to this recently is: can we start building relationships with settlers? Can settlers start to do the work of relationality without dismantling whiteness?
What are we, as mainstream society, willing to do in order to bring the way that we live in the world back into balance? That’s a big question. But I think one of the tried and true, proven methods of doing that is land back, the literal return of the land. And not just this idea of traditional territories. All of the land is Indigenous land, and all of the land needs to be returned to the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples. That also means the return of Indigenous capacity to make decisions regarding the well-being of the land, and the peoples and other-than-humans that live on the land, right?
A lot of the critiques of land back that I’ve seen are like, “Oh, you just want to have Indigenous ethno-states” and this and that. And, of course, the answer is no. What it’s about is the righting of historical injustice, and about recognizing that Indigenous peoples have the scientific knowledge and technologies to address this massive imbalance that settler colonialism has created.
ED: You speak sometimes on your podcast Métis in Space and elsewhere about “Indigenous futures.” Can you explain what you mean by this, and how the climate emergency informs your perspective on Indigenous futures?
MS: Métis in Space, is an Indigenous feminist science fiction podcast. Well, we do speculative fiction, which is sci fi, fantasy, and horror. But science fiction is our original love in a lot of ways. And science fiction is really all about imagining futures and imagining other ways of being.
It asks some of the big questions, like, what is the nature of life? Of being human? How can we solve our biggest crises? How can we relate to one another better? The genre answers those questions through world building, building worlds where these conflicts and questions can be staged. And both the worlds and what populates those worlds – cool technologies, novel forms of governance, interesting aliens, all of that – has really tended, in the mainstream, to reflect white colonial visions, anxieties, and ideas about what the future can and should look like.
So what we’re interested in doing with the podcast is in part to intervene in these narratives and to offer alternatives by doing world building ourselves. We do that through Indigenous futurism, a term coined by Anishinaabe scholar Grace Dillon that my co-host Chelsea Vowel has adapted to the Métis through her work on Métis futurisms. So, Indigenous futurisms are basically about reading Indigenous people back into the future. So much of what settler colonialism is about, so much of what this mythology is built on, is that Indigenous peoples are disappearing, dying out, not suited to modernity, not able to survive in the future because we’re stuck in the past, etc. Indigenous futurism has this radical idea that Indigenous people will exist in the future, and that our futures can look Indigenous. We’re not going to be assimilated. We’re not just going to exist on the margins, hyper-dispossessed. Radical transformation is possible, and Indigenous peoples can lead that with cool Indigenous technologies, with cool Indigenous forms of governance and ways of relating, by interacting with alien species in a way that is not necessarily about conquering or about being threatened or threatening (thinking about the invasion narrative as a settler anxiety of encountering a species that is going to do to them what they have done to Indigenous people).
So I think Indigenous futurisms are a form of what Daniel Heath Justice has called “imagining otherwise,” but also a form of remembering otherwise. It’s calling back to the relational networks and obligations of our ancestors, to build towards futures for everybody.
There are a few areas where I think where this intersects with the climate emergency. The first is Elizabeth Povinelli’s idea of toxic sovereignty, where no matter what happens, Indigenous relationships to the land are such that we will be on the land and with the land no matter what. She uses the example of uranium extraction sites in Australia that have been essentially abandoned by the state. Nobody’s really supposed to live there. But Indigenous people still go to that land, they’re still on that land, they still live with that land. And they exercise sovereignty in a way that they weren’t previously able to, because the state has basically abandoned it. That’s a form of toxic sovereignty.
As the climate crisis intensifies, there are probably going to be similar spaces where the state does not have the same kind of grip on the land and on the people. So toxic sovereignty, I think, is one really interesting thing to think through, not just for Indigenous people, but about how everybody is going to live on and relate to the land in the future.
I think another key piece is the recognition of the personhood and autonomy of other beings, including those in the spirit world. Eden Robinson’s work – her Trickster trilogy – is fabulous for that. My co-host Chelsea Vowel is releasing a book of Métis futurist short stories, Buffalo is the New Buffalo that I really recommend folks check out when it comes out in April 2022. Another piece is going to be about recentering and honouring Indigenous queer, trans and Two Spirit people in our societies and in our futures. Joshua Whitehead’s Love after the End anthology is so fabulous for that if people are interested in an Indigenous futurist take on that.
ED: Fascinating – I’ve never heard of the concept of toxic sovereignty. It seems like almost like the flip side of the coin of environmental racism. With environmental racism we typically think of people being shunted onto degraded lands, or being restricted to them, whether through government policy or market forces. This is kind of the flip side of that, with lands being damaged by colonial extraction and capitalist activity, and people being linked to those lands not through coercion but because these are their homelands.
MS: I think it’s really important to recognize that toxic sovereignty is something that has, to a certain extent, some liberatory potential but still exists within this framework of intense environmental racism and violence. Toxic sovereignty can only exist through colonial violence, which doesn’t make that okay. But I think that toxic sovereignty helps us to imagine what it means to live on a planet that is not ideal for human life and thriving. In the context of state abandonment, who do we turn to? How do we exercise sovereignty? And by that I mean, how do we fulfill our relational obligations?
Thank you to Megan Coulter for her work transcribing this interview.