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Edward Gibbon on climate change

Along with my various other reading projects I'm slowly working through Gibbon, who may not be a laugh a minute but has a surprising number of jokes. I was struck by his conclusions regarding climate change, which are more or less along the right lines if not quite for the right reasons:
Some ingenious writers have suspected that Europe was much colder formerly than it is at present; and the most ancient descriptions of the climate of Germany tend exceedingly to confirm their theory. The general complaints of intense frost, and eternal winter, are perhaps little to be regarded, since we have no method of reducing to the accurate standard of the thermometer the feelings or the expressions of an orator, born in the happier regions of Greece or Asia. But I shall select two remarkable circumstances of a less equivocal nature. 1/. The great rivers which covered the Roman provinces, the Rhine and the Danube, were frequently frozen over, and capable of supporting the most enormous weights. The barbarians, who often chose that severe season for their inroads, transported, without apprehension or danger, their numerous armies, their cavalry, and their heavy wagons, over a vast and solid bridge of ice. Modern ages have not presented an instance of a like phenomenon. 2/. The reindeer, that useful animal, from whom the savage of the North derives the best comforts of his dreary life, is of a constitution that supports, and even requires, the most intense cold. He is found on the rock of Spitzberg, within ten degrees of the Pole; he seems to delight in the snows of Lapland and Siberia; but at present he cannot subsist, much less multiply, in any country to the south of the Baltic. In the time of Caesar, the reindeer, as well as the elk and the wild bull, was a native of the Hercynian forest, which then overshadowed a great part of Germany and Poland. The modern improvements sufficiently explain the causes of the diminution of the cold. These immense woods have been gradually cleared, which intercepted from the earth the rays of the sun. The morasses have been drained, and, in proportion as the soil has been cultivated, the air has become more temperate. Canada, at this day, is an exact picture of ancient Germany. Although situated in the same parallel with the finest provinces of France and England, that country experiences the most rigorous cold. The reindeer are very numerous, the ground is covered with deep and lasting snow, and the great river of St. Laurence is regularly frozen, in a season when the waters of the Seine and the Thames are usually free from ice.

My first reaction is, I wish I could write like that; and my second is to note the usual bigotry against the "savage of the North" with "his [not her] dreary life". But apart from that, it is a passage with interesting resonances.

Of course, Gibbon is probably unaware of the Gulf Stream warming northwestern Europe (Benjamin Franklin described it a few years later, in 1786). It's also fairly clear to the modern reader that human destruction of their habitat alone is enough to drive the reindeer and elk beyond the Baltic, rather than the trees providing some sort of continental cooling effect as Gibbon seems to believe. Like Gibbon, I do wonder a bit if the cold was exaggerated by Roman writers - he footnotes Ovid describing frozen lumps of wine being served at dinner, but I would observe that the Danube was a cold place for Ovid in more ways than one, and he was also a master of figures of speech.

Data are few and dubious, but the "Little Ice Age" generally described as having lasted from about 1500 to 1850 seems to have let up - and warmed up - specifically at the time that Gibbon was writing. It's not at all clear if this took Europe back up to the temperature levels of the first or second century, though. Yet his fundamental conclusion, that the major cause of climate change was anthropogenic and related to environmental exploitation, is well ahead of his time, even if the details are mostly wrong.


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 15th, 2009 09:36 pm (UTC)
I think Gibbon, like Montaigne and Hazlitt, seems to be a modern person, living in a previous age, using a modern mind to grapple with what is around him.
Mar. 15th, 2009 09:38 pm (UTC)
So you're doing the funky Gibbon at the moment?

(Since it's stuck in my head, why not share the pain...)
Mar. 15th, 2009 10:29 pm (UTC)
If you've never seen it, my bicentennial tribute to Gibbon is here.

I am going to reread him a little for my novel - did you know that Georgaina Duchess of Devonshire, her lover Bess, her sister Harriet Ponsonby and Harriet's daughter Caroline all took refuge with Gibbon from the Terror and the war? And that they were all of them involved in some sort of letter-smuggling out of Paris? And that Caroline at 12 made Gibbon's life hell by constant teasing - she was later Lady Caroline Lamb?
Mar. 18th, 2009 07:48 am (UTC)
Both your link and your historical footnotes are wonderful. (Did Amanda foreman mention this and I just forgot? Or is it your own research?)
Mar. 18th, 2009 08:45 am (UTC)
All of this is Amanda Foreman, basically. But she mentions the letter-smuggling without thinking of it as intelligence work of some kind. She is oddly over-focused sometimes - I noticed a couple of things she does not pick up on elsewhere.

She mentions that Georgaina considered publishing her poems and that her publisher was going to be Joseph Johnson and she does not seem to know who he was. (Publisher of Paine and Wollstonecraft and Godwin and altogether an odd person for someone not known for advanced views to be acquainted with - Foxite though Georgaina was.)

Also, while being clear that the Georgaina/Bess thing was sexual, she doesn't pick up on one obvious clue which is that in a couple of letters they quote the Book of Ruth to each other. Now, that is not conclusive evidence, but imagine if you were writing about an ambiguous male relationship and failed to pick up on quotations from the relevant bits of Kings...
Mar. 16th, 2009 01:50 pm (UTC)
I think Gibbon is mistaken about the Rhine "frequently" freezing over, at least before around 400CE. Certainly there was a famous incursion over the frozen Rhine in the early 5th century, but as far as I'm aware the historical evidence suggests that this was unusual, and indeed the difficulty that Rome had in dealing with would support the view that there was no recent precedent, and so it took Rome by surprise.

Regarding the climate over the last few thousand years, there is reason to think that there have been at least another couple of mini ice ages. For example, once southern Britain had been thoroughly Romanised, wine from the province was apparently highly regarded, so it's more likely that we are only now (as British wine again becomes a serious prospect) reaching the temperatures of what we might call the Roman warm period, (though of course we are expecting things to get warmer still). There is reason to think that there was a mini ice age following, (and it may indeed have contributed to the instability of Rome in the west), and cooler conditions prevailed pretty much until the medieval warm period.

In one sense Gibbon may actually have been ahead of us - I don't think enough account has yet been taken of the effect of deforestation and conversion of land to agriculture on climate. The problem of course is that it's a much longer process than industrialisation, which happened pretty fast, and so is easier to tie up to a climate graph.

Paul T
Mar. 16th, 2009 02:04 pm (UTC)
Hmm...I can't help thinking one can look up the tree ring and ancient pollen data sets from Europe, Russia, and Asia to draw up a picture of what climate was like in the time of Ovid.
Mar. 16th, 2009 06:11 pm (UTC)
There are quite a lot of proxies - O16/O18 is another. They will give you some idea of how warm or cold a period of years was, but we can't easily know about variations on a smaller scale (e.g. was there a particularly cold week where Ovid's wine froze). Also the various proxies don't always completely agree with each other.

Paul T
Mar. 17th, 2009 12:51 am (UTC)
Time scale
I would assume "Europe was much formerly cold than present" to mean a timescale longer than a week, but perhaps less long than a century, which would certainly be hard to discern in data clutter.
Mar. 17th, 2009 08:26 pm (UTC)
Re: Time scale
Ovid's exile was early in the 1st century CE, and the incursion of the Vandals et al over the frozen rhine was early in the 5th century CE, so it may be that Gibbon is assuming that the climate was the same in the roughly 400 years between. In reality, it is likely that Europe was warming by the time of Ovid, and cooling by 400CE. Gibbon is almost certainly correct that there have been periods when Europe was cooler than it was at the time he was writing, but they are likely before and after the period of Roman imperial dominance (and that may not be a coincidence).

Paul T
Mar. 17th, 2009 09:36 pm (UTC)
Re: Time scale

You're probably right, but please will you get a livejournal account so that I don't have to unscreen your comments?

(I have set up screening of anonymous comments because of vandalism on some of my more political entries.)
Mar. 26th, 2009 04:31 pm (UTC)
Re: Time scale
OK, finally got round to creating an account.

Mar. 17th, 2009 04:35 am (UTC)
What Gibbons means by the word 'savage' and what we mean by it nowadays may be quite different.

One old book where I've come across its repeated use is Isabella Bird's Unbeaten Tracks in Japan where it seems to mean 'uncivilized', and not 'violent' as is the modern connotation.
Mar. 18th, 2009 07:49 am (UTC)
But would Bird have used the word to describe English peasants?
Mar. 18th, 2009 08:43 am (UTC)
Firstly, I'm not sure the word 'peasants' would have been in use as a descriptive word (as opposed to a pejorative word) in the late 19th Century, which was Bird's era.

If she was talking about peasants historically I would doubt she would use the word as even peasants would be considered part of civilization.

If she was talking about contemporary English farm labourers I don't think she would use the word unless the people in question were acting in an uncivilized manner.

As to the thrust of your question - are you suggesting some prejudice on Bird's part?
Mar. 18th, 2009 09:14 am (UTC)
I have no idea about Bird's views; it just seems to me that "savage" is a pretty pejorative word, whether used by her or by Gibbon, and you haven't really convinced me otherwise!
Mar. 18th, 2009 12:58 pm (UTC)
Well a word's meaning can change with time, Awful becoming a word with a bad connotation when originally it had a good connotation being a good example.

Here's some quotes from Bird's book:

Their appearance and the want of delicacy of their habits
are simply abominable, and in the latter respect they contrast to
great disadvantage with several savage peoples that I have been

A short time ago Mr. Von Siebold and Count Diesbach galloped up on
their return from Biratori, the Aino village to which I am going;
and Count D., throwing himself from his horse, rushed up to me with
the exclamation, Les puces! les puces! They have brought down with
them the chief, Benri, a superb but dissipated-looking savage.

I never saw such a strangely picturesque sight as
that group of magnificent savages with the fitful firelight on
their faces, and for adjuncts the flare of the torch, the strong
lights, the blackness of the recesses of the room and of the roof,
at one end of which the stars looked in, and the row of savage
women in the background--eastern savagery and western civilisation
met in this hut, savagery giving and civilisation receiving, the
yellow-skinned Ito the connecting-link between the two, and the
representative of a civilisation to which our own is but an "infant
of days."

In every house the same honour was paid to a guest. This seems a
savage virtue which is not strong enough to survive much contact
with civilisation. Before I entered one lodge the woman brought
several of the finer mats, and arranged them as a pathway for me to
walk to the fire upon. They will not accept anything for lodging,
or for anything that they give, so I was anxious to help them by
buying some of their handiwork, but found even this a difficult
matter. They were very anxious to give, but when I desired to buy
they said they did not wish to part with their things.

Mar. 26th, 2009 04:53 pm (UTC)
I think the word has been used in a non-pejorative way in academic circles relatively recently (and perhaps still) - see for exsample "The Domestication of the Savage Mind" by Jack Goody. Prof. Goody is following Levi-Strauss ("La Pensee Sauvage") there, but the more nuanced meaning goes back long before that:

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