by Alec Israeli

Joyce E. Chaplin is the James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History at Harvard University. Specializing in the histories of science, climate, colonialism, and the environment, she is the author of An Anxious Pursuit: Agricultural Innovation and Modernity in the Lower South, 1730-1815 (1993), Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500-1676 (2001), The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius (2006), Round about the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit (2012), and The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Rereading the Principle of Population (2016, with Alison Bashford). She has also been the editor of several other volumes and written numerous reviews and essays.

Contributing editor Alec Israeli interviewed Professor Chaplin about her latest article in the Journal of the History of Ideas, “Historians of Ideas Rush in Where Stratigraphers Fear to Tread,” which reviews six new books on the concept of the Anthropocene.

In Part One of this two-part interview, they discussed how the environment has been incorporated into the study of the (human) past, and the shifting of disciplinary boundaries and collaborations prompted by scholarly engagements with the ongoing climate crisis.

Alec Israeli: Unlike most articles in an academic history journal, your piece directly addresses a major contemporary issue: climate change. In the past year, its impacts have made themselves painfully and acutely felt by many in the Global North, perhaps for the first time—wildfires raged, smoke choked the skies, and summer months routinely broke temperature records. I noticed from the footnotes that some of the websites you cite were accessed in July this year; was all that was going on at the time influencing your approach to the review? At what point, and why, did you decide to review these books all together?

Joyce Chaplin: I actually inherited this gig! At some point, I think in 2022, but it may have been the year before, the JHI’s editors got in touch, saying they’d been planning a review essay on the Anthropocene concept but that the original reviewer had for some reason bowed out. I agreed to step in—gladly. At that point, I added a couple of books to an original number the editors or the original reviewer had compiled, though I don’t remember which books I added, and which were original to the task.

Given this timing, I can’t say that the recent fires and floods influenced the review. I’ve been aware of climate change since the 1980s (truly: I’ve never owned a car, for instance). And, with respect, I think the idea that there wasn’t much evidence of climate change earlier isn’t helpful. There’s been a lot of evidence for decades. People in places that had flooding and fires, starting in the second half of the twentieth century, and even in the northern hemisphere, have been exposed to a lot of evidence of climate change, but the response, again and again—for decades—was denial. Northern Italy is a famous example. Despite catastrophic flooding in Venice in 1966, and continued evidence that sea-level rise and environmental degradation were on a collision course around the Veneto, it took decades for the city’s guardians and planners to admit that climate change itself was a factor. Venice’s famous MOSE barrier against its seasonal flooding (acqua alta) had to be retrofitted to take some aspects of climate change into account. So, the crisis has been gaining visibility for some time. All the books I reviewed were conceived, written, and published before this summer’s in-your-face events, for instance.

The books show that a growing number of academics who hadn’t been closely engaged with environmental topics are now addressing the climate crisis. In part, this is because the topic is becoming unavoidable. But I also think that because the Anthropocene is a concept, an idea or hypothesis, it was legible to historians of ideas, including scholars of political and economic ideas who’d maybe not thought a lot about the environment, but for whom the Anthropocene concept raised essential questions about governance and economy. This past summer’s events, therefore, didn’t prompt the books, the review, or how I reviewed the books, but I sure hope they focus attention on this kind of study and inspire more of it. The events are part of what climate observers call visibilization, making it clear to various kinds of denialists that, yes, there is a crisis. And so, I think the summer of 2023 will definitely affect how people read and respond to the review.

Oh, finally, the citations in the review that are very up-to-the-minute reflect how I was tracking news of the Anthropocene Working Group of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, organized by the International Union of Geological Sciences. (These are the stratigraphers of my review’s title.) In spring 2023, the working group announced its decision to use data from a site in Canada—Crawford Lake—to designate a geologically significant anthropogenic alteration of the Earth’s atmosphere and stratigraphy. I wanted to keep track of any possible updates, though the next big news (rejection or ratification of the working group’s report) probably won’t come until 2024, with a vote by the International Union of Geological Sciences.

AI: The introductory portion of your review—and the title itself—suggests that the interest of humanists in the “Anthropocene” as a concept is related to remaining uncertainty among geologists about whether yet to officially admit humanity into the ambit of geologic forces. Here, to me, the muddling of the disciplinary division of labor paralleled the current muddling of the specific historical distinction between humanity and nature that emerges in the course of Western modernity these books describe.

JC: Yes, absolutely. Because I’ve focused on premodern history in the global West for a lot of my career, I know that people in that time and place tended to assume they were embedded in a larger natural world and that they were subject (often tragically) to its forces, with limited capacity to resist the worst that nature might throw at them. The perceived (and hypothetical) split between humanity and nature is much more recent, emerging gradually, along with a rising confidence in human ability to control or resist natural forces, definitely by the seventeenth century, and more clearly during the industrial revolution. Only in the twentieth century did there begin to be some serious rethinking of this, with revival of some earlier ways of thinking about limits of human control over the nonhuman.

AI: I’m reminded here of a section of The Historian’s Craft (1942) by Marc Bloch, in which he distinguishes the study of history from the general study of “the past” by way of geology: the silting of the harbor of Bruges, Belgium, that pushed the city inland over the course of the Middle Ages might be perceived as geologically caused, but was really caused by human-made dikes elsewhere. The “appearance of the human element” within natural elements, then, put this shift in the realm of “history” rather than “geology.” Yet Bloch presciently posited the dialectical tie between human society and the physical world: “Does the physical ever effect the social, unless its operations have been prepared, abetted, and given scope by other factors which themselves have already derived from man?” In other words, Bloch saw as constitutive of “history” as such the presence of humanity as a geologic force—with an example from centuries before the 18th–20th century focus of the books you review.

JC: Bloch and other European scholars of his generation did exemplify this rethinking—second thoughts about humanity’s supposed dominance of the nonhuman world. They and other founders of the Annales school were serious about examining history as embedded in geology, and therefore proceeding over longer durations than had been typical for academic study of the past. That’s maybe most obvious in Fernand Braudel’s great work examining The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949), which explicitly identified different temporalities, ranging from the slow passage of geological time to the quickest tempo of human-driven events.

Braudel definitely wanted to convey that nature was the more powerful, longer-prevailing force, and the coming and going of reigns and dynasties that had been used to periodize European history was comparatively incidental. And then another Annaliste, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, did amazing pioneering work on climate, especially in his History of Climate since the Year 1000, first published (in French) in 1967, long before climate was anything most historians thought had a history. Braudel conceived and published his work before environmental history emerged in the United States (filling a vacuum caused by the decline of geography as a field in the US), and Le Roy Ladurie likewise worked mostly independently of environmental history. I should also mention H. H. Lamb, working in parallel on climate history, in England, starting in the 1960s—Lamb was one of the first people to study how climate could change within the duration of an individual’s life and experience.

AI: Building from these precedents, how do the books you review understand the shift in human-environmental consciousness—if not just environmental impact—that seems to occur in the modern era? And, to what extent can this realization and its conceptual implications be extended backward by historians today (as in Bloch’s case: a 20th century historian possessing great modern awareness of human impact on natural forms, projecting this division back onto a premodern event)?

JC: I really appreciated having a whole pile of books by current historians who are aware of the longer history of pretending humans can control the natural world and who realize what’s at stake in this fantasy, especially now that everyday events defy it. I don’t think the Annales school pioneers are commonly remembered—still less appreciated—as ancestors in this integration of the human with the geological within academic historical analysis, though they definitely are. But it’s significant that they wouldn’t have said that humans could, collectively, constitute the equivalent of a geological force on the natural world. If anything, they presented nature as an Über-variable, leading to a lot of accusations that they were material determinists. This was tendentious and unhelpful. A knee-jerk rejection of the place of natural forces in human history probably contributed to climate-change denialism.

That’s one reason the books I reviewed are so interesting and important, in stating that any analysis of the nonhuman isn’t necessarily deterministic—it’s just good analysis. And, although the books are all contributions to intellectual history, they also represent different subfields: history of science for Carolyn Merchant and Etienne Benson; political thought for Pierre Charbonnier, Christophe Bonneuil, Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, and Duncan Kelly; environmental history for Paul Warde, Libby Robin, and Sverker Sörlin. Those final three authors are, I think, an interesting case, because they represent a subfield in which people were for decades very careful to insist they weren’t material determinists. So, if this new respect for the power and autonomy of nonhuman nature represents a “turn” in the field of history generally, it’s also a turning point for multiple subfields, and maybe convergence of interest and conversation across intellectual boundaries—we’ll see.

AI: To extend the theme of the muddling of history and geology: you refer to post-1945 years as a “Great Acceleration,” an exponentially increasing pace of humanity emitting various pollutants that have left an ultimate environmental mark, contributing to the kinds of cataclysmic “natural” events that are ever-more common. Thus, the appearance of human history’s acceleration—insofar as this history consists of the things we make and the collective activities this making is based upon and sprouts—causally paralleled the acceleration of natural temporal movements, too.

JC: The Great Acceleration was coined to periodize a recent Anthropocene, beginning in the 1940s or 1950s, to give greater precision to the really catastrophic level of damage that has been occurring since the end of World War II, much the most dramatic in history, whatever the toll of earlier phases of industrialization and consumerism. This acceleration can be measured either by what humans have been consuming or by what they’ve been emitting; often these are linked, as with fossil fuels and their emissions, with dual costs of extraction and pollution. And, right, this means that environmental crisis points have been happening with an accelerating frequency.

AI: Informing the debate about the “Anthropocene,” then, are climactic changes that would normally happen on a much longer, geological timeline: we are experiencing usually suprahistorical events on a historical timescale of human life. What do you make of this confounding of temporalities? Does it have a role in historians’ current interest in jumping into a debate that has often remained in the rarefied realm of science? As you discuss, something about historians’ usual human time frames make environmental changes more humanly conceivable. On this front: do you think that this kind of incursion of the geological into the historical will (or should) have any impact on historians’ thinking about time?

JC: I wouldn’t say science is rarefied, but it’s specialized. This meant that, in all the earlier decades of warnings about climate change, which emphasized that developments which had once taken place at a sometimes literally glacial pace were now compressed into mere decades, scientists depended on other actors to affirm the truth of their data and of their modelling of the data to represent the nature and rate of change. Basically, the scientists needed “translators” to say to the public: if you think you (and other people) benefit from science—everything from antibiotics to airbags—then here’s something that experts in science are saying will have significant impact on human life. The task of translating and affirming the science mostly fell to politicians and journalists, two groups that either shrank from the task or gave it only intermittent attention.

There were some exceptions, near the start. Lyndon Johnson, for instance, was the first US president to be briefed on carbon pollution of the atmosphere, way back in 1965, and he accepted the truth of it. Likewise, Margaret Thatcher, in a speech at the United Nations in 1989, warned about the existential dangers of global warming. But these public interventions became infrequent; journalists backed off. (Not quite a decade ago, an editor of an online publication told me that climate change might be bad for human life but, unfortunately, it also killed readers’ interest.) Meanwhile, the general public—and here I’d have to include nonscientist academics, who didn’t behave very differently from anyone else—could tell themselves that they didn’t have the qualifications to comprehend the science, and, in the United States in particular, nothing got done. What I want to emphasize is that thinking climate change is a recent hazard and we haven’t had much time to consider it—that’s a lie.

It’s really intriguing that, compared to the science of global warming, widely ignored, the Anthropocene concept got pretty rapid buy-in from nonscientific thinkers, maybe because, as an idea, it seemed like something social scientists and humanists could tackle. Some of the first historians to seriously address climate change were in fact scholars of the early modern period, Karen Kupperman (an early Americanist) and Geoffrey Parker (an early modern Europeanist). Generationally, they would have been graduate students when the Annales school was new and hot, and I think there’s definitely an intellectual inheritance. I’d say that Kupperman and Parker’s work had impact, but it’s only been a newer group of scholars of the modern period who began to think about the Anthropocene—and the Great Acceleration—as problems of modernity, and therefore of what might or might not set the modern apart from what came earlier. The books I reviewed here all exemplify that willingness to connect the rapidly-changing material world of the present and the recent past to somewhat longer-term trends in political and scientific thinking. That’s to say that, although their collective focus is mostly on the recent past (and into the present), they do their analyses in awareness of a longer history, even if they don’t investigate it directly. In terms of what this might do to how historians will now think about time, I think it might be the case that more of them accept, at least passively, the longer and slower chronologies that Braudel and that geologists think with, even as this prompts them to focus on the shorter and faster chronologies of emergency conditions, meaning what we’re living in now—and what might be done about it.

Part Two of this interview will be published on December 1, 2023.

Alec Israeli is an assistant editor at Jacobin magazine and a recent alumnus of Trinity College, University of Cambridge, where he earned an MPhil with distinction in Political Thought and Intellectual History as a recipient of a Dunlevie King’s Hall Studentship. His research considers overlaps of intellectual history and labor history in the 19th-century Atlantic world, focusing on theorizations of free versus unfree labor in both political-economic and metaphysical terms. He is additionally interested in the philosophy of history (and the history of the philosophy of history). Alec received a BA in History from Princeton University. His work has also appeared in Jacobin, the Vanderbilt Historical Review, the Columbia Journal of History, the Princeton Progressive Magazine, and the Mudd Library Blog.

Featured image: Wildfire at Lick Creek, Umatilla National Forest, Oregon, United States, U.S. Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Region, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.