Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Fredrik Albritton Jonsson's "Enlightenment’s Frontier"

Fredrik Albritton Jonsson is an assistant professor of British history at the University of Chicago.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Enlightenment's Frontier: The Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism, and reported the following:
In the summer of 1764, the Reverend John Walker went looking for virtue in the bogs and hills of the Hebrides. He reported to his friend Lord Kames that he had discovered a “New world” in the north, brimming with natural resources and healthy natives. Page 99 of my book Enlightenment’s Frontier recovers some of the scientific and cultural context of Walker’s voyage. A major influence on Walker was the 1703 travel account by the Gaelic geographer Martin Martin who described the inhabitants of the Hebrides as noble savages in the vein of Tacitus’ Germania. Another template for Walker’s vision was the 1732 expedition of Carl von Linné to Lapland. The botanist claimed to have discovered a providential economy in northern Sweden, populated by Sami reindeer pastoralists. By diversifying Lapland with useful plants and animals, he hoped to create a new Eden on the periphery.

These passages on page 99 capture fairly well my original design for Enlightenment’s Frontier. I was interested in exploring the environmental foundation of the Scottish Enlightenment and assumed that this was a story primarily about the use of the Highlands as a laboratory for Linnaean natural history. But like many other historians, I found a lot more than I had expected in the archives. Nested in Walker’s journey was a series of other narratives. One was the clash of rival ecologies in the Scottish Enlightenment. Walker saw in the environment a bountiful but unstable and fragile realm that had to be carefully managed by experts. In contrast, liberal improvers viewed nature as a mirror image of their markets - resilient and self-regulating. Moreover, this story of rival ecologies was connected to an even broader framework. When Walker’s quest for a Gaelic cornucopia failed at the end of the Enlightenment, northern Scotland became a crucible for Malthusian anxieties about overpopulation and resource exhaustion. In this way, the rise and fall of the Enlightenment in the Highlands sheds new light on the origins of environmentalism.

Page 99 (footnotes omitted):
health, and temperance of island life, “free from the various convulsions that ordinarily attend luxury.” This was a people molded by a nasty climate to brave adversity with industry and ascetic moderation. Martin insisted that “the ignorance of vices [was] more powerful among [them] than all the precepts of philosophy . . . among the Greeks.” These were men who knew neither sugar nor cinnamon and slept on “beds of heath” without nightcaps. Such a conflation of Greco-Roman imagery with Gaelic ethnography would have a long life among Martin’s readers and imitators.

The double vision of the Highlands owed much to Linnaeus’s travels in Lapland. As we have heard, Walker, Robertson, and Lightfoot were all committed to the Swedish botanist’s system of classification and the economic priorities embodied in his flora. Indeed, by relying on Linnaeus’s Flora Lapponica to identify useful or edible Highland plants, their accounts sometimes mixed the cultural legacies and economic prospects of Lapland and northern Scotland. Linnaeus’s book dwelled at length on the importance of native botanical knowledge to Sami subsistence. The far north accustomed them to food deemed inedible elsewhere such as unsalted fish, reindeer milk, and native wild plants. It also preserved them from the luxury of modern commerce and made them ignorant of “alcoholic beverages, tobacco, tea, coffee, sugar, silk [and] most spices.” Where another observer might have recoiled at debilitating scarcity, Linnaeus saw self-sufficiency and moderation: “The Lapp gets from his Reindeer herd almost all his needs; lives content and happy in his cold and sterile land.” This myth in turn helped sustain the moral aspect of Linnaeus’s cameralism. The Sami set a virtuous example to the rest of the nation. Only by subduing consumer appetites and denouncing luxury would his compatriots render Sweden truly independent.

Yet the centrality of Lapland to Linnaeus’s reputation never matured into a political commitment. The Swedish botanist spent only one summer in the north. Like so many other European social climbers, he took a colonial shortcut to wealth and authority. There was no compelling counterpart to the Scottish politics of population in Linnaeus’s thought because he did not think that the Sami needed special protection by the state or civil society (perhaps he would have if he had assigned them a military function). In contrast, Walker’s engagement with Highland improvement spanned the entirety of his career, from 1764 to 1803, and was driven by fertile anxieties about the economic and military fate of Scotland. The urgency and consistency of Walker’s commitment arose from the ways in which he disturbed and rearranged a mixture of Scottish commonplaces: conjectural history, the fear of Gaelic emigration, and worries about an inverse relation between commerce and martial valor. If history progressed by...
Learn more about Enlightenment's Frontier at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue