Saturday, April 15, 2023

Joseph Giacomelli's "Uncertain Climes"

Joseph Giacomelli is assistant professor of environmental history at Duke Kunshan University.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Uncertain Climes: Debating Climate Change in Gilded Age America, and reported the following:
Surprisingly, page 99 of Uncertain Climes does not mention climate (the main topic of the book) a single time! Instead, this page, which appears near the beginning of chapter 5, introduces readers to John Warder (1812-1883), a physician and polymath who founded the American Forestry Association. Warder sought to conserve existing forests while also planting trees in arid or formerly forested regions. Before providing a biographical sketch of Warder's life and career, page 99 briefly describes how Warder's allies and colleagues reacted to his death. Some of his supporters wrote emotional tributes to Warder, and page 99 features a poem detailing how Warder "caught the everlasting sympathies/Of all the lute-lipped leaves. He held the keys/ Of nature's variant moods and solitudes." Again, this selection from the book is quite unusual, since much of Uncertain Climes focuses not on poems but on climatic reports, surveys, newspaper columns, and booster pamphlets.

Even though page 99 does not explicitly discuss climate, the following pages explain Warder's role in Gilded-Age debates about human-induced climatic changes. These contentious debates, which engulfed the US in the 1870s and 1880s, focused on whether Euro-American society could transform climatic conditions, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Like many of his fellow supporters of "forest culture," Warder cited climatic improvements as one of the main benefits of forest planting and conservation. Many of his colleagues and allies portrayed droughts and violent storms as evidence of climatic volatility caused by deforestation and other human influences. Through careful reforestation and afforestation, Warder and his allied argued, American society restore climatic and environmental equilibrium.

It is tempting to dismiss Warder's climatic writings as amateurish and nearly irrelevant, especially in light of the seemingly more scientific forms of climate science and forest management which would eventually replace forest advocacy such as Warder's. Indeed, as evidenced by the poem on page 99, Warder and his allies often appealed to romantic notions such as the variability and mystery of "nature." Yet the book argues that Warder's type of forest advocacy and climate theory was not merely the last vestige of older environmental traditions. Much of Uncertain Climes seeks to explain how the climatic beliefs of people such as Warder shaped Gilded-Age environmental and scientific knowledge as well as broader debates about the future of American capitalism and expansionism.
Learn more about Uncertain Climes at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue