Climate Cultures

Planetary concerns over pathogenic environments have attained fever-pitch yet the larger eco-crisis arising from imperial impulses continues unchanged

By   |  Pramod K Nayar  |  Published: 30th May 2021  12:09 am
Photo: Agencies

Bringing the pandemic into the climate change debate, in June 2020, the Columbia Climate School published a “State of the Planet Report”, titled “Covid-19’s Long-Term Effects on Climate Change – For Better or For Worse”.  It noted:

“Covid-19 may result in an approximately five to eight percent reduction in average global emissions for the year…COVID-19 has vastly increased our use of plastic: gloves and masks, plexiglass dividers in stores and offices, and disposable shopping bags.”

It also noted how New Green Deals and initiatives were inaugurated in certain countries like South Korea, France and Germany during the pandemic, while others could not. A more explicit linkage between the pandemic and climatic conditions was made by Sheryl Zang et al in their Public Health Nursing essay:

“The high rate of COVID mortality in these communities has been attributed to pre‐existing conditions including respiratory illness and poor access to high quality care, but it does appear that climate change may also play a role in the etiology of poor air quality and increasing these disparities…”

With the proscription on travel to and from imposed on numerous countries – India is one such – debates about the global interconnectedness of health and pathogenic environments have resurfaced, with charges of racialised prohibitions, and questions of identity and belonging. Juxtaposing these, one gleans a specific alignment: race, nationhood, climate and pathology.

A Columbia Climate School report notes how New Green Deals were inaugurated in countries like South Korea, France, Germany during the pandemic while others could not

Imperial History

This alignment has a history, in fact an imperious and imperial history. Today’s climate racism and climate justice movements are responses to such a history of mapping the world’s climate, weather patterns and people.

Commentators theorising an Anthropocene epoch now expand this alignment to speak of the history of human interventions that have altered the earth irrevocably, with the year 1610’s drastic ‘dip in atmospheric CO2’ and 1964’s nuclear detonation that changed radioactivity levels as two dates that mark the Anthropocene epoch, according to one 2015 study by geographers Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin in Nature.

Ayesha Ramachandran in her The Worldmakers: Global Imagining in Early Modern Europe (2015), argues: “all aspects of early modern culture were fuelled by this desire to comprehend the world, to organize and capture its variety in a single, harmonious frame.”

Ramachandran demonstrates how: “Early advertisements for navigational tracts, scientific instruments, and maps promise untold riches in lands yet-to-be-discovered. Political treatises dream of empires vaster than any classical civilization…”

The ‘new, global scale of such dreams’ constructed the world, ready for exploration, ‘discovery’ and eventual domination. In addition to Ramachandran’s exhaustive list of popular, political, literary and cartographic texts that constructed a racialised world, we can add climate documentation. The European study of climate was an integral component of world making, dating back to the ancient world and gathering strength in the Early Modern. In the accounts right from the Early Modern period, in addition to the worldmaking that Ramachandran unpacks, we can discern a climate politics.

Colonial Climes

In his travel account A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588), Thomas Hariot would compare the climate of various parts of the globe as follows: “the nature of the climate [in Virginia] is answerable to the Island of Japan, the land of China, Persia, Jury, the Island of Cyprus and Candy, the South parts of Greece, Italy and Spain, and of many other notable and famous countries.”

Walter Raleigh’s History of the World (1614) stated: “On 35 degrees Latitude, Paradise was created a part of this Earth, and seated in the lower part of Eden or Mesopotamia, containing also a part of Shinar and Armenia; it stands 35 degrees from the Equinoctiall, and 55 from the North-pole, in a temperate Climate, full of excellent fruits, chiefly of Palme-trees without labour; for wherein soever the Earth, Nature, and the Sun can most vaunt that they have excelled.”

Raleigh’s views would find an echo in the writings of early century travellers to India. Edward Terry (1655) writes:

“This most spacious and fertile land (called by the inhabitants Indostan) so much abounds in all necessaries for the use and service of man, to feed, and cloathe and enrich him, as that it is able to subsist and flourish of itself, without any help from any neighbour prince or nation . . .

When the ground there hath been destitute of rain nine months together, and looks all of it like the barren sands in the deserts of Arabia, where there is not one spire of green grass to be found, within a few days after those fat enriching showers begin to fall, the face of the earth there (as it were by a new Resurrection) is so revived, and throughout so renewed, as that it is presently covered all over with a pure green mantle . . . amongst the many hundred acres of corn of diverse kinds I have there beheld, I never saw any but what was very rich and good, standing as thick on the ground as the land could well bear it.”

John Fryer (1698) believed that India’s two harvests are ‘most natural and uncompelled’ because of the excellent climate. Thomas Herbert (1634) exclaims: ‘these negroes…have no famine of nature’s gifts and blessings’. John Ovington (1696) noted that the natives’ days are indolent due to the weather: “Because of the heat, they eat at eight or nine in the morning, then at four or five in the afternoon.” Jemima Kindersley in 1761 would write witheringly of Indians found ‘sitting at their doors unemployed, like statues’.

The knowledge of climatic and weather conditions was as intrinsic to the evaluation of the world’s regions as the information about property, trade rights and trade routes. This dual knowledge would constitute the cornerstone of the imperial edifice

Here the politics of writing a history of weather comes through clearly: the natives of the subcontinent do not have to labour because their lands and climate produce whatever they need. As a result, the natives have become indolent. The famous colonial stereotype of Indian/Asian laziness originates in their accounts of subcontinental climate.

Another text from the period, William Allingham’s A Short Account, of the Nature and Use of Maps (1698), said: “The Climates are certain spaces of Earth, limited by two Parallels, distant from the Equinoctial toward each Pole; the difference betwixt the Zones and Climates, is this: The principal Office of the Zones is to distinguish the quality of the Air, in respect of Heat and Cold, and the alteration of Shadows. “

What is interesting in Allingham’s text is – immediately after the cartographic account of locations and climate, we find a listing of ‘the Factories and Places now in Possession of the English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and Danes, both in the East and West-Indies’. Thus, in Allingham’s text, the detailing of the world’s climatic zones is to be read alongside the organisation of the world in terms of the European ownership of spaces, regions and resources.

The famous colonial stereotype of Indian/Asian laziness originates in the accounts of subcontinental climate

The knowledge of climatic and weather conditions was as intrinsic to the evaluation of the world’s regions as the information about property, trade rights and trade routes. This dual knowledge would constitute the cornerstone of the imperial edifice.

Heavy Weather

Mapping weather and climate would gather strength in the 18th century, alongside the massive mapping project, the Great Trigonometrical Survey. Edward Ives (1773), for instance, carefully plots weather conditions over several months, and records it in A Voyage from England to India (1773). A daily meteorological diary was maintained for Calcutta for 1 February 1784-31 December 1785 by Henry Trail, and later published in the Asiatic Researches (1799).

Henry Piddington coined the term ‘cyclone’ to describe the Bengal thunderstorms, and published works which were accounts of individual thunderstorms
in the Bay of Bengal

Through the 1830s and 40s, Henry Piddington documented the weather conditions in the Bay of Bengal. In theJournal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Piddington, who coined the term ‘cyclone’ to describe the Bengal thunderstorms, published works such as ‘Research on the Gale and Hurricane in the Bay of Bengal on the 3rd, 4th and 5th  of June, 1839’, and over 20 texts titled ‘Memoir of the Law of Storms’, which were accounts of individual thunderstorms in the Bay of Bengal and the ‘China Seas’, thereby creating the corpus of works for colonial meteorology.

As Richard Grove (1998) has demonstrated, subsequent studies of El Nino were a part of asserting, via meteorological knowledge, European power over the world and texts such as Piddington’s would become the source of such knowledge. This knowledge also facilitated trade, enabling the Company to seek better and safer routes from inclement weather.

The colony’s climate was not only a laboratory for testing European theories of health and hygiene, but also for the creation of a ‘moral meteorology’, as Mark Elvin calls it, attributing the morality of the natives to the weather, as already noted. This too is integral to the colonial project for it constructed the natives as immoral and non-modern and, therefore, requiring the superior Europeans to educate and civilise them. The measurement and study of climate dovetailed, then, into the imagining and construction of the Empire’s grand ‘civilisational mission’.

Studies of El Nino were a part of asserting,
via meteorological knowledge, European power
over the world

Moral Meteorology

A far-reaching consequence, besides oceanic trade, of this colonial climate politics was the development of hill-stations in India. Judith Kenny in her extensive studies of the colonial hill-stations argues that by building structures such as the Government House in elevated places like Ooty, ‘the British vantage point opened vistas to the surrounding hills and the lake below while closing off for the most part the view of the “natives” ’.

Elsewhere, Kenny writes that after the initial approval of hill stations for their climatic suitability they were also evaluated for other reasons: ‘the summer capital was the symbolic heart of British India in the midst of a more desirable “race” of people than the Bengali’.

Hill stations like Ooty and Shimla were responses to the climate of the subcontinent, but also signs of imperial dominance and power

The salubrious weather of Ooty and Shimla enabled a more equable space for English socialising – away from the dusty, hot and ‘wild’ India of the summer season – and produced an entire genre of literature, the ‘Station Romance’. Dane Kennedy in The Magic Mountains: Hill Stations and the British Raj (1996) argues that the ‘escape’ was initially physical (several of these stations began as sanitaria) and later psychological. Admittedly, it was an escape from the hot weather, but it also signified further conquest and distancing from the ruled, by the rulers.

In the process of studying and domesticating the weather, the colonials had mapped the land, built awe-inducing structures (from buildings to towns), documented the best possible oceanic and other routes for trade and used the land as a testing ground for theories of sickness and medicine, which furthered their own biomedical practices and treatments. Their specific stereotypes of the natives through the moral meteorology also enabled the cause of imperial domination.

Today, in the politics of the pandemic and climate change studied by scholars, the larger eco-crisis arising from colonising impulses by developed and other nations, we find the subtle iteration of the racialised and imperial climate cultures of the earlier eras, and this ought to further our understanding of the history of weather itself.

Colonialism was the climate under which millions led their lives. As the planetary concerns over pathogenic environments of the Global South attain fever pitch, the weather for the formerly colonised has not changed for the better.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)


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