The Historical Roots of Today’s Climate of Apathy

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Ludolf Backhuysen, Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast, 1667

By Dagomar Degroot

In recent weeks widespread outrage over the publication of Kate Middleton’s topless photos has existed in strange parallel with a decidedly muted response to a shocking acceleration of Arctic melting. While every day brought new stories of royal indignation and litigation to the front pages of major newspapers, concern over the plight of our increasingly topless planet was tucked away in corners of the internet, where many comments were, as ever, skeptical at best. Nevertheless, our destruction or, at least, transformation of the planet’s environment continues despite our apathy and cynicism. This summer Arctic ice cover fell to 3.41 square kilometers, a decline by an area the size of Texas against the previous minimum and some 50% lower than the average between 1979 and 2000. The reasons for enduring public skepticism of climate science and global warming have been examined at length – most eloquently in Naomi Oreskes’ and Eric Conway’s Merchants of Doubt – but the causes for the apathy of believers are less clear.

Upon encountering present-day mysteries our natural inclination as “active” historians is to sift through the past for context and, perhaps, answers. This post proceeds along similar lines, and it is the fourth in a series (including “Historians and Global Warming,” “Historians, Global Warming, and the Mapping of Humanity’s Future,” and “Cheering for Global Warming: What Europe’s Climatic Past can tell us About our Attitudes Today“)  that explores how historians can shed light on global warming and its consequences. My research unravels relationships between early modern climatic fluctuations and the commercial, military and cultural histories of the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century. Although those climatic fluctuations were collectively part of a relatively cool climate known as the “Little Ice Age,” average European temperatures during the period could change by nearly 2 degrees Celsius in just a few years. That pales in comparison to the likely scale of future anthropogenic warming, but for historians seeking insight into the climatic shifts we’ve already experienced the Little Ice Age is a great place to look.

The problem is, of course, that most societies within early modern Europe bore little resemblance to our own, and the historical writing we examine to contextualize the present was recorded by observers who frequently perceived weather very differently than we do now. In that alien world the Dutch Republic was unique, a society with capitalist socio-economic structures that seem instantly familiar, and were expressed in everything from remarkable rates of urbanization to incessant financial speculation. Admittedly not many of us are rabid Calvinists or troll the North Sea for herring, but searching the historical record for perfect analogues to ourselves is, of course, impossible. The surviving records kept by the politicians, merchants, farmers and mariners of the Republic provide some of history’s best insights into how we approach a changing climate.

After countless hours spent reading tattered correspondence, water-stained ship logbooks and half-burned diary entries – and thanking the Dutch archival system for its growing commitment to digitalization – a pattern emerges for the weary environmental historian of the Dutch Republic. In the seventeenth century Netherlands, those furthest removed from the environmental necessities of life were least likely to appreciate the importance of weather, even in a country prone to devastating storm floods. Logbooks kept aboard Dutch sailing ships abound with meteorological observation because recording the influence of wind was critical for contemporary navigation. Moreover, the seaworthiness of the vessel, the survival of its stores and the health of its crew were strongly tied to the weather that prevailed during a journey. No surprise, then, that during gales sailors scribbled fearful notes in the margins of their logs, before describing their relief when the weather cleared. Scattered among these reflections are hints that mariners whose work bound them to defined geographic locations perceived changes in patterns of prevailing weather related to shifts in the early modern climate. On the other hand, letters sent by the Republic’s political elite from its many urban centres have limited value for the environmental historian. Johan de Witt, the Republic’s leading political figure in the mid-seventeenth century, was apparently far more concerned about the financial ramifications of the state’s rising debt than even the most severe weather events of his time. To paraphrase Mark Twain, history may not exactly repeat itself, but it does have a tendency to rhyme.

For sailors, such apathy was not an option. The most telling examples of the tension occasionally kindled by these very different attitudes come from the naval wars in which the Republic was embroiled for much of its tenure as a European great power. The weather of the First Anglo-Dutch War was unusually stormy, although the causes were likely unrelated to a broader climatic shift. Fall and winter in the North Sea is almost always tempestuous, but in 1653 the Republic’s situation looked desperate, and in late October the Dutch Admiral – the wonderfully named Witte de With – was still on convoy duty. As he returned to the islands that surrounded the interior waters of the Republic his supplies were low and his crew was mutinous. The Republic’s governing body decided that Witte and his fleet should receive their supplies at sea, to prevent widespread desertion upon arrival at port. In a series of increasingly desperate letters De With begged his superiors to reconsider. Leaving the fleet at sea in the unpredictable and often violent autumn weather was courting suicide, De With insisted, but his masters were unmoved. On November 7th De With’s predictions came to pass when a severe gale sunk eleven warships and drowned some 1,400 seamen.

Historians frequently wrestle with the challenge of creating inclusive histories for societies in which literacy was the privilege of the elite. While those of us who piece together the history of climate frequently use sources that have been overlooked by other historians, we also require the kind of continuous, quantifiable records that were not usually kept by the poor. We may use the logbooks compiled by naval officers where other historians read the correspondence of wealthy merchants, but the reflections of ordinary sailors and dock workers are too often lost to us, as well. Of course, it was often precisely the poor – both urban and rural – whose work and play was most rooted in the unique environment of the Dutch Republic. Consequently, what we do know about, for example, small-scale farmers is intriguing. When the early modern climate cooled and persistent freezing halted travel through the Republic’s many canals, farmers abandoned their boats and used sleds to transport their goods. By switching easily between different modes of transportation, farmers, so attuned to the weather, adapted better than most within the Dutch Republic.

Today, most of us live in concrete jungles that may be oppressed by heat and cold but seem far removed from the environmental consequences of those fluctuations in temperature. A book I recently read about the shipwrecked child of a zookeeper included a passage that, for the environmental historian, provided a thought-provoking summary of the concept of “home.” To the protagonist of Life of Pi, home is a place where the environmental necessities of life, otherwise scattered across a vast geographic expanse, are collected for our convenience. The environmental historian will, of course, note that those environmental resources are not collected but rather connected for our benefit; no food is stored within our urban apartments that did not come from outside. The disastrous droughts of the past summer have reminded some of us that the environmental networks that sustain our urban lives are already strained in the face of an accelerating climatic shift, although many within the American states most affected were likely more impressed with Paul Ryan’s workout regime.

Ultimately, separation from the environments that support us has more to do with our psychology than our geography. As the climate cooled in the late seventeenth century Adriaen van der Goes, a lawyer in The Hague, described weather patterns and their repercussions in vivid letters to his brothers. Neither class nor geography excuses our apathy. Like the politicians who doomed De With’s fleet, we should know better, and, in knowing, we should care.

Dagomar Degroot is a PhD Candidate at York University, where he explores the relationship between the climatic and human histories of the Dutch Republic. He is the creator of, and the co-administrator of the Climate History Network.

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