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Donald A. Yerxa


The Small Chill

Rediscovering climate's impact on history

While it would seem patently obvious that geography and climate provide an indispensable framework for understanding the drama of history, historians have been wary of invoking anything remotely smacking of environmental determinism. This is in no small part because 80 years ago a Yale geographer "went too far" and argued that geography and climate were the primary factors determining history. Ellsworth Huntington created a hierarchy of civilizations based upon climactic advantage or disadvantage: cool climates stimulate civilizational energies, while tropical climates enervate. Huntington's Civilization and Climate (1924) argued that a favorably "bracing" climate enabled northern Europeans (and by extension their North American transplants) to develop the most advanced civilization in history. According to Harvard economic historian David Landes, Huntington "gave geography a bad name." The idea that geography, and especially climate, influenced history became contaminated with a determinism that to most American scholars had the odor of racism.

It would be an exaggeration to say that historians entirely neglected climate in the decades after Huntington. The French Annales school took very seriously "the history of man in relation to his surroundings." Fernand Braudel's celebrated notion of longue durÉe and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's Times of Feast, Times of Famine: A History of Climate Since the Year 1000 (1971) are the most prominent Annales examples in this regard. In 1980, the Journal of Interdisciplinary History devoted an entire issue to a symposium on climate and history, but the call to consider climate afresh went largely unnoticed in historical circles. Prominent among the contributors to that symposium was American historian David Hackett Fischer, who noted that Huntington's determinism was never really refuted; it was merely ridiculed for failing "to fit the metaphysical framework of social science in the mid-twentieth century." Indeed, one of the uglier scenes ...

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