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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · February 11, 2015

What Pehr Kalm saw

WMQ 8 min read

In a further meditation on his recent piece in the January 2015 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, Fredrik Albritton Jonsson writes the following.

I have long been interested in the place of the environment in economic thought.  The growing threat of climate change drives home in a particularly powerful way the need to reconsider many fundamental assumptions about technology, markets and economic growth. Above all, I think we need to situate the process of economic development in the biophysical context of earth system science. An historical perspective is indispensable in understanding the stakes of such revisionism. The triumph of the Industrial Revolution set in motion a process of carbon dioxide emissions, which now threatens the welfare not just of our own species but the life supporting system of the planet. The old story of liberation from the demographic and technical shackles of agrarian society suddenly looks like an object lesson in unintended consequences.

Yet despite the mounting evidence of dangerous environmental change, our politicians still espouse an essentially cornucopian ideology: the object of good government is to facilitate a process of indefinite growth. On this count, environmental threats to society are best solved through technical fixes and further economic growth. What are the historical sources of this intransigent confidence? Why is environmental science so marginal to economic analysis?

One critical step in the evolution of these views, I would argue, took place during the Enlightenment, when Adam Smith and his allies constructed a defense of free markets predicated on a liberal interpretation of the natural world. They believed that the human economy reflected an underlying tendency towards self-regulation and equilibrium in the physical universe. Liberal regimes prospered because they followed the path of nature. The movement of commodity prices in large and unregulated markets offered the best incentive for wise husbandry of natural resources.[1]

However, this vision of essential harmony between markets and environment was by no means universal. Some eighteenth century observers held instead that the natural order was fragile and easily disturbed. They believed that government authority allied with expert knowledge was needed to husband resources and manage the environment. Pehr Kalm’s voyage to North America offers a useful case study of this alternative position. Kalm understood agriculture and resource husbandry through the lens of cameralist ideology. Natural historians should serve the nation by improving soil fertility and diversifying native flora and fauna. The aim was to ensure self-sufficiency in food, cash crops, and raw materials for manufacture. Kalm’s bioprospecting mission in the New World was conducted on hands and knees, crawling through the brush in search of indigenous grasses and other plants he hoped to bring back to Sweden. But such diligent fieldwork did not dispel a deep sense of unease. Kalm’s travel journal is filled with gloomy observations of species extirpation, negligent husbandry, soil exhaustion and other disturbances to the natural order. He was disgusted and disheartened by much that he saw.

Nowhere is this sense of ambivalence more evident than in Kalm’s preoccupation with the history of the European and American climate. Many Enlightenment savants conceived of climate as the product of civilization. Colonization, settlement and European forms of agriculture could ameliorate an excessively cold or hot climate over time. Kalm shared this idea of climate improvement but also worried that deficient government and bad customs could prove counterproductive. His travel journal recorded reports that the climate in the American colonies had deteriorated in recent generations. Kalm’s understanding of environmental change was oceanic and continental rather than local or national. He set out to the New World in part to show that the Atlantic Ocean, like the Baltic Sea, was gradually drying up.

Kalm’s notion of climate change should of course not be confused with our own moment of crisis. But the question of climate provides a very useful reference point when comparing the rival views of nature embodied in liberal and cameralist ideology. For Adam Smith, climate was a stable physical property of the natural world rather than an artifact of human improvement or degradation. Indeed, climate figured principally in Smith’s thought as a stimulus of exchange. Differences of soil and climate shaped the international division of labor. We might say then that liberal political economy already in the late eighteenth century had excluded climate change from the domain of legitimate economic analysis. It would be a worthwhile project to consider whether this disciplinary divergence gave rise to a persistent habit of trivializing problems of climate in liberal thought, running all the way to the present moment of climate change denialism among certain advocates of laissez faire.[2]

Fredrik Albritton Jonsson
Associate Professor of British History, Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science
The University of Chicago

[1] Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Enlightenment’s Frontier: the Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013).

[2] On the history of climate science, see Paul Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Cambridge, MA: MIT press, 2010); for denialism, see Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010).

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