Global Weirding in America’s First Gilded Age

April 25, 2017

National Archives, College park, MD, RG 95, Entry 122 – Records of the Forest Research Divisions – Newspaper Clippings, 1890–1940.

“The disastrous floods and tornadoes in the United States within the last five years have been unparalleled in the history of the country,” asserted Frank R. Kimball in an 1886 lecture at the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts. Kimball addressed widespread concerns that weather patterns had grown ever more “changeable and uncertain.” Mixing quantitative and anecdotal or experiential evidence, he explained that “the dry season in California has been growing shorter,” while in the northeast, “for several years our proverbial April weather has been a stranger.” Kimball described the increasing volatility of climate as a global phenomenon: “The frequency of severe storms all over the world has been very unusual.”[1]

Euro-Americans had been debating possible climatic changes long before Kimball delivered his speech.[2] But the decades spanning the Civil War and the turn of the twentieth century saw a proliferation of climate-related speeches and writings. These debates took place in elite institutional settings such as the Essex Institute and in small town newspapers and rural agricultural society lecture halls.[3] Despite the ongoing institutionalization of disciplines such as meteorology and climatology, climatic folklore and naturalistic impressions intermingled with statistical studies and data-collection efforts. Historians have focused especially on Gilded-Age “rain follows the plow” theory—the notion that Euro-American settlers could improve the semi-arid climate of the Great Plains and Intermountain West through agriculture and systematic tree-planting. In addition to these oft-cited beliefs, climate theorists advanced a dizzying array of climate theories, some focusing on human-induced climate modification, some on “natural” cyclical changes, and some on the immutability of climatic patterns. Many authors exhibited an almost utopian belief in humanity’s ability to improve environment and atmosphere. Other climate theorists, meanwhile, described ongoing enviro-climatic degradation and warned of looming climate catastrophes brought on by deforestation, soil erosion, and other human influences.[4]

Kimball inhabited the middle space between the utopian and dystopian currents of Gilded-Age environmental thought. Though wary of the increasing volatility of climate, he used a cautious approach in seeking an explanation for anomalous weather patterns. He considered possible changes in the “relations existing between the members of the solar system” as well as the potential role of “the eruption of Krakatoa in Java in the summer of 1883.”[5] But neither volcanic nor cosmic factors fully satisfied Kimball. His eclectic scientific vision prevented him from privileging a single causal explanation for climatic changes. Kimball adhered to longstanding theories about the effect of climatic conditions on the health of both individuals and “civilizations”—ideas that often served to legitimize colonialism and dated back to the eighteenth-century writings of Montesquieu and earlier.[6] At the same time, however, Kimball’s lecture also underscored newer concerns about the climatic influence of large-scale industrialization and its environmental consequences, deforestation chief among them.

Kimball’s uncertainty about the causes of strange new weather patterns reflected a broader lack of consensus. Gilded-Age climate theorists never reached an agreement about the existence, cause, and possible scale—local, regional, or global—of purported climatic changes. Even as droughts in the 1880s and 1890s dented some confidence about agriculture and forestry-induced climate improvement, desiccation and climatic amelioration theories persisted into the twentieth century. In 1907, for example, U.S. Weather Bureau chief Willis Moore triggered a controversy by challenging the notion that settlement in Kansas had rendered the climate of the Great Plains more equable and temperate.[7] Climate modification initiatives re-emerged, albeit in modified form, during the 1920s and 1930s. New Deal efforts to mitigate the Dust Bowl with “shelter-belts” of trees testify to the long legacy of Gilded-Age climate theory.[8]

The porous boundary between science, culture, and politics accounts for both the persistence and the inchoate nature of Gilded-Age climate discourse. During the late nineteenth-century, government officials, capitalists, surveyors, and other figures used climate science for a broad range of political and economic ends. Across the American West, for example, boosters predicated economic expansion and genocidal policies toward Native Americans on the belief that only Euro-Americans qualified as legitimate custodians of a fragile, volatile climate.[9] By contrast, reform-minded critics of extractive Gilded-Age development portrayed climatic progress and speculative capitalism as irreconcilable. Others sought to harness market forces and transform them into a beneficial influence on climate.[10]

It’s difficult to discern a simple political or economic calculus in Kimball’s climate speech. He tacitly endorsed the ideology of American progress and development, but would not qualify as an ardent expansionist or booster. Unable to pinpoint the exact origin of alarming climatic changes, Kimball did not want to leave his audience without a clear take-away. The complex, interrelated forces shaping climate, he believed, remained mysterious and often beyond the reach of human agency. So he exhorted his listeners to act in the manner most likely to create a positive climatic outcome. While admitting that “the destruction of the forests could not cause all the varied and unusual meteorological phenomena which we have been considering,” Kimball stressed that “the most important agents of climatic change within the control of man are the forests. These have an important bearing on the climate of a place and their wholesale destruction is apt to create an unfavorable change.”[11]

From a contemporary perspective, the accuracy of Kimball’s climate theories matters less than the scientific and conservationist politics embedded in his speech. He coped with scientific uncertainty and environmental complexity, gesturing toward the persistence of mysteries and unknowns even as he issued clear prescriptions to his listeners. Many Gilded-Age climate theorists struggled to come to terms with the uncertainty intrinsic to climate change discourse and, more broadly, to all scientific inquiry. Some voiced their frustration at the fleeting nature of climatic facts and truths. Others, like Kimball, deftly incorporated uncertainty into their climate politics.[12]

As students of environmental history and the history of science, we sometimes undertake a delicate balancing act, pointing out the tenuousness and contingency of historical scientific paradigms but invoking the unquestioned authority of contemporary “science” when discussing the pressing problem of contemporary global climate change. Perhaps the writings of climate theorists from the Gilded Age offer a way of dealing with this paradox. Climate history underscores the scholar Mike Hulme’s assertion that “far from being able to eliminate uncertainty, science—especially climate change science—is most useful to society when it finds good ways of recognizing, managing and communicating uncertainty.”[13]

Joseph Giacomelli is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Cornell University. His dissertation, ‘Uncertain Climes: Debating Climate Change in Gilded-Age America,’ examines the role of cultural and scientific uncertainty in late nineteenth-century climate politics.

[1] Frank R. Kimball, “The Climatology of the United States,” Bulletin of the Essex Institute 18 (Jan-Mar, 1886) 27-34.

[2] See James Rodger Fleming, Historical Perspectives on Climate Change, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) and Anya Zilberstein, A Temperate Empire: Making Climate Change in Early America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[3] See, for example, Transactions of the Iowa State Horticultural Society for 1879 (Des Moines: F.M. Mills, State Printer, 1880).

[4] For examples of scholarship mentioning “rain follows the plow” beliefs, see Henry Nash Smith “Rain Follows the Plow: The Notion of Increased Rainfall for the Great Plains, 1844-1880,” Huntington Library Quarterly 10 (Feb 1947); Charles R. Kutzleb, “Can Forests Bring Rain to the Plains?” Forest History 15 (Oct. 1971). The Nebraska booster-scientist Charles Dana Wilber coined the phrase “rain follows the plow.” His work epitomizes the hopeful, utopian strain of Gilded-Age climate theory. For an example of more alarmist late nineteenth-century climate writing, see Frederic Hawn, “Source of Rains in Kansas,” Quarterly Report of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture for the Quarter Ending September 30, 1881 (Topeka, KS Kansas Publishing House, 1881), 45-48, and Hiram Adolphus Cutting, Forests of Vermont (Montpelier: Vermont Watchman & State Journal Press, 1886. Many pessimistic climate theorists drew inspiration from George Perkins Marsh’s influential 1864 tome Man and Nature.

[5] Kimball, 33-34.

[6] Kimball claimed that “the climate of a country has a greater influence upon the health and prosperity of a people than is generally realized…No nation has advanced to high civilization without the concomitant advantages of a good climate…The greatest inventors, generals, statesmen and authors and the leaders of civilization are the product of the temperate zone” (3-4). For an example of older work on civilization and climate theory, see Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, “Of Laws as Relative to the Nature of the Climate,” Complete Works, vol. 1 (The Spirit of Laws). Environmental determinism and placed-based climate theory took on many guises; for excellent studies of miasma theory and medical geography in the nineteenth-century United States, see Conevery Bolton Valencius, The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and their Land (New York: Basic Books, 2002), and Linda Nash, Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

[7] For examples of outraged responses to Moore’s claims about climatic continuity, see the Kansas City Journal, Jan 28, 1907 (letter by M.E. Nichols), and “Moore Denies Attacking Western Kansas,” Topeka Daily Herald, Mar 9, 1907.

[8] For scholarly treatments of early twentieth-century climate-related afforestation, see Robert Gardner, “Constructing a technological forest: nature, culture, and tree-planting in the Nebraska Sand Hills,” Environmental History 14 (April 2009). See also Joel Orth, “Directing Nature’s Creative Forces: Climate Change, Afforestation, and the Nebraska National Forest,” Western Historical Quarterly 42 (Summer 2011). For an example of New Deal era shelterbelt projects, see Possibilities of Shelterbelt Planting in the Plains Region, Prepared under the direction of The Lake States Forest Experiment Station, USFS (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1935).

[9] See, for example, Adolphus Greely, Report of Rainfall in Washington Territory, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Indian Territory, and Texas (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1889) 50th Congress, 1st Session, Ex. Doc. No. 91. Greely, the Chief Signal Officer of the U.S. Signal Corps, claimed that the “confining of Indians to reservations” had facilitated timber growth in the West and would probably increase moisture and rainfall levels.

[10] In an 1884 report, for example, M.C. Read worried that “personal greed” and speculative capitalist development had jeopardized the environmental, hydrologic, and climatic stability of lands across the U.S. See M.C. Read, “The Preservation of Forests on the Headwaters of Streams” – “The Proper Value and Management of Government Timber Lands and the Distribution of North American Forest Trees, Being Papers Read at the United States Department of Agriculture, May 7-8, 1884.” Department of Agriculture. Miscellaneous. Special Report No. 5 (Washington: GPO, 1884).

[11] Kimball, 36-37.

[12] The government researcher George Curtis lamented the fact that extensive data collection efforts had not yielded clear conclusions about supposed climatic changes. See George E. Curtis, “The Trans-Mississippi Rainfall Problem Restated: The Rainfall in its Relation to Kansas Farming,” American Meteorological Journal 5, 2 (June 1888): 66. For an example of a Gilded-Age attempt to incorporate scientific uncertainty into meteo-climatic research, see Gustavus Hinrichs, Rainfall Laws Deduced from Twenty Years of Observation, (Washington, DC: Weather Bureau, 1893).

[13] Mike Hulme, Why We Disagree About Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 82.