The Climate Crisis as an Early American Story

Emily Pawley, Anya Zilberstein, Scout Blum, and Keith Pluymers
A technical looking drawing of a primitive steam engine.

An 1830s-vintage “Grasshopper” steam locomotive of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, reproduced from an advertising lithograph issued by Gillingham & Winans. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The shock of the twinned, upward spiral of atmospheric CO2 and global temperatures over the last ten years makes it easy to imagine that the climate crisis is a recent story, a product of a great acceleration beginning in the 1980s, or at its earliest, in 1950. Current climate change and its effects, while frightening, might seem to lie beyond the concerns of scholars of the early American republic.

But it was in early America that some of the most durable patterns leading to the crisis were initiated, from the rise of extractive plantation agriculture, to the emergence of industrial production and the beginnings of fossil-fuel dependence, to the rapid destruction of eastern forests and the emergence of meat centric diets and the forms of production that enabled them, to the racist conceptualization of human societies that still determines who suffers most from modern climate change. Climate science too emerged alongside global commercial expansion and colonialism in the early modern period. As European colonists throughout the Americas fantasized about their ability to alter the climate, often through large-scale landscape transformations, it was New York women’s rights activist Eunice Foote who first identified and published on what we now call the “Greenhouse Effect” in 1856.

And early American connections continue to run through modern climate fights. Water protectors working to fight pipeline expansion and stop drilling on Indigenous land draw on deep-rooted ecological knowledge to confront the long history of genocidal treaties imposed since the sixteenth century. Climate cases in U.S. courts hinge on whether the Founders implicitly included a right to a stable climate in their framing of the Constitution. Regenerative agriculture advocates look increasingly to Indigenous techniques of land and wildfire management, and proponents of plans to cool the planet by reflecting sunlight back into space wrestle with the destruction wrought by volcanic eruption of Tambora in 1816, the “Year without a Summer.”

The essays gathered here make these connections visible, allowing us to see the histories of early American environments as threads snarled together with race, gender, and class, interwoven with every historical interaction, thus drawing our attention to new aspects of familiar stories and to stories that we have neglected altogether. They emerged from “The Climate Crisis: Early Americanists Respond,” a workshop that the Environmental Historians Action Collaborative (EHAC) co-organized with the McNeil Center, the Penn Program for Environmental Humanities, and the Early Modern Studies Institute at the University of Southern California, in June of 2022. As members of EHAC, we’re grateful to The Panorama for giving them this public forum.

Some of the essays help us think concretely about how scholars can communicate the connections between environmental past and present. Blake McGready shows us not only how the climate crisis is rapidly reshaping sites of public memory in early American history, but that pillars of revolutionary history like Valley Forge can help visitors see the intertwining of human and nonhuman histories.  Working with the Patapsco Valley State Park, Sophie Hess’s paper shows how the exploitation of enslaved and convict labor around the Patapsco River created a landscape more and more vulnerable to destructive floods. Pointing to the resistance of free Black farmers of the region, she challenges us to think beyond “restoration” of the forest by the state and move instead towards a restoration of land to those displaced and dispossessed. Broadening out this theme, Camile Suarez shows how continually weaving environmental change through her U.S. survey not only helps her students more deeply understand power relationships and social developments for generations of historical actors who immediately shaped and worked with their own landscapes, but also helps them make sense of rising movements of repair and restoration like Land Back.

Others can help us think through our own responses to ongoing disasters as well as catastrophic predictions of our climate future. Holly Jackson’s work argues that our narratives of apocalypse borrow from the Millerites’ vision of a sulfurous, clamoring chaos, which in turn fed on the environmental and social trauma of Miller’s own time. Emma Moesswilde shows how attentiveness to the day-to-day realities of settler-colonists responding to the Year Without a Summer can not only help us trace the forces driving colonization of the Ohio Valley but also to look past standard narratives of collapse to understand the daily practices and thought behind the work of adaptation and survival.

Finally, some essays take a historical approach to evaluating the host of solutions now massing on the horizon. Thus, Gustave Lester asks us to attend to the lines of connection between the geosciences that we now rely for a green transition and the processes of extractive colonialism and appropriation of Indigenous land and knowledge in which those sciences were and are rooted.

We hope these essays will encourage early Americanists to tease out the strands that link their own work to the climate crisis and to ask how we can mobilize that knowledge to help create a livable and just future.

23 May 2023

About the Authors

Emily Pawley is associate professor of history and Walter E. Beach ’56 Chair in Sustainability Studies at Dickinson College.

Anya Zilberstein is associate professor of history at Concordia University.

Scout Blum is professor of history at Troy University.

Keith Pluymers is assistant professor of at Illinois State University.

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