Weather: Climate change - Victorian style

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
We may not fully understand the physical processes that determine our weather, but there was no doubt, in the mind of one eminent Victorian, that climate is a major factor in the history of civilisation. From the inherent rudeness of Arabs to the intellect of the British, from the terrifying nature of Scottish witches to the indolence of Spaniards, Henry Buckle found an explanation in the weather.

I have just been reading Henry Thomas Buckle's History of Civilization in England, and it has some fascinating things to say about the weather. Buckle was one of the greatest polymaths of Victorian England. He was fluent in seven languages and had a good working knowledge of another dozen; he was as good a chessplayer as anyone else on Earth - but gave up serious play because he found it too draining an intellectual exertion; and he was the first person to make a serious attempt to applying scientific method to the study of history. Sadly, he died at the age of 40, when he had completed only two volumes of his epic work, but those volumes already showed a formidable grasp of both the arts and sciences.

Part of Buckle's thesis was that all men are born equal and that such differences as may exist between nations and races have their origins in the nature of their climate and soil. "In most parts of Spain," he wrote, "the climate renders it impossible for the labourer to work the whole of the day; and this forced interruption encourages among the people an irregularity and instability of purpose." Buckle saw a suitable climate as an essential factor in the development of knowledge. For climate affects the soil and food production, and: "As long as every man is engaged in collecting the materials necessary for his own subsistence, there will be neither leisure nor taste for higher pursuits; no science can possibly be created, and the utmost that can be effected will be an attempt to economise labour by the contrivance of such rude and imperfect instruments as even the most barbarous people are able to invent." More than that, a good climate is necessary for wealth creation and "without wealth there can be no leisure, and without leisure there can be no knowledge." Great culture was possible only in a suitable climate. "The Arabs in their own country have, owing to the extreme aridity of the soil, always been a rude and uncultivated people." When they had conquered Persia, Spain and much of India, however, they gained access to good climatic conditions. "Their character seemed to undergo a great change ... for the first time did they make some progress in the arts of civilisation."

On the other hand, even if food is abundant, a hot climate brings problems both of encouraging lethargy and of reducing the price of food, and therefore of workers' wages. The problems of India were caused by the easy availability of rice: cheap food led to low wages; low wages increased the power of the wealthy; and the caste system was born. All the economic problems of Ireland, too, were caused by the abundance of the potato, even before the famine.

So what you really want for a cultured society is a climate neither too hot nor too cold, where food can be grown but not too easily. Buckle does not say so explicitly - perhaps he was saving it for a later volume - but the climate of Britain is, by his rules, as culturally propitious as one could hope for. And England rather than Scotland, because extreme climatic events such as Scotland occasionally experiences encourage people to be superstitious. "The storms and the mists, the darkened sky flashed by frequent lightning, the peals of thunder reverberating from mountain to mountain, and echoing on every side, the dangerous hurricanes, the gusts sweeping the innumerable lakes with which the country is studded, the rolling and impetuous torrent flooding the path of the traveller ... are strangely different to those safer and milder phenomena, among which the English people have developed their prosperity, and built up their mighty cities. Even the belief in witchcraft, one of the blackest superstitions which has ever defaced the human mind, has been affected by these peculiarities."

What climate, after all, other than England's, could have produced a man of such intellectual breadth as Henry Thomas Buckle?