Climate change: a challenge to the geographers of Colonial Asia


Philippe Forêt

date de sortie




In this paper, I will both challenge current assumptions held on progress in climate studies, and reexamine past assumptions on the environment of ancient civilizations. I will touch on important themes, such as science policy in the early 20th century and the relationship that Europe had with colonial Asia and withthe past environment of China, Turkestan and Persia. With its uniquely rich collections and experts on Asia, London was assuming one hundred years ago the prime responsibility of mapping the natural history of a continent the ‘Britishers’ had largely colonized. The Geological Survey of China, the British Survey of India, scholarly societies in Berlin and Paris, private libraries in Yale and Stockholm were the privileged venues where new information and concepts were created, exchanged, assessed and recast. The explorers sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society of London (RGS) built a professional network that connected the deserts of Central Asia to mighty Europe and nurtured a relationship between London and peripheral centers of knowledge production. Scientific travel was one tool among many to expand the British Empire and add to its prestige, but exploration results could become irrelevant if they somehow challenged the colonial order by proposing disquieting theories on past trends.


Since my objective is to deconstruct the notion of the stability of Asia that the geography community seemed to cherish one century ago, I must report on the ways in which fieldwork-based studies yielded a consensus that data on climate could not possibly back up. To examine the first debate geographers had on climate change I am intertwining scientific reports with the conceptual history of climate. Like Stephen Jay Gould, the main protagonist of the ‘Darwin Wars,’ I believe that biographies offer the most compelling way to present the emergence of theories that challenge conventional views. On the basis of extensive archives in London and Stockholm, I intend to provide a biographical account of the independent scholars who engaged a learned society as it disputed the existence and significance of climate change. Through them, I explain why and how the RGS challenged one key finding that emerged from repeated topographical expeditions: that the course of human history is linked to some degree, to climate change and environmental crises?


Often confused with global warming, climate change has become a label, both convenient and misleading, for a wide-range of processes that connect the natural and human drivers of change. Archeological sites and dynastic archives have chronicled the drama of societal collapse reenacted whenever inappropriate policies and practices colluded with high rates of environmental change. Rich in controversies, the present debate on global warming has now entered its fifth decade. In 1958, Charles David Keeling from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography began measuring carbon dioxide abundance in a locale he thought as uncontaminated as possible, the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawai’i. Few scholars are aware of the positions held on climate and civilization cycles before that date. The discovery that climate was not stable began actually around 1904 with academic lectures in London, provocative publications in Boston and New Haven, and cautious reports from the explorers of Asia. At the turn of the 20th century, concepts on climate and history were tested through the repeated survey of oases and terminal lakes, the personnel experience of the physical terrain, and vigorous questioning and reviews led by the ‘gentlemen of science’ who belonged to the Royal Geographical Society of London.


The literature on the discovery, existence, causes and consequences of climate change, while copious, suffers from several flaws. Not much seems secure about climate and history since the relationship between the two is always evolving, history being not the less slippery term. True, the public can consult several excellent books on the human experience of climate change in Europe since the Middle Ages. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and Christian Pfister have in 1983 and 1984 adroitly interpreted past climatic conditions from French and Swiss documentary records; their publications are too many to be quoted here. Scholars like Pfister, who has dared to examine empirically both the history of climate change and the micro-history of human responses to past climate crises, have remained excessively rare. To my knowledge, no comprehensive work of the same quality exists for the Asian continent. The early-20th century has besides remained largely neglected by historians of climate studies, even if Nico Stehr, a sociologist, and Hans von Storch, a climatologist, edited ten years ago Brückner’s writings on anthropogenic climate change.


James Rodger Fleming’s Historical Perspectives on Climate Change provided in 1998 the first authoritative account on the development of climate research. Unfortunately for us, his chapter on the early 20th century dealt only with the scientists who elaborated the carbon dioxide theory of climate change. His review of how the concept of climate change entered the scientific discourse did not mention Eduard Brückner’s work and added Ellsworth Huntington to ‘a healthy population of kooks and cranks.’ Fleming, like other scholars before and after him, ignored the results from topographical fieldwork in Asia. A literature review should mention Spencer Weart, the historian of physics at Harvard, whose very influential The Discovery of Global Warming is supported by an extensive website and has been published in six languages since 2003 and 2008. The accessible history he has written on how the view of our planet shifted from balanced to potentially dangerous is rather disappointing. Weart rightly presents the discovery as a social product, but wrongly believes that it is a recent outcome. According to him, no community of scientists studied climate change before the 1950’s. The latest victim of ‘American exceptionalism,’ Weart neglects in his analysis the gray literature of interdisciplinary networks and backroom discussions, ignores the strategy developed by scholarly societies to appropriate the topic, and cannot bring himself to say anything on contributions that came either from Europe or Asia. This is precisely why I find The Discovery of Global Warming so valuable: by being so a-historical, Weart has left largely empty the subfield he has created.


The three main protagonists of my climate change story were prodigious writers who penned together maybe more than 200.000 pages. In 1909-1910, Sven Hedin, alone, published four volumes, Trans-Himalaya and Öfver land till Indien, totaling 2.385 pages, as a prelude to the seventeen volumes of Southern Tibet and the three volumes of Eine Routenaufnahme durch Ost-Persien. These explorers were all avid data collectors who hired knowledgeable informants to note down the names of every possible geographical feature seen during their journeys. From the manuscripts, notes, diaries, letters, etc. that preceded and followed the publication of their travelogues and richly illustrated reports from the field, I can find out how conclusions were reached and data reinterpreted for final approval by the RGS by probing the depths of the Royal Geographical Society archives, the Stein collections in London and Oxford, the Hedin collections in Stockholm, and the Huntington collections in New Haven CT and Pasadena CA. Meeting minutes and private correspondence may help understand why, for instance, the RGS asked Hedin to assess Huntington’s work and later emptied Hedin’s personal file from the Society’s records. Leading journals other than The Geographical Journal, such as the Annales de Géographie (Paris), Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen (Gotha), Ymer (Stockholm), Bulletin of the American Geographical Society (New York), and Harper’s Magazine (New York), assist with the reconstruction of this first debate on global warming.


My interest in the debate is born from a vexing question: why was the need for stability reiterated when the data from the field proved that climate was anything but stable? Two examples will suffice to illustrate an apparent contradiction between observation and interpretation: The first comprehensive maps of the oases and terminal lakes of Asia were significant because they highlighted the physical features that defined the last 2.500 years in environmental history. Skirting the largest continental basin of Asia, the Tarim River used to feed Lake Lop-nor, whose shifting caused the ruin of the Silk Road city of Loulan. Sven Hedin published a series of maps of Lake Lop-nor, which he surveyed in 1899-1900. Since it should have been obvious to him that the fluctuation of water levels implied something about changing weather patterns, why did Hedin cling to the belief that climate was constant and wrote as late as 1944 that ‘men and camels, country and climate — none has undergone any change worth mentioning’? Taken when they were vacationing in Flims in 1893, a photograph portrays geographers Eduard Brückner and Albrecht Penck, two friends who were so close that professor Brückner replaced professor Penck at the University of Vienna. Brückner had already determined that climatic variations occurred on the human time scale. His Climate Change since 1700 was indeed published in 1890, and was very probably read by Hedin. Since Penck knew Brückner’s and Hedin’s works so well, why did he write in 1930 that Man’s surroundings had undergone no significant change in Asia?


The story of how an academic discipline forged its consensus on climate will remain incomplete as long as we ignore the contributions made by the geographers who carefully surveyed the past landscape of Asia. How did the Royal Geographical Society, then a powerful institution at the forefront of knowledge, approach the whole notion of climate change? We can gain so much from reviewing earlier writings and from listening to both sides of a story. Lord Conzen stated publicly in 1914 that something, which had been silenced during the Society’s lectures, ought to be said for climate change. Away from the field, the scientific phalanx of the RGS argued that climate change in historical times was improbable and, in any event, of no significance as far Asia was concerned. Colonial geographers used to defend positions at odds with data. They coined new terms to interpret observations on climate change, and convey their reservations on the implications of climate instability.  The geography community almost consistently misinterpreted results from fieldwork, dismissed the notion that climate was changing, and rejected any connection between the evolution of human society and climate crises. Experts built a consensus on climate change and reconciled data on the dynamism of the geographical milieu of Asia with the belief common in colonial times that the cultural milieu of the continent had remained inert and adverse to change for centuries.


Geographers were scholars who published in geographical journals and were members of geographical societies — Stein, an archeologist, thus becomes a geographer in my plot. Colonial geographers worked for the British Empire and participated in the Great Game, whether or not they approved of the RGS presidents’ intellects, politics and views on the ‘British race.’ The correspondence surrounding books like Hedin’s Overland to India and Routenaufnahme durch Ost-Persien is informing me on the mechanisms of scientific work and professional friendships. The reports, lectures, discussions that accompanied topographical expeditions abroad were as crucial to the dispute geographers were having as they were for the creation of an epistemic community of professional geographers. (My understanding of ‘epistemic community’ goes back in time to the analysis that Michel Foucault made in 1966 of épistémè and limites du monde, which Pierre Bourdieu implicitly criticized in his ‘Le métier du savant’ lecture of 2001 at the Collège de France.)


In 1904, Prince Piotr Kropotkin launched a debate on the pace and extension of climate change and on the human responses in the distant past to climatic variations. Kropotkin lectured on the evolving conditions he had observed decades ago in the steppes around the Caspian Sea. In 1888, Brückner had made similar deductions from the Caspian Sea level fluctuations. The RGS had until then apparently ignored the debate about climate variability in the German-speaking world, which was led by Eduard Brückner, Julius Hann and Svante Arrhenius, the Swedish Nobel Prize winner who theorized the greenhouse effect. Although comparisons were quickly made with the American Southwest, the Sahara and the Levant, evidence on the history of climate came primarily from continental Asia. The early 20th century saw long expeditions undertaken to survey the region’s topography. For instance, Sven Hedin’s expeditions of 1894-1897 and 1899-1902 totaled no fewer than 1.876 days. The Swedish geographer took weather measurements and tabulated meteorological observations several times a day. The publications in London, Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Saint-Petersburg and New York of notes, results, and travelogues that portrayed ‘Old Lands and New Conditions’ quickly followed. When they came back to our civilization, the press lionized travelers like Ellsworth Huntington, Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin. In effect, independent scholars active at a pivotal point in the professionalization of geography, these three men, all single, politically conservative, devoted to their research pursuits, and adored by their readers, had relations strained at times with their colleagues. For their unexpected discoveries on the Silk Road, the RGS showered Sir Hedin and Sir Stein with the highest honors. The British geographers who welcomed Hedin in London in 1909 voiced however strong misgivings when he lectured on the Transhimalayan mountain range that he had just mapped. In 1915, despite his previous intelligence activities for British India, the RGS expelled the Swedish geographer and has since held him in quarantine.


A rebel to the discipline, Huntington knew a fate worse from his two colleagues when he formulated a cyclical theory on climate. Being still an academic pariah has not prevented the recent reprint of Huntington’s books, many being available today in the Kindle Edition format. In 1906, then a student at Harvard, he published a report in the Geographical Journal that confirmed Kropotkin’s deductions. During his years of doctoral fieldwork he had seen in progress a desiccation, ‘which is the last faint undulation of the great climatic waves of the Glacial Period.’ The spectacle of the old shorelines of Lake Lop-nor had incited Ellsworth Huntington to speak about a succession of epochs of expansion and contraction, whose timing would correspond to those of the lakes of Iran and Utah. In 1907, he wrote two long articles on Lop-nor, where he boldly criticized Sven Hedin for thinking that wind erosion could alter the course of the Tarim River and eventually the size of the terminal lake. The Pulse of Asia. A Journey in Central Asia Illustrating the Geographic Basis of History, which was published the same year drew from New York a review laced with superlatives: ‘Best geographical exposition of the time [with] novel and interesting conclusions adduced from the array of evidence.’


Is there in Asia a definite and measurable recurrence of certain phases of climate? At the RGS, Colonel Thomas Holdich clearly did not think so when he reviewed Huntington’s work in 1909. His survey of Lop-nor was beyond dispute, but still inferior to Stein’s ‘more scientifically elaborate maps.’ A not very new proposition, a dubious theory, but still a most delightful reading, was Holdich’s conclusion on The Pulse of Asia. Huntington demanded that field geographers summed up their observations on the average elevations of old lake strands, and on the relation of these strands to the glacial period, to similar strands elsewhere in the world, and to changes of climate in historic times. Huntington’s recommendations that their accounts of lake fluctuations had to be connected with a general thesis went unnoticed. Back from Asia, individual travelers like him usually failed to make an impression on the shared sense of professional solidarity at the RGS. We can therefore easily imagine the smiles of incredulity which greeted Huntington’s sweeping generalization: ‘With every throb of the climate pulse which we have felt in Central Asia, the center of civilization has moved this way or that.’

Himself the victim of a cabal, Griffith Taylor noted that field geographers, who spoke the local languages and for years traveled alone with a caravan bashi and a party of native surveyors, held on ancient history and human races views that were often more nuanced than those defended by the established scholars of Europe. For his famous Orientalism essay, Edward Said could have mined in the geographical literature of the time a number of useful quotations on the virtues, ‘not of the higher type,’ of the inhabitants of Turkestan. My close examination of personal archives has revealed however that the geographers who physically engaged Said’s ‘real Orient’ held diverse opinions on Asian peoples and cultures, which were usually friendly, nuanced, appreciative, and well-informed. They of course knew that their accounts would be read to comfort rather than confront the prejudices that academic Europe harbored on colonial Asia and the decadence of its civilizations. Many colleagues in London, who were not familiar with the requirements of route-mapping and position-locating in unexplored areas, were moreover prompt at doubting the reliability of their data and quickly declared outdated explorers’ techniques for ground route mapping. The directors of the British Survey of India felt compelled to make it known to the editors of The Geographical Journal that they did not share this low opinion of route mapping. Although Hedin described at length his mapping methods in Eine Routenaufnahme durch Ost-Persien in 1927, Filchner closed the gap in the English-speaking literature on map quality only in 1957, which far too late to influence the debate.


Professor J.W. Gregory who asked again in the winter of 1914 if the Earth was drying up had by 1930 come to believe that Central Asia was undergoing a progressive climate change, and not a cyclical one. Colonel Reginald Schomberg found extremely doubtful those old simple ideas of a general drying up when, in 1930 and 1932, he revisited the issue of river variation and climate desiccation in Xinjiang. The Society called for more papers to instruct geographers on what is really happening, if anything, with climate. Sven Hedin returned to Lake Lop-nor during the Sino-Swedish Expedition of 1927-1935. He himself chose not to mention Huntington’s name in the expedition reports, but the younger geologists who surveyed the area quoted approvingly the American geographer. In 1951, Rhoads Murphey summarized the general opinion of the profession when he wrote in the Annals of Association of American Geographers that the very slight changes he had noticed in the climate of Roman North Africa could not have resulted in the decline of classical civilization. No change to speak of: thus ended this early debate on climate.


I am of course aware of the discrepancy that exists between our paradigms and those of one hundred years ago when progressing toward planimetric accuracy normally granted legitimacy to the claims cartographers made. Accurate elevations were crucial in the formulation of a theory of ‘wandering lakes,’ whose migrations would happen independently from climate change. The competing theories on ‘climatic pulsations’ or ‘progressive desiccation’ would become meaningless if the locations of past lakes could confirm the oscillation theory. This obsession for topographical detail was justified by the explanatory power attributed to maps, which were expected to provide definitive answers. Lake oscillation, climate pulsation and earth desiccation shared through these maps a same methodology and visual language. Precision went as far as pinpointing poplar trees that floods had carried away centuries ago. We should not underestimate today the degree of accuracy achieved by field geographers: Hedin’s maps of the Lop desert and the Tarim basin displayed contour lines of one meter only. Hedin noted in 1905 that his elevation at Camp CLXV, right in the middle of nowhere, was 1,732 millimeters below the starting point of his journey.


The deserts that geographers used to explore on foot serve again as proxies for the projection of climate scenarios. What we have developed from ice cores in Greenland and the gravel pits of the Jura is a new appreciation of the instability of the Holocene. Abrupt changes in the paleo-environment have been dated with precision, and, yes, climate calamities have disrupted ancient civilizations. Nobody would claim that the extreme weather of CE 535-536 was the single cause of an offensive against the Roman Empire, but we are more willing than before to consider climate’s salient role when a society is delicately poised, just like ours is today. The renewed interest in Ellsworth Huntington’s historical studies and climatic research, which Andrew Goudie at Oxford has called ‘high quality,’ is therefore not surprising. That said, the data from Stein and Hedin’s expeditions may not be provide us with new and important information on patterns of change. The physical history of the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts holds no key to their future because, in response to global warming, the mechanisms of climate variability in the world’s desert have themselves gained in unpredictability.

The financial, logistical and technical support that came from various institutions active in colonial Asia made possible extensive journeys, which provided scholars with topographical, environmental and archeological information that were critical to review new theories on climate change. The long discussions that the RGS conducted have been overlooked until now first because Hedin, Huntington and Stein’s maps, data and publications were not fully compatible with their contemporaries’ views on the passive nature of Asian societies, and second, with the passing of time, because their qualitative data have become meaningless and their quantitative data impossible to exploit by climate scientists. The self-conscious RGS moved to delete Huntington’s theory of climate cycles. That Huntington, an untenured lecturer at Yale, failed to convince the Society may at first seem trivial. That the same Huntington wrote 180 articles and 29 books, like the popular Civilization and Climate, is important because he invited in 1915 all his readers to join the debate carried out until then by experts only. His writings led to the recognition by the general public of a direct link between climate and history, which is five decades before physicists noted changes in the chemistry of the atmosphere. Mediated by new technologies and not led by geographers, today’s debate on global warming has reaffirmed several of Huntington’s prophecies on climate change and human history.


This short paper on the mapping of climate cycles in the 1900’s, on the failure to appreciate the topography, cultures and climate of Asia as dynamic entities, and on the RGS’ desire to match present Asia with past Asia regardless of the evidence could be a valuable contribution to current discussions on the discovery of global warming, on the relationship between nature and culture, and, more generally, on the geography of knowledge. We are now in a better position to comment on the concept of change in Ellsworth Huntington’s definition of ‘civilization and climate’ — a definition so provoking and flawed that environmental historians of Asia like Mark Elvin have found it convenient to do without. Let’s hope that the rediscovery of the climate theories of colonial geography will raise stimulating questions on the boundaries we assign to scientific knowledge.



01/09/2011 - 30/06/2012