Review – A Temperate Empire: Making Climate Change in Early America

Posted by on Oct 18, 2017
Review – A Temperate Empire: Making Climate Change in Early America

A Temperate Empire: Making Climate Change in Early America. Anya Zilberstein. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xi + 264, US$55.00 cloth.


“In one century and a half this part of America has undergone a change which no country has ever passed thro’ in so short a time. The forests near the Seacoasts have been cut down. The swamps have been drained. The face of the earth has been bid open to the influence of the wind and sun. And the wilderness has been changed into meadows, pastures, orchards, and fields of grain.”  –Samuel Williams


If it were not for some idiosyncratic spellings, this quote from Samuel Williams could easily-mistaken to be from the recent past, instead of the 1780s (165). Williams was noting the connection between European settler colonialism in New England and what he understood as anthropogenic climate change. The key assertion in this passage was that the earth had “been bid open to the influence of the wind and sun” since the founding of New England 150 years earlier. For Williams and other thinkers like him, successful colonialism meant not only humans altering the climate, but also that it brought about positive changes. Colonialism in New England and Nova Scotia would, in effect, make it less cold.

In A Temperate Empire: Making Climate Change in Early America, historian Anya Zilberstein connects the climate thinking of elite Europeans and Euro-Americans to colonialism in northeastern North America over the span of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The region helped drive scientific inquiry into climate because it stubbornly refused to become “temperate,” or in essence, more European. English intellectuals relied on theories of climate zones to determine what to expect in colonial projects: climate was based on latitude, so reference points east of the Atlantic should translate to the Americas. Colonists learned quickly that just because Boston is close in latitude to Rome does not mean they share a Mediterranean climate.

When scholars of the early modern era write about climate, it is often in relation to debates over labor, African peoples, and slavery in the “torrid” zones nearer the equator than Europe. Zilberstein has in many ways inverted these debates, not only by concentrating on cold climates, but also by situating the problem as one of European settler colonialism instead of labor. Without obvious avenues to seemingly limitless commodity production (as in exotic agricultural output or mining), New England became a problem for promoters of colonial migration from the British Isles during the seventeenth century because the region was so cold. Colonial elites set about to understand the local climate and determine ways to make convincing arguments for promoting migration especially to northern New England and Nova Scotia. Samuel Williams’s arguments about the history of New England come out of a long discourse on anthropogenic climate change in New England. In short, Williams was arguing that New England used to be bitterly cold, but 150 years of environmental “improvement” had made the region more salubrious and therefore more attractive to European migration.

A Temperate Empire is constructed thematically and views the historical puzzle (or problem?) of climate change in New England from various perspectives. The first chapter looks at the discourse on climate in the context of the fluid geopolitics and colonial control in the region. Colonizing New England proved that climate zone theory was problematic and that colonial instability made learning more about the region difficult. Eventually, writers argued for a “more expansive” (11) definition of “temperate.” The second chapter traces the transatlantic discourse over climate in New England, where local elites came to argue for empiricism when discussing climate in the face of obvious problems with more theoretical approaches. Chapter three moves to debates over ideas of acclimatization. Instead of changing the climate to make it more temperate, colonial boosters attempted to argue that the area was indeed cold, but it was perfect for hardy Northern Europeans and that cash crops could be acclimatized as well. These arguments never worked well, especially in Nova Scotia. With the lack of European colonizing migrants being a constant issue, in chapter four, Zilberstein traces the history of the scheme in the late-eighteenth century to settle Jamaican Maroons in Nova Scotia. Inverting arguments about race and climatic suitability, Lieutenant Governor John Wentworth argued that if peoples of Africa were better-suited for hot climates than Europeans, maybe a colder climate would instead act as “social reform” (13). If hot climates degenerated peoples’ constitutions, maybe cold climates would regenerate them. This experiment was a spectacular failure, and Jamaican migrants eventually relocated to Sierra Leone. The fifth and final chapter argues that the European/Euro-American discourse over agricultural improvement was central to understanding debates about climate change in the region. By following scientific prescriptions for gradual improvement of agricultural land, colonists could slowly and surely make the climate more temperate and fruitful. The problem, as was usual in the region, in order for a colonial society to enact this type of anthropogenic climate change, there had to be influxes of people to improve more land.

Zilberstein’s book is a welcome addition to current debates on climate change. By doing painstaking work on varying facets of how colonists and Europeans understood the climate and their ability to change it toward their own ends, Zilberstein has proven these historical actors had climate and humanity’s ability to change it near the center of colonialism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Of course, the logic of agricultural improvers, that climate change can be achieved through increasing population and controlling an ever-increasing amount of land in rationalized and prescribed ways, turned out to be the greatest irony for these intellectuals. It may have been a goal to achieve climate change, but it was fundamentally intertwined with colonialism in a fundamental. As it turns out, the improvers were right. Humans can induce climate change.

Maybe one of the answers to our current climate change predicament, then, is to reverse improvers’ logic?

D. Andrew Johnson

1 Comment

  1. Canadian History Roundup – Week of October 15, 2017 | Unwritten Histories
    October 22, 2017

    […] The Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences at RICE posted a review of Anya Zilberstein’s A Temperate Empire: Making Climate Change in Early America. […]