Mike Davis in The New Left Review:
Anthropogenic climate change is usually portrayed as a recent discovery, with a genealogy that extends no further backwards than Charles Keeling sampling atmospheric gases from his station near the summit of Mauna Loa in the 1960s, or, at the very most, Svante Arrhenius’s legendary 1896 paper on carbon emissions and the planetary greenhouse. In fact, the deleterious climatic consequences of economic growth, especially the influence of deforestation and plantation agriculture on atmospheric moisture levels, were widely noted, and often exaggerated, from the Enlightenment until the late nineteenth century. The irony of Victorian science, however, was that while human influence on climate, whether as a result of land clearance or industrial pollution, was widely acknowledged, and sometimes envisioned as an approaching doomsday for the big cities (see John Ruskin’s hallucinatory rant, ‘The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century’), few if any major thinkers discerned a pattern of natural climate variability in ancient or modern history. The Lyellian world-view, canonized by Darwin in The Origin of Species, supplanted biblical catastrophism with a vision of slow geological and environmental evolution through deep time. Despite the discovery of the Ice Age(s) by the Swiss geologist Louis Agassiz in the late 1830s, the contemporary scientific bias was against environmental perturbations, whether periodic or progressive, on historical time-scales. Climate change, like evolution, was measured in eons, not centuries.
Oddly, it required the ‘discovery’ of a supposed dying civilization on Mars to finally ignite interest in the idea, first proposed by the anarchist geographer Kropotkin in the late 1870s, that the 14,000 years since the Glacial Maximum constituted an epoch of on-going and catastrophic desiccation of the continental interiors. This theory—we might call it the ‘old climatic interpretation of history’—was highly influential in the early twentieth century, but waned quickly with the advent of dynamic meteorology in the 1940s, with its emphasis on self-adjusting physical equilibrium. What many fervently believed to be a key to world history was found and then lost, discrediting its discoverers almost as completely as the eminent astronomers who had seen (and in some cases, claimed to have photographed) canals on the Red Planet. Although the controversy primarily involved German and English-speaking geographers and orientalists, the original thesis—postglacial aridification as the driver of Eurasian history—was formulated inside Tsardom’s école des hautes études: St Petersburg’s notorious Peter-and-Paul Fortress where the young Prince Piotr Kropotkin, along with other celebrated Russian intellectuals, was held as a political prisoner.
The famed anarchist was also a first-rate natural scientist, physical geographer and explorer. In 1862, he voluntarily exiled himself to eastern Siberia in order to escape the suffocating life of a courtier in an increasingly reactionary court. Offered a commission by Alexander II in the regiment of his choice, he opted for a newly formed Cossack unit in remote Transbaikalia, where his education, pluck and endurance quickly recommended him to lead a series of expeditions—for the purposes of both science and imperial espionage—into a huge, unexplored tangle of mountain andtaiga wildernesses recently annexed by the Empire. Whether measured by physical challenge or scientific achievement, Kropotkin’s explorations of the lower Amur valley and into the heart of Manchuria, followed by a singularly daring reconnaissance of the ‘vast and deserted mountain region between the Lena in northern Siberia and the higher reaches of the Amur near Chita’, were comparable to the Great Northern Expeditions of Vitus Bering in the eighteenth century or the contemporary explorations of the Colorado Plateau by John Wesley Powell and Clarence King. After thousands of miles of travel, usually in extreme terrain, Kropotkin was able to show that the orography of northeast Asia was considerably different from that envisioned by Alexander von Humboldt and his followers.