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Man And Weather - Wolfgang Behringer’s Cultural History of Our Climate

Cover des Buchs `Kulturgeschichte des Klimas´; Copyright: C.H. Beck VerlagCover of the book `Kulturgeschichte des Klimas´ (A Cultural History of Cimate); Copyright: C.H. Beck VerlagWhat has made human beings what they are today? “The weather,” says Wolfgang Behringer, a historian from Saarbrücken. His book, Kulturgeschichte des Klimas (A Cultural History of Our Climate) has above all made an innovative contribution to the present debate on climate change – and shown just how much the humanities have to say on this subject that up to now has mainly been the domain of ecologists.

In the middle of the 16th century winter had both man and the land in its icy grip. On Pieter Brueghel’s painting of the Hunters in the Snow from 1565 we see the men returning from the hunt with their dogs, carrying their somewhat paltry quarry on their backs – their village has been completely snowed in. Against the backdrop of a leaden winter sky we see the fragile houses, weighed down under the burden of the snow. The bare trees look like dead, wooden stakes that have been rammed into the blanket of white, the mountains have been frozen into pointed blocks of ice. Even the people skating on the frozen lake seem to be mere shadows if themselves.

Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow represents the first milestone in a new field of landscape painting that developed in the 16th century – the winterscape. It is not pure coincidence that this image is on the cover of Wolfgang Behringer’s Kulturgeschichte des Klimas (A Cultural History of Our Climate). The professor of early modern history at the University of Saarland in Saarbrücken feels that it is in fact an excellent example of how art reacted to the drastic drop in temperatures in the severe winters of the 1560s.

Burnt at the stake and left out in the cold

Melting ice at the South Pole; Copyright: Fotolia/VolkiThe Hunters in the Snow was produced during what was called the Little Ice Age that occurred after a warm period in the High Middle Ages and brought frost and bitter cold to Central Europe that lasted well into the 19th century. This is the period on which Behringer’s Kulturgeschichte des Klimas focuses. With the aid of historical sources like weather diaries and astronomical calendars Behringer coherently proves that temperatures sank in comparison to previous centuries by an average of more than two degrees as a result of a global cooling. The Vikings were forced to leave Greenland that had once been a verdant, flourishing island – settlements on Iceland and in Norway fell into icy desolation. The Thames, Rhine and Rhone were at times completely frozen over.

The Kulturgeschichte des Klimas illustrates clearly that the drop in the number of livestock, the poor harvests and the rise in food prices that then ensued had a major effect on the way society developed at the time of the Little Ice Age. What was known as a theological “Sinners’ Economy” came into being and this brought about a huge increase in penitential sermons - burnings of witches and pogroms against the Jews were supposed to appease the thunderous wrath of God. The fires blazing at the stakes were not however able to make the grim weather any warmer. As the 17th-century Baroque preacher and poet, Johann Rist, wrote, “Flüsse stehn wie harter Stahl” (Rivers standing hard as steel). Within the framework of Behringer’s deliberations images that were first seen from an apocalyptic standpoint are now suddenly endowed with a real background.

A bird’s eye view of meteorological culture

Wolfgang Behringer; Copyright: Jens Ewen Going beyond the Little Ice Age Behringer provides us with a bird’s eye view of the meteorological effects on culture which reveals just how spectacularly the climate in the past had an effect on evolution, on religion, on everyday life and on the minds of people – no matter when nor where. It was the weather that helped Homo Sapiens to discover his brain, says Behringer. Due to climate change he was prompted to move to other places all over the globe – and finally to leave his nomadic past, tilling the land, behind him. Even the fickle, changeable history of the rise and fall of great empires, of social stagnation and revolutionary upheaval – Behringer manages to put them all into a new perspective. There might be a few things that are somewhat too monocausal, but on the whole his Kulturgeschichte des Klimas is without doubt an important contribution to the understanding of historical developments.

Is it all the snows of yesteryear?

When it comes to the weather, nothing is as constant as change, and global warming has always been a seminal driving force behind culture. This is the bottom line of Behringer’s book and is both its forté – and its flaw. For as a consequence of his findings Behringer advises somewhat too casually to keep a cool head in the heat of all the discussions on global warming. “The buzzword, ‘climate protection’, is a simple cover-up for our fear of change,” is his theory. In some of his book’s weaker passages however the author fails to recognise that the climate change of today has been substantiated by experts as being of anthropogenic origin and that is why it is moving so much faster and is so much more out of control than in the past. In the period of history dealt with by Behringer the weather was still being made by the Gods or by God alone. Today it is above all human beings that make the weather. Whether and how man is going to react to the fluctuations he has caused himself still remains to be seen.

There is one thing however that Behringer is absolutely right about – the fact that public debate has to focus more on a more creative way of dealing with climate change. “Implementing solutions depends on whether they can be combined with cultural concepts and trends,” writes Behringer. In order to understand this we do not just need a history of climate, but a cultural history of our climate.” Sentences like these show that no way does Behringer’s book deal with the snows of yesteryear.

The spirit of climate change

Wreck of a ship in the desert; Copyright: Fotolia/F. BoizotBehringer’s Kulturgeschichte des Klimas is in fact not a cultural history of our climate at all – it is more the history of our culture seen from the point of view of climate. That is why however we can only hope that in the future as many arts and humanities scholars as possible will warm to the idea of working on this subject. The broad domain of climate research is simply too complex, too exciting and too important to leave it all to the meteorologists, geographers and statisticians. “Culture and climate” should be an integral part of humanistic discourse. Behringer’s profound book, Kulturgeschichte des Klimas, has created the necessary basis for this.

Wolfgang Behringer:
Kulturgeschichte des Klimas. Von der Eiszeit zur globalen Erwärmung. (A Cultural History of Our Climate. From the Ice Age to Global Warming) Published by C.H. Beck Verlag 2007. 352 pages, 22,90 Euro. ISBN: 978-3406528668.
Thomas Köster
is one of the two managing directors at Südpol-Redaktionsbüros Köster & Vierecke. At the same time he works as a cultural and scientific journalist (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Zeit, Süddeutsche Zeitung, NZZ am Sonntag, Westdeutscher Rundfunk) and as a lexical consultant in Cologne.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Online-Redaktion

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December 2008

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