Fredrik Albritton Jonsson: "The Holocene by Gaslight: Geology and Civilization in Victorian Britain"
- Date: –15:00
- Location: Engelska parken - The Rausing Room
- Organiser: Department of History of Science and Ideas
- Contact person: Sven Widmalm
Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Associate Professor of British History, Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science, the University of Chicago: "The Holocene by Gaslight: Geology and Civilization in Victorian Britain"
In technical terms, we can define the Anthropocene as a shift away from the relatively stable climate of the Holocene, when carbon dioxide in the atmosphere fluctuated around 260-285 parts per million. This shift may be very bad news for our species, since the eleven thousand years of the Holocene coincided with the rise of complex societies. Indeed, Johan Rockström and his associates define the new science of sustainability as a project to maintain Earth in a “Holocene-like state.”
My paper tracks the emergence of geological time as a normative concept in Victorian Britain. Beginning in the 1820s, geologists invented a new climate norm, which contrasted the stability and moderation of the present age with the “torrid” African heat of the Carboniferous period. Coal was identified as the product of prehistoric tropical vegetation, common before the age of the Saurian reptiles (dinosaurs). Geology thus offered a new frame for national history. Over eons of time, a generous providence had improved the climate of Britain to a more temperate and sober norm fit for rational improvement by absorbing atmospheric carbonic acid into the earth, while at the same time turning its tropical plant life into a marvelous source of fuel. By the 1860s, a second interpretation of climate and civilization became ascendant with the growing interest in the postglacial Neolithic as the cradle of race and culture. That dichotomy between deep time and history set the stage for one of the central claims of Anthropocene science: the recognition that human civilization has thrived only in the long summer of the Holocene.