Climate, Culture, and History in Latin America: A Social Turn in the Weather?

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:30 PM
Houston Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Mark Carey, University of Oregon
Relatively few historians address past climate-society dynamics, especially for Latin America but also worldwide.  Yet history and historiography, not to mention current policy making and global warming discussions, could benefit from greater historical analysis of climate.  For one, historians could uncover new aspects of the past and, like scholarship on natural disasters and environmental history, reveal processes previously overlooked.  Historians could also provide critical context for present-day concerns about climate--context that journalists, scientists, and policy makers, not historians, are providing at this point.  Finally, research on climate history can help advance environmental historiography and methods.  Historians of science, who currently conduct most climate history scholarship, demonstrate not only how humans act upon the atmosphere and how societies are acted upon by changing climates, but also how societies culturally construct the climate.  Linking history of science with environmental history, and applying it to Latin America, this presentation suggests that the "social turn" in Latin American environmental history also involves a cultural turn in the weather.  Throughout the region's history, distinct social groups have constructed climates through a dialogue that involved science, social relations, perceptions, beliefs, politics, and weather.  Latin Americans have historically ascribed value to regional climates, they constructed urban air as bad air, they depicted weather anomalies as morally reprehensible, and they saw climate through Catholicism and other spiritual lenses.   Climate was never just atmospheric conditions.  This presentation has two components to reveal this cultural construction of climate.  First, it will share results of new archival research on the creation of late-nineteenth century health resorts for climate therapy in the Andes.  Second, it will connect with other scholarship on urban air, endangered landscapes in the era of global warming, and weather-related catastrophes to highlight cultural trends in climate history that can enrich the field of Latin American environmental history.