Past Futurework: Histories of Environmental Prediction

AHA Session 142
Saturday, January 4, 2014: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Columbia Hall 6 (Washington Hilton)
W. Patrick McCray, University of California, Santa Barbara
W. Patrick McCray, University of California, Santa Barbara

Session Abstract

Inspired by the December 2012 AHR Forum on “Histories of the Future,” this session begins from the premise that forecasting has been a vitally important but historically overlooked part of modern societies, and that the work of forecasters has had far-reaching influence in the realms of science and technology, industry, economic life, and culture.  Our work demonstrates that forecasting has been essential to the making of modern infrastructure, markets, and knowledge, and that forecasting is best understood not as a narrow scientific or technical endeavor but rather as a form of knowledge production that circulates predictions for mass consumption and often depends on both scientific experts and their publics.

Forecasting is drawing increasing scholarly attention, as the themes of risk and predictability have engaged historians of capitalism, science, and culture.  But this work focuses overwhelmingly on the twentieth century and locates the emergence of modern scientific forecasting in the 1970s, a decade in which “futures studies” gained intellectual prominence.  This panel uncovers a longer history of forecasting, one that looks to the mid-nineteenth century for the origins of systematic approaches to collecting and aggregating predictive data and translating it into knowledge about the future. 

The conference themes of “disagreement, debate, and discussion” are central to the history of forecasting.  Forecasting has historically been a contested mode of knowledge production, both within government and scientific institutions and in the marketplace and the press.  From competitions between private and government forecasters, to disagreements over forecasting theories and practices within scientific communities, to struggles over professional reputation and scientific authority, to public debates over the accuracy and value of forecasts, forecasting has more often than not been a controversial practice. 

In “Environmental Prediction and Governance in Industrial Societies: The Infrastructural Sciences,” Roger Turner calls attention to the array of environmental predictions that modern societies have historically relied upon to secure flows of basic resources, products, and information.  He argues that historians have overlooked the routinized scientific work that undergirds such critical infrastructures, and he connects environmental history and the history of science and technology to broader historical concerns with agriculture, industrial production, and mass consumption.  In “From Prophecy to Forecasting? The USDA’s Crop and Weather Predictions in the Gilded Age,” Jamie Pietruska illuminates the generally unrecognized significance of the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the nation’s major producer of environmental forecasts.  She argues that the USDA’s development of modern scientific forecasting practices was ironically shaped by the work of late-nineteenth-century “weather prophets” and “cotton prophets,” forecasters the USDA had previously sought to discredit as fraudulent.  In “Climate Forecasting in an Age of Anxiety,” Gabriel Henderson focuses on the ethics and value-systems of late-twentieth-century climate scientists who thought critically about the need to balance the inherent uncertainty of forecasting with policymakers’ practical concerns and demand for greater predictive certainties.  He argues that climate scientists experienced an ethical shift in which they sought a balance between vigilance and "alarmism" regarding the potential consequences of fossil fuels.

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