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The Meaning of Uncertainty: Debating Climate Change in the Gilded-Age United States

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Scholars of American history have sometimes characterised late nineteenth-century theories about anthropogenic climate change as testaments to Manifest Destiny hubris and runaway boosterism. But many Gilded-Age climate theorists acknowledged both the uncertainty of their scientific claims and their ambivalence toward capitalist development and its influence on climates and landscapes. Gustavus Hinrichs, George Curtis, and other climate thinkers invoked uncertainty for a wide range of reasons. Sometimes they voiced frustration at their inability to grasp the mysterious agencies shaping climatic change. At other times, they embraced uncertainty as a key component of modern science. This article examines the role of scientific and cultural uncertainty in late nineteenth-century debates about climate and environment. The writings produced over the course of these debates reveal a series of tensions and dialectics at the core of nineteenth-century culture: tensions between visions of environmental utopia and fears of degradation and catastrophe, between positivist science and insecurity about the illusory nature of scientific knowledge, between the confident rhetoric of Manifest Destiny and a persistent ambivalence about the tenability of extractive capitalism.
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Keywords: Climate change; Gilded Age; uncertainty

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: May 1, 2018

This article was made available online on January 4, 2018 as a Fast Track article with title: "The Meaning of Uncertainty: Debating Climate Change in the Gilded-Age United States".

More about this publication?
  • Environment and History is an interdisciplinary journal which aims to bring scholars in the humanities and biological sciences closer together, with the deliberate intention of constructing long and well-founded perspectives on present day environmental problems.

    Environment and History has a Journal Impact Factor (2019) of 0.698. 5 Year Impact Factor: 0.806.
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