Climatic Determinism: Then and Now

National Hellenic Research Foundation

Athens, 18  20 July 2011

Climatic determinism has a very long and checkered history. It gave a

framework for thinking about the relationship between the human and

natural environments by making the climate a demiurge of social

universe. In the past, climatic determinists put forward a species of

political ethics whose self-serving claims about the environmental

determination of virtue, value and privilege have long been subject of

debate and criticism. Most problematically, the idea of climate as a key

force in social development has naturalized existing forms of cultural

domination, political hierarchy, economic dependency and racial

inequity. While most of such thinking has been discredited, in recent

years, the omnipresence of anthropogenic climate change has caused a

resurgence of similar ideas, causing scholars and commentators to ask if

these represent a revival of climatic determinism and, if so, with what


This question is especially relevant in today¹s policy domain, in

which we see climate change as the most prominent environmental issue

and one of the key forces in shaping of international politics, global

economy and social theory. In this context, we have all become gradually

aware that climatic trends, past and present, have a lot to do with the

history of energy, political power, and technological innovation as much

as they relate to distribution of goods and services and the legality of

resource use and exploitation of fossil fuels. Furthermore, as scholars

in geography and science studies argue, the nature and location of

climate change are continually being negotiated, interpreted and

produced through practices and knowledges, none of which can be said to

dominate others, none of which can be called a master discourse.

And yet, paradoxically, much of environmental thinking, planning and

doing these days is framed within a deterministic and reductionistic

master discourse as a response to the unitary agency of climate change.

In such a discourse, climate is seen as an external force that impacts

the economy, affects countries, harms national security, hurts the

world¹s poor, and potentially leads to global conflict. The UNDP Human

Development Report, for example, calls for a Œfight against climate

change,¹ while BBC and the Met Office say that Œtackling climate change

will be one of the most important things this generation does.¹ In some

instances, visual imagery designed to alert policy and popular audiences

to climatic change, including the ŒBurning Embers¹ image and the

ŒTipping Points¹ lean towards an environmental deterministic

interpretation of the climate change impacts. This framing of climate

change rhetoric presents climate as more than just a trend of

environmental change. Instead, it constructs it as an independent,

self-contained and self-perpetuating mechanism with power to shape

everyday life and structure the way we think about our common future(s).

Do such views constitute a revival of climatic determinism? How does

the role of climate in today¹s world compare to its earlier roles in

geography, earth sciences and political theory? How can historians and

social scientists contribute to the scientific and political discussion

of climate crisis?

Our 2-day meeting in Athens encourages historians, philosophers,

sociologists, geographers, literary historians, and cultural theorists

to reflect and debate about reductionist readings, deterministic

explanations and the putative obviousness of the climate crisis in both

the academic and the public spheres.

Abstracts will be reviewed by the Committee consisting of Georgina

Endfield (Nottingham), James R. Fleming (Colby), George Vlahakis

(Athens) and Vladimir Jankovic (Manchester).

Submission deadline: 1 April 2011.

Please send 200 word abstracts and a brief CV to

Vladimir Jankovic

Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

University of Manchester

Manchester M13 9PL