Notes & Letters

Cultivating Transdisciplinarity: Report from the Workshop Climate, Food & Famine

By Robert Naylor, Eleanor Shaw, and Yixuan Li

Manchester, UK, 14 April 2023

Due to ICHM’s generous support, Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM) was able to host the one-day workshop Climate, Food & Famine. The event was attended by scholars from around the world, and generated productive cross-disciplinary discussion on the complex relationship between food systems and atmosphere.

The event was opened by a short speech from CHSTM’s director Carsten Timmermann, who highlighted the Centre’s long history of a critical approach to the history of science, technology, and medicine. The workshop then proceeded with the first panel, Climate and the Causes of Hunger and Malnutrition, which highlighted the complexities of attributing any breakdown of social systems to specific causes such a climate change.

The first speaker was Tolulope Esther Fadeyi of the University of Basel, who highlighted the role of poor governance in causing failures in maternal nutrition in the urban slum of Iwaya, Lagos. Much of the literature on the experiences of contemporary slum dwellers in Lagos attributes poor living conditions, nutrition and maternal health outcomes to climatic change, but for Fadeyi, such systemic failures often had their roots in colonial modes of land division and usage.

The next speaker was Heli Huhtamaa of the University of Bern, who discussed the spatial patterns of harvest failures and famine mortality in pre-industrial Finland. Here Huhtamaa highlighted the value and potential of an interdisciplinary approach, using geographical information systems (GIS) not only to analyse her datasets in an innovative way, but also to communicate the significance of such datasets effectively to a non-specialist audience. One of the striking features of Huhtamaa’s talk was her acknowledgement of the agency of those suffering from hunger as well their traditional coping strategies. Hungry people move quite considerable distances in response to environmental stressors, meaning that the distribution of hunger does not often reflect the distribution of adverse climate conditions or harvest failures, but rather lack of proximity to viable travel routes.

The panel was closed by Richard Warren, also of the University of Bern, who discussed the climate and human impacts of the 1831 and 1835 volcanic eruptions in India. With a magisterial use of flowcharts, Warren emphasised complex feedback mechanisms produced by policy decisions of the British East India Company that contributed, often quite decisively, to the famines that accompanied such eruptions.

In general, the first panel highlighted how governance is an essential ingredient for understanding climate impacts, an angle that is often suppressed when international organisations conceptualise climate change as a “scientific” issue.

After a tasty lunch provided by the University of Manchester’s catering provider, the workshop moved on to the second panel, which was entitled Changing Agriculture, Changing Tastes. The panel was opened by Theo Tomking of the University of York, who discussed climatological attributions in soil maps of the mid-twentieth century. The colonial perception of the challenge of producing food in the tropics adopted climatic conditions as an explanation over the course of the mid-twentieth century, often centring on the presence of red lateritic soil. Tomking showed that earlier soil maps did not support this climatic attribution thesis, and instead emphasised the diversity and nuance of varying soil types across tropics. Tomking argued that this complexity was in fact obfuscated over time.

Next Julia McClure from the University of Glasgow took attendees on a romp through hundreds of years of Mayan Central American history. McClure explored the connection between Indigenous agro-ecological systems and cosmological belief systems that connected communities to cycles of time and meaning, including beliefs about climate. The imposition of commercial agricultural systems by colonial forces challenged and in many cases extinguished indigenous modes of production, prioritising monocultures and cash crops that have contributed to climate change.

Finally, Anaïs Mansouri from the University of Geneva explored the World Food Programme’s approach to the relationship between climate and food and famine from the 1970s. Mansouri argued that the WFP, unlike many other UN agencies, did not discuss the relationship between the food shortages they were responding to and ideas of climatic change until the late 1980s and early 1990s. Mansouri also argued that the political position of the WFP and its relationship to other UN agencies was responsible for this position, until wider societal discourses on climatic change prompted a distinct change in narrative.

Overall the second panel explored the perceived connections between agricultural and food supply practices and the climate, and rebuffed the notion that these connections have always been considered as causal and simple.

The final panel was called Moral and Political Perspectives on Climate and Food, and concerned conceptualisations of the atmosphere-governance relationship that often had an explicitly moral character. The panel was opened by Doreen Müller of Leiden University whose paper provided a rich visual representation of the moral responsibility for sufficient food believed to be held by the emperor in early modern Japan. Rice was rationalised as a moral and material link between people and the environment, and its distribution during times of hardship was seen as an essential feature of good governance. Müller argued that the climatic components of the moral economy of rice changed during the time of the Tenp? Era Famine (1833–39), as visual and textual narratives commemorating famine traced climate events and their relation to the human world in unprecedented detail.

Müller was followed by Semih Çelik of the University of Exeter, who examined the “Hungry [eighteen] Forties” in the Anatolian regions of the Ottoman Empire. Çelik examined official correspondence, newspapers, poetry, and private letters to explore the meanings attributed to the food scarcity in Anatolia. Governing parties and their newspapers minimised the hunger experienced, unable to reconcile the need to portray the empire as thriving and climatically blessed with the scarcity. The connection between famine and climate in locations outside the Ottoman Empire, such as Ireland, was increasingly recognised by these groups however. Outside elite circles, social memory provided an interpretation of extreme climatic events that acknowledged famine and engaged with discourses of world ending and hopelessness. The resulting bread riots and social unrest, for Çelik, demonstrates the gulf between official and popular cosmologies of climate, scarcity, and hunger.

The workshop was brought to a close by Baihui Duan of the University of Oxford, who explored the Little Ice Age theory that has been used to explain natural disasters and famines in Asia in the seventeenth century. Like Çelik, Duan explored the discrepancy between official and popular perceptions of climate and the perceived correlation between long-term drought and poor harvests. Within official circles, the widely held Confucian belief in the connection between the moral conduct of the king and the presence of extreme climatic events and natural disasters restricted their attributions and actions to those which would ensure political stability. Ultimately Duan called into question the existing literature on the Little Ice Age in Korea due to its failure to engage with the underlying political discourses of benevolence within official accounts.

Discussions of a variety of moral discourses in the past help us understand how climate change might act as a moral concept in the twenty-first century. Whether we feel guilty about buying a second-hand petrol car, condemn frequent flyers, or protest at climate conferences, the moral perspectives of climate discourse deserve continued attention.

Discussion both during and after the workshop was rich. David Schultz of Manchester’s Centre for Atmospheric Science gave the meteorologist’s perspective, providing insights into the possible mechanisms behind many of the events that were discussed. Jon Roberts of the University of Leeds drew comparisons between Tomking’s work on soils and his own work on hookworm prevalence in colonial contexts, informing the workshop that colonial officers hypothesised that hookworm prevalence could be related to soil types. This highlighted that such colonial discussions of environmental determinism went well beyond climate. Alex Hibberts of the University of Durham asked some insightful questions of what caused our current science-based conceptualisation of climate to arise. The workshop made clear how the climate–society relationship has been conceptualised in so many different ways over the centuries. What are the assumptions that underpin the current dominant mode of climate discourse? Only by paying attention to the past can we understand the depths of questions such as this.

We would like to reiterate our thanks to ICHM for providing core funding for the workshop. We would also like to express our thanks to CHSTM and the Northern Environmental History Network for their support.

Conference Notes & Letters

Call for Papers: Climate, Food & Famine in History

By Robert Naylor and Eleanor Shaw

Open to a range of time periods and disciplinary backgrounds, this workshop is concerned with the history of climate-orientated narratives in relation to food and famine. At a time of rebounding climate discourse, the use of climate-orientated narratives as explanatory devices for food shortages and famine has come under increased scrutiny. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon attracted criticism in 2007 when he attributed the Dafur conflict to climate change-induced food insecurity. More recently, in 2015, Barack Obama controversially used the Syrian civil war as an example to frame climate change as a security problem: ‘It’s now believed that drought and crop failures and high food prices helped fuel the early unrest in Syria, which descended into civil war in the heart of the Middle East. So, increasingly, our military and our combatant commands, our services […] will need to factor climate change into plans and operations.’ In 2021 the World Food Programme website claimed that families ‘are stuck in a cycle of conflict, climate shocks and rising levels of hunger’ in relation to the ongoing famine in South Sudan. This workshop aims to bring academics together to provide historical context for such claims.

Relevant work includes Mike Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts, which argues, for example, that research into hypothetical sunspot-driven climatic changes was utilised to help excuse British authorities who oversaw the Great Famine in India. Philip Slavin (2019) has presented a complex picture of the British famine of 1314-17, where agriculturalists had to face unrelenting taxes and forced food sales alongside an inclement climate. Critiques of climate attribution theses have a long history, with meteorologist Rolando Garcia’s 1981 work Nature Pleads Not Guilty disputing the climate attribution thesis of food insecurity in the 1970s. More recent work by Jan Selby, Omar Dahi, Christiane Fröhlich, and Mike Hulme has interrogated the climate attribution thesis of the Syrian conflict, arguing that policymakers should exercise greater caution when drawing such links. Even more recently, Myanna Lahsen and Jesse Ribot (2022) argued that ‘climate-centric disaster framing can erase from view—and, thus, from policy agendas—the very socio-economic and political factors that most centrally cause vulnerability and suffering in weather extremes and disasters.’

Such discussions are rich, but often suffer from being siloed in isolated academic subjects and institutions. This workshop aims to bring together scholars across disciplines to critically examine powerful and controversial climate-based narratives around food insecurity that have long permeated public discourse.

This is an intimate 1-day event that seeks to assemble individuals with various research backgrounds (e.g. environmental history, HSTM, social sciences, atmospheric science) in an effort to generate critical transdisciplinary engagement around the intersection between climate, food, and famine in history.

April 14, 2023, 9:00-16:00 BST

Room 2.57 Simon Building, University of Manchester, UK

Deadline for abstracts (300 words): December 15, 2022

Registration information for non-presenting participants will be circulated at a later date.

Format: 20-minute presentation followed by 10-minutes of discussion at the end of each panel. 50-minute roundtable to finish proceedings.

Please send your submissions and any queries to Robert Naylor and Eleanor Shaw (conference organisers):

A limited number of travel bursaries are available (with priority for early career researchers). Please email the above address for details. In the first instance this is an in-person event. However, if you wish to contribute but cannot travel please email the above address.