Weather, Climate, Culture

By Sarah Strauss; Ben Orlove | Go to book overview

2
Time, Talk, and the Weather in
Eighteenth-Century Britain1
Jan Golinski

The weather is woven into our experiences of modern life in many ways. Remarks about what it is doing or about to do smooth our everyday social interactions. Reports, observations, and predictions punctuate our daily routines. If anything, modern communications have made us more aware of extreme weather conditions and their devastating effects: floods, storms, blizzards, tornadoes, and hurricanes are represented to us in graphic detail, even when they occur on the other side of the world. The circumstances of modern life may have shielded us from some of the threats faced by environmentally more vulnerable communities, but, in other respects, modern conditions have raised new concerns about the weather and how it might disrupt our comfortable lives. In developed countries, people worry that the climate is changing as a result of human activity affecting the natural environment. In this respect, contemporary reflections on the weather express anxieties about modernity itself, especially the fear that nature has been trespassed upon by modern technological civilization and will now wreak its revenge. The French philosopher Michel Serres, who has written extensively on this topic, remarks that, ‘Today our expertise and our worries turn toward the weather, because our industrious know-how is acting, perhaps catastrophically, on global nature’ (Serres 1995: 27).

The British have a peculiar outlook on the weather, as anyone who has spent time in the country knows. Partly this is because the weather there does have some singular features, and partly it is because certain ways of thinking and talking about it have become deeply embedded in the national culture. It is striking, for example, how many of the things one hears said about the British weather reflect uncertainties about the nation's identity in the modern world. The climate, which is recollected nostalgically as equable and temperate, is said to be changing for the worse. Extreme events, such as violent storms and floods, constitute urgent reminders of this possibility. Wetter springs and autumns seem to be bringing more of these hazards. Winter blizzards also seem to be becoming more common. Warmer summers, which one might imagine would be welcome, are said to bear the threat of invasion by foreign insects and diseases. Poised uncertainly on the

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