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Climatic Determinism and the Conceptualization of the Tropics in British India  

Rituparna Ray Chowdhury

The geographic concept of tropicality emerged as an operative tool in the colonizing efforts of the European powers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since the colonizing encounters proved fatal for many Europeans in South Asia, particularly during the initial phase of settlement when their mortality rate was far higher than that of the natives, attempts were made to understand the impact of the tropical climate upon the Western constitution. Based on the ancient Hippocratic doctrines of humoral pathology and the narrative of Enlightenment thinkers, colonial medical professionals endeavored to determine a correlation between health and environment. According to Western classical understanding, health was dependent upon various climatic and environmental factors. With the prevailing perception that the oppressive climatic conditions of India and its hazardous disease-infused environs were inimical to the survival of the Anglo-Indians in South Asia, the ancient concept of climatic determinism was revitalized during the colonial period. This theory, which argued that people tended to resemble the dominant characteristics of the climate in which they lived, proved convenient at a time of aggressive expansion, when moral grounds were required for justifying the Western designs of conquest and exploitation. Explanations like environmental determinism encouraged conjectures that the tropical climate of India bred only “lazy” and “degenerative” people, in contrast to the “manly” and “strong” individuals of the temperate zone. This notion, with its insidious veneer of rationality, facilitated a justification of the ideology of imperial colonization, while also discouraging permanent settlement of the European colonizers upon Indian soil.

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Meteorology, Climate, and Health in the United States  

Elaine LaFay

Unraveling the connections between meteorology, climate, and health—all broadly defined—is an endeavor that cuts across an astonishing array of times, places, and peoples. How societies pursue and interpret these connections is deeply tied to sociocultural, environmental, and political context. In the United States, meteorological beliefs rested on shared assumptions rooted in ancient traditions that linked prevailing environmental and climatic conditions with human health. By the 17th century, the steadfast collection of meteorological phenomena in weather journals was tethered to medical knowledge as well as the pursuit of agricultural, business, and shipping ventures. Environmental conditions were routinely theorized as causes for epidemics and individual sickness (or cure). As meteorology changed from a practice of data collection to a science over the 18th and 19th centuries, its medical arm branched into the interlocking fields of medical meteorology, medical climatology, and medical topography. However, even with the rise of new meteorological technologies and methods, older ways of knowing the weather persisted alongside formal medical theories of health and place, and tacit, embodied knowledge was never fully supplanted by instrumental data collection. The science of meteorology also grew into being as a tool of empire. Imperial states established networks of meteorological stations to collect weather data to further colonial ambitions and foster politically charged geographic imaginaries of colonized places and peoples. But theorizing the relationship between climate and health was not restricted to white men of science. Black intellectuals and subaltern peoples held radically different cosmologies of climate and challenged prevailing essentialist theories of climate and health throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In the 20th century, scientists situated changing climates as a key dimension for disease patterns and demographic transition more broadly. As historians make use of the increasingly sophisticated methods of historical climatology, past climate reconstruction has sparked new questions on how environmental conditions have both enabled and constrained human action during climate—and political, infrastructural—disasters. New interdisciplinary approaches to the climate crisis have further offered ways to bridge the disconnect between climate science and medical practice that emerged during the 20th century.