AD 1764-1791: The First Climate Change and Geoengineering Acts
Have environmentalism and climate change fear always been based on an unproven ideology full of hate against humanity and its material progress?
The Kings Hill Forest Act passed on St Vincent in 1791 was a remarkable piece of legislation. Above all, it was based on a novel climatic theory, that deforestation might cause rainfall decline. The objective of the Act was to “appropriate for the benefit of the neighbourhood the Hill …….and for enclosing the same and preserving the timber and other trees growing thereon in order to attract rain”. The fact that the Act was highly innovative was clearly recognised at the time. Governor James Seton commented that the Act is “of an unusual and extraordinary character”, not least in the powers which the state arrogated to itself to control land and to impose penalties for its misuse. In the language of today the Act thus conceived of two kinds of sustainability, at a local level, in terms of timber supply; and in a much broader climatic sense. It thus enshrined in legislation a highly sophisticated set of principles and was, in short, based on ‘scientific’ theory rather than on social structures or assumptions.
(more details about the Kings Hill Forest Act – fascinatingly, the actual text is very likely to mention clouds too, resulting in the wording “for the purpose of attracting clouds and rain”)
Environment worries? Check. Impending climate catastrophe caused by human greed? Check. Evil deforestation? Check. Strong-armed governmental intervention? Check. And yhe idea was not new. Already in Tobago (1764), Barbados and Dominica (1765) local authorities had been busying themselves in planting trees in order to get more rains:
an ordinance was passed in 1764 designating the mountainous part of Tobago a protected forest, “reserved in wood for rains.”This protected forest still exists within its original boundaries. The legislation that created it marked a critical watershed in the history of environmental concern, since it applied a universal scientific theory about earth-atmosphere processes (since shown to be substantially correct) to a local environment. It was thus the forerunner to all subsequent national and international attempts to control rainfall and climate change. The 1764 Tobago ordinance specifically recognized the need to restrict profits to sustain an environment in the long term. Moreover, the mechanisms used to set up forest reserves under the ordinance justified the alienation (in the face of much local litigation) of large tracts of private plantation land to colonial state control and implied a permanent role for the state, rather than the individual, in conserving forests and the atmosphere. In 1765, identical ordinances were applied to Barbados and Dominica.
Also in Mauritius (1769):
In a law of 1769, called the Reglement Economique, and in later laws passed after Poivre had left the island in 1772, an extensive system of forest reservations and riverside reservations was established in Mauritius, on the basis both of climatic arguments to protect the rainfall and to provide a sustainable timber supply
Pierre Poivre had already been extensively involved in attempts to transfer spice trees from the Dutch East Indies to Mauritius. In the course of trying to develop these and other objectives Poivre set up what was effectively a physiocratic state on the island. However, partly as a result of his experiments in plant transfer Poivre was already very interested in soil conditions and the effects of deforestation on moisture and local climate. He had developed these ideas in Lyons in the context of agricultural society meetings during the 1750s and in a paper written in 1763 made direct reference to what he thought were now well-established connections between deforestation and rainfall change. The provenance of these notions is not clear and further research would be needed to establish the source of Poivre’s very definitive desiccationist convictions. But it seems likely that the main source of inspiration for Poivre’s climate thinking came from the arboricultural handbooks written by his contemporary, Duhamel de Monceau. De Monceau, an anglophile, had in turn been very much influenced by the thinking of Stephen Hales, the pupil of Isaac Newton and the discover of the principle of transpiration. A Newtonian linking of trees and atmosphere was thus essential to early environmentalism.
Stephen Hales of 1677-1761, of course. There is another possibly complementary reason behind Poivre’s efforts though: the arrival in Mauritius in 1768 of botanist Jacques Henri Bernardine de Saint Pierre, later author of Paul and Virginie (1787) and clearly influenced by the thoughts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And what did Rousseau write in Emile: or, On Education?
Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author of things, everything degenerates in the hands of man. He forces one soil to nourish the products of another, one tree to bear the fruits of another. He mixes and confuses the climates, the elements, the seasons. He mutilates his dog, his horse, his slave. He turns everything upside down, he disfigures everything, he loves deformities, monsters. He wants nothing as nature made it, not even man himself. For him man must be trained like a saddle- horse; he must be shaped according to the fashion, like trees in his garden.
There we go then: climate and geoengineering legislation officially based on science, but on a “science” in turn based on activism takings its inspiration from the science-free humanity- and material-progress-hating thoughts of a distant philosopher (Rousseau).
Nothing new under the sun. Science-based policy, it ain’t.