Sabine Wilke

Sabine Wilke, Department of Germanics (Chair), University of Washington



Narrating Climate: German Culture in the Age of Environmentalism

Narrating climate constructs a historical framework for understanding discourses on environmental change as the result of transactions and negotiations between global forms of imagining a shared sense of (world) community and local models of regional politics. The German environmental imagination was born in the context of scientific discovery (Alexander von Humboldt) and continues to shape fictional narratives of climate and climate change today. The trajectory of this discursive construct spans two hundred years of literary and rhetorical figurations of the figure of the German scientist actively involved in global transactions, researching atmospheric phenomena and other scientific parameters related to climate, translating these data visually into mathematical models, charts, images, and projections, and lecturing about his/her conclusions (often in other languages and to an international audience), effectively positioning German science at the forefront of advocacy for climate-related issues, at the same time sidestepping, in triangulated fashion, the specific issues related to German history, the history of European colonialism, the nature of environmental determinism and its relation to the German tradition.

For Alexander von Humboldt, climate refers to all changes in the atmosphere that noticeably affect our organs, our feelings, and our mental condition. In his work on Latin America and Central Asia, he narrates local climate conditions from the perspective of the male European subject from a temperate climate who is visiting these locals and who is writing up the conclusions of his research for a European audience. In his 1848 edition of Cosmos, for example, Humboldt concludes that “[T]he term climate, taken in its most general sense, indicates all the changes in the atmosphere which sensibly affect our organs, as temperature, humidity, variations in the barometric pressure, the calm state of the air or the action of opposite winds, the amount of electric tension, the purity of the atmosphere or its admixture with more or less noxious gaseous exhalations, and, finally, the degree of ordinary transparency and clearness of the sky, which is not only important with respect to the increased radiation from the Earth, the organic development of plants, and the ripening of fruits, but also with reference to its influence on the feelings and mental condition of men” (I: 318). While Alexander von Humboldt’s comparative climatology and the narrative discourse on climate that he develops in his case studies on the landscapes of Central Asia links local socio-cultural practices to a global imaginary, the modern narrative of anthropogenic climate change foregrounds the human actor and displaces Humboldt’s focus on larger atmospheric phenomena and geographic coordinates. sThe modern concept of climate as a social, and indeed cultural, construction as envisioned in the modern German environmental imagination of anthropogenic climate change is reflected in the curatorial conception of the “Klimahaus” in Bremerhaven, one of Germany’s newest museums that opened in 2009. The “Klimahaus” stages the tradition of narrating climate that has led to the modern discourse on climate change. It facilitates the narrative trajectory of German climate scientice/advocacy through its curatorial concept of world discovery and climate rescue. In these concepts, German culture arises as transaction between local politics and the global imaginary.