Our Ice Age: The Geohistorical Imagination in the Northern Hemisphere

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“Our Ice Age: The Geohistorical Imagination in the Northern Hemisphere” contributes to discussions in the environmental humanities about the historical and narrative significance of climate change by examining representations of the ice age, a relatively recent geological moment that began 2.5 million years ago and continues, according to climatologists, into our own “interglacial” time. Linking scientific and literary narratives of our warming interglacial world with those of the last glacial epoch, this dissertation analyzes the imagination of climate change when planetary forces, rather than humans, serve as the primary drivers, and theorizes this discourse’s continuing relevance for understanding anthropogenic global warming.

Across a variety of texts, this research traces the persistence of two forms of storytelling—“gradualist” narratives of slow change and “catastrophist” plots of rapid transformation—that define representations of both the last glacial period and contemporary global warming. Observing this continuity, this project argues that current responses to global warming are not composed solely of modern reactions to a genuinely new situation; they are sedimented stories formed from climate change’s past as a long-standing social, political, scientific, and environmental problem. The four chapters of “Our Ice Age” traverse the Northern Hemisphere and range from the nineteenth century to the present. Chapter one analyzes two major works of ice age geology, Louis Agassiz’s Studies on Glaciers (1840) and James Croll’s Climate and Time (1875). Concentrating on the narrative form of these books, this chapter observes how Croll’s gradualist story of the ice age, in which climate change occurred slowly over time, came to supplant Agassiz’s initial catastrophic vision. Chapter two explores two novels, Johannes Jensen’s The Long Journey (1922) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman (2013), in order to demonstrate how our fascination with human survival during the glacial epoch prompted both catastrophist and gradualist forms of climate fiction. Moving to the interglacial present, chapter three discusses the scientific, political, and cultural significance of the melting Arctic for researchers and indigenous communities; this chapter draws from a range of nonfiction about the “New Arctic,” including William Glassley’s A Wilder Time (2018) and Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s The Right to Be Cold (2015). Chapter four explores the politics of Pleistocene Park, a wildlife reserve in Siberia created to mitigate catastrophic global warming by reviving its ice-age ecosystem. Embracing both of the philosophically-opposed practices of “rewilding” and geoengineering, the park represents an ambiguous response to the conditions of the Anthropocene. Theorizing the “geohistorical imagination” that threads through these texts, this research shows how representations of the ice age perpetually shape our collective understanding of climate change.

This dissertation encourages the environmental humanities to serve as a more spacious venue for interdisciplinary conversations about the environment. This work draws inspiration from across disciplinary boundaries, not only using the tools of literary criticism to reflect on geology, ecology, environmental history, but also wielding insights from those fields in narrative analysis. Just as Hayden White read nineteenth- century historians for how they “emplot” history, this research reads geological and ecological treatises as a form of storytelling. At the same time, this research widens literary interpretation: where most humanist studies of the relationship between culture and environment focus exclusively on ecological transformations that have occurred since the industrial revolution or the post-WWII “great acceleration,” this work digs into evolutionary and geological history. This project interprets cultural products against the backdrop of geological time and human evolution. “Our Ice Age” thereby establishes a conceptual framework in which literary and scientific discourses meet productively to shed light on the consequences of climate change.






Gaffney, Michael Thomas (2020). Our Ice Age: The Geohistorical Imagination in the Northern Hemisphere. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/20953.


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