Watching the earnest tomfoolery of Extinction Rebellion (everyone’s favourite planetary rescue squad) whilst listening to the tirelessly apocalyptic narrative emanating from the BBC, it is clear that speculation about the future has become a grim business. We might just about be surviving now (I am reassured) but the future is another land; a land deemed uninhabitable for a species as eminently fragile as homo sapiens. But how, you might ask, can we know this, given that we have never travelled to that land? And is this really an unprecedented quandary we find ourselves in?
The answer to the first question is quite simple. There is an authority amongst us that can advise on such uncertain matters, and this authority is known as ‘the climate scientists’. But what about the question of precedence? In fact, this is not the first time that humanity has asked whether it could survive in a hot climate yet to be experienced. Furthermore, as is the case now, the last time this question was asked, it found a ready answer in the authority of the day. I speak, of course, of the late 15th century and the thought that had engaged every enquiring mind inhabiting the northern hemisphere: Could medieval man possibly survive the extreme temperatures of the equator?
Nothing New Under the Sun
The equatorial regions were indeed a foreign and unexplored land for the 15th century European academic. As is the case with our future climate, those in northern climes could only extrapolate from what they knew of terra cognita in order to surmise what might lie in lands over the horizon. Today’s horizon, of course, is temporal, but the problem is basically the same. People of the 15th century knew that things got hotter as they headed south – that much was not in dispute. The question was whether or not it would become too hot for survivability before the equator was reached. Today, we know that the climate is warming, but it is the extrapolation of that warming trend that vexes the curious.
So how was the question answered way back in the 15th century? The answer is: The same way it always had been – they just looked up what Aristotle had to say on the subject. And what do you suppose that might have been? Perhaps the answer was predictable: Don’t even think of going there, you’ll boil to death, and that’s a fact!
You might think that people wouldn’t take the word of an ancient philosopher when they could just go to the equator and find out for themselves, but there is a very good reason why the philosophy prevailed. You have to remember that all of this pre-dates the Scientific Revolution, as begun by Tycho Brahe in the 16th century and ended by the works of Sir Isaac Newton about a century later. Before this time, the very idea of scientific discovery was alien to the human race, and direct experience was a poor substitute for the wisdom of the ancients. The genuine belief was that all that could be known had already been determined by Aristotle and his epigones. No further discovery was necessary, so a trek to the equator would have been a complete waste of time. All that was needed was a quick trip to the library.
And Nothing Changes
Still, it would have been comforting to know that the contemporary wisdom was based upon a firm consensus. I’m sure that any half-baked survey of university dissertations of the day would have revealed that somewhere in the region of 97% of academia agreed that Aristotle was right. And I’m equally convinced that any academic wishing to make a career based upon the premise that Aristotle was a fool would have struggled to get his work published. As for any contrarians amongst the great unwashed, they would be roundly dismissed as conspiracy theorists. There might even have been a wily wag who was prepared to deride and mock naysayers from a pulpit called ‘And Then There’s Philosophy’. Still others might have taken to the streets screaming ‘Listen to the philosophers’, though I doubt that any of them would have been 16 year-old girls.
What is less certain, however, is whether there was any hard evidence to back up Aristotle’s position. Even prior to the Scientific Revolution one might have thought that there was at least some basis for the claim, rather than just saying it gets hotter as one travels south and all experiments on human physiology have demonstrated that there are limits to how much heat can be borne (I say ‘experiments’ but I really mean ‘torture’). Perhaps a climate sensitivity value had been determined, whereby they knew the increase in temperature experienced as the distance travelled south was doubled. Even so, I’m sure the measurements would have been hampered by the vagaries of weather, so maybe a value between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees was the very best they could manage. But who am I kidding? None of this was necessary. Aristotle already had the answer and no one was going to do anything to disprove him.
That is, until mankind’s entrepreneurial spirit tipped the balance.
Then Things Get Spicy
In the end, it wasn’t scientific curiosity that drove the Europeans to explore the equatorial regions – it was money. The Portuguese, in particular, were keen to establish a maritime route by which they could import spices from India, and it occurred to them that heading south whilst hugging the African coast might be the answer to their problem. So that is what they did. And lo and behold, it wasn’t too long before they were returning with healthy sun tans, boats laden with spice, and tales of civilisations loving la viva Tropicana.
Despite this, Aristotle’s authority shone on brightly, and so it would take a lot more than facts to overthrow his catastrophic anthropocentric equatorial warming theory. Indeed, anyone who challenged Aristotle’s authority would have to answer to the Pope. Take, for example, musician and mathematician, Jean Taisnier, who, having had the temerity to question the myth of Aristotelian infallibility, received a papal challenge to cite a single example of Aristotle having been wrong. Even in the early 16th Century, long after the Cape of Good Hope had been successfully navigated, the eminent philosopher, Alessandro Achillini, deemed the matter unresolved:
“However, that at the equator figs grow the year round, or that the air there is most temperate, or that the animals living there have temperate constitutions, or that the terrestrial paradise is there – these are things which natural experience does not reveal to us.”
Fortunately, a much more reasoned commentary (at least to the modern mind) was forthcoming from the likes of Giovanni Manardo, who said of the equatorial controversy:
“If anyone prefers the testimony of Aristotle and Averroes to that of men who have been there, then there is no way of arguing with them…”
Well that’s deniers for you!
The Preachy Bit
I’m sure that there are some of you reading this tale of pre-scientific nonsense who would see it as a firm endorsement of the importance of scientific enquiry and, hence, an endorsement of the current orthodoxy regarding modern-day global warming. But you should remember that I am one of those black-hearted, anti-science reprobates who never did fully sign up to Team 97. So, for me, it is not the presence of latter-day enlightenment that impresses me so much, but the fact that, whenever horizons obscure the view, we still insist that matters of science can nevertheless be settled by appeal to authority. We pride ourselves in having moved on from those dark days of blind allegiance to the ancient merchants of certainty, but one only has to scratch the surface to see that there really isn’t that much difference between what is going on today and what the powers-that-be were getting up to back in the 15th century. What was done then is what we are doing now. Sure, there is a lot more science being done today but, when it suits, we still waste little time in substituting direct experience with authoritative conjecture – supported in this case by little more than mathematical ‘experimentation’ in the form of an ensemble of climate models.
To be fair, the 15th century explorers did, ultimately, have the wherewithal to cross their spatial horizons before returning to report; we, on the other hand, do not have time machines to achieve that same purpose. So I guess we are stuck with the agonizing uncertainty that we may or may not be able to grow figs in the future; and that may be the only truth of the matter. As Francis Bacon once said, “Truth is the daughter of time”, and we cannot force time to give birth prematurely.