Weathered: Cultures of Climate


Mike Hulme

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    In memory of my mother, Shelagh Mary Hulme, who died as I embarked on the writing of this book. Her love of geography and of literature are reflected in various ways in what is written here.

    Praise for Weathered

    ‘Mike Hulme’s wise and well-crafted book encircles the idea of climate from a series of perspectives, showing its elusive nature from a welter of examples. As the argument develops, we see how climate is embedded in multiple cultures, histories, and knowledges about nature. We are shown how our views of climate depend on personal experiences, scientific models, inherited tropes, and political interest. Each chapter reflects a turn of the kaleidoscope, gradually making the reader see both the complexity and the singularity of each image. Hulme’s remarkable achievement is to humanise climate, without losing sight of the larger challenges; this is where the book cannot but affect the reader.’

    Kirsten Hastrup, Professor of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen

    ‘Everybody may be talking about the weather, but how do we experience climate? While climate has mostly been left to the natural sciences, Mike Hulme’s book shows how climate is much more than the “average weather”. It is a cultural relationship between humans and the weathers they dwell in. How do cultures live with the weather? How does the experience of climate structure our sense of space and time? This book is the first to offer a systematic overview of the many forms of knowledge, cultural practices and personal attitudes that helped humans in different epochs and locations deal with their meteorological environment. Its importance lies not just in the wealth of material and its brilliantly clear structure but also in the way Hulme links a humanities-based approach to climate with the current state of climate science. This is a milestone for interdisciplinary climate research and a must-read for all scholars and students trying to understand how a human being-in-the-world is a being-in-climate.’

    Eva Horn, Faculty of Philological and Cultural Studies, University of Vienna

    ‘We desperately need a book like this one, a book that reorients our thinking about climate change from temperature and precipitation to culture, values, emotions, and social justice. Mike Hulme has delivered beautifully in this highly accessible, boldly insightful, and elegant book. Weathered divulges quite clearly the complex ways we think about weather and climate. And it also shows us that when we define or explain, study or represent, fear or blame, engineer or predict the climate, we are ultimately empowering some people while disempowering others. Anyone who cares about climate – from climate scientists and policymakers to journalists, geographers, historians, students, and activists – should read this book.’

    Mark Carey, Author of In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Climate Change and Andean Society

    ‘In his bracing new book, Mike Hulme throws open cultural windows on climate, illuminating its history and geography as a powerful form of human experience and imagination. Through a series of frameworks, concerning knowledge, narrative, livelihood and policy, and a rich range of examples, from scientific modelling to impressionist painting, statistical mapping to song and dance, Hulme guides his readers, clearly and accessibly, through the cultural worlds of climate. Weathered introduces students from many subjects to the many meanings and functions of climate, and its relations to such matters as commerce and creativity. The book also challenges scholars in many fields of science and the humanities to see beyond their specialisms, in such a pressing field of inquiry and concern.’

    Stephen Daniels, Professor of Cultural Geography, University of Nottingham

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    About the Author

    Mike Hulme is professor of climate and culture in the Department of Geography at King’s College London. His work sits at the intersection of climate, history and culture. He studies how knowledge about climate and its changes is made and represented, and analyses the numerous ways in which the idea of climate-change is deployed in public discourse around the world.


    This book is about the idea of climate, an enduring idea of the human mind and also a powerful one. Today, the idea of climate is most commonly associated with the phenomenon and discourse of climate-change1 and its scientific, economic, religious, ethical, social and political dimensions. I have written about these axes of public argumentation in an earlier book − Why We Disagree About Climate Change (Hulme, 2009) − but before the cultural politics of climate-change can truly be understood, I believe a richer understanding of the idea of climate itself is needed. Because climate-change is such a pervasive phenomenon and discourse which is re-making the contemporary world, it is important to take a step back and undertake historical, geographical and cultural investigations of the idea of climate itself.

    Like any interesting word, ‘climate’ defies easy definition for reasons explained in Chapter 1. My argument in Weathered is that climate − as it is imagined, studied and acted upon − needs to be understood, first and foremost, culturally. Since climate is a complex and abstract idea, it cannot be understood independently of the cultures within which the idea takes shape. This argument challenges the primacy of natural science definitions of climate and, hence, questions the predominantly scientific understanding of (human-caused) climate-change. For example, the successive assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) promote the view that climate should be understood as a planetary system of physically interconnecting processes, a system which can adequately be represented and hence predicted using mathematical models. This framing of climate is dominant in much academic scholarship, in politics and in public debates. It assumes that changes in climate, and in its human and non-human drivers, are to be studied, explained and predicted through scientific theory and observation. As a consequence, forensic detection and attribution studies using ensembles of complex climate models and arcane statistics have become central to the scientific and public status of the reality of climate-change.

    But there is another story to be told about climate-change, one which starts with the cultural origins of the idea of climate. Rather than framing climate solely as an interconnected global physical system or as a statistical artefact of repeated weather measurements, in this book I develop the case that climate needs also to be understood as an idea that is given meaning through cultures. This means that climate pre-eminently can be – and indeed has been − changed by cultures. If this is true then climate has a cultural geography and history which is interwoven with its physical geography and history. This geography and history of climate forms the substrate out of which contemporary beliefs, claims and disputes about climate-change emerge today. Weathered therefore places the contemporary phenomenon and discourse of climate-change within a matrix of rich cultural understandings and meanings.

    My approach to understanding climate extends well beyond the traditional disciplines where climates and cultures are studied − climatology and anthropology, respectively – even if within these disciplines there are identifiable communities of scholars concerned with their interactions. For example, Thornes and MacGregor (2003) identify a cultural climatology tradition within geography, while anthropologist Todd Sanders refers to a circle of ‘critical climate change anthropologists’ (Sanders, 2014). To fully grasp the idea of climate – and, by implication, I would argue, the phenomenon and discourse of climate-change – the insights of geographers, anthropologists, historians, psychologists, sociologists, theologians, historians, eco-critics and philosophers are needed. And if science is correctly understood as a cultural pursuit, then insights from sociologists of science and scholars of science and technology studies are also needed.

    Weathered: Cultures of Climate therefore opens up the many ways in which the idea of climate is given meaning in different human cultures and how it is used; how climates are historicised, known, changed, lived with, blamed, feared, represented, predicted, governed and, at least putatively, redesigned. These actions performed on or with the idea of climate emerge from the diverse cultural interpretations of humans’ sensory experience of the atmosphere’s restless weather. Weathered develops a case for understanding climate as an enduring, yet malleable, idea which humans use to stabilise cultural relationships with their weather. The discursive phenomenon of climate-change should therefore be understood as a ubiquitous trope through which the material, psychological and cultural agency of climate is exercised in today’s world. In this sense the phenomenon of climate-change is not a decisive break from the past, neither is it a unique outcome of modernity. Climate-change should rather be seen as the latest stage in the cultural evolution of the idea of climate, an idea which enables humans to live with their weather through a widening and changing range of cultural and material artefacts, practices, rituals and symbols.


    The interactions between weather and culture appear everywhere in daily life; for example, in social memories of past climatic extremes, in emotional moods, in technologies of adaptation, in fiction, poetry and song, in narratives of blame, in dress codes and so on. Many of these relationships have been written about, but in disparate texts and journals, fragmented across many different academic disciplines. A coherent literature which treats the rich interactions between climates and cultures in a systematic way is lacking. The number and scope of monographs and reference texts offering a synoptic view of climate and culture is rather limited, and some of them obscure. Monographs by Boia (2005), Behringer (2010), Leduc (2010; 2016), Bristow and Ford (2016) and, in Japanese, Watsuji (1988[1935]) are noteworthy exceptions, as are the edited collections of Strauss and Orlove (2003), Crate and Nuttall (2009), Dove (2014), Barnes and Dove (2015) and, in German, Welzer et al. (2010). But this deficiency is slowly being remedied. As the new sub-field of environmental humanities expands, and as the provocative idea of the Anthropocene continues to irrupt in intellectual and cultural worlds, the next few years will see a growing number of texts which open up new ways for thinking about the relationships between climates and cultures.

    I have already given some visibility and structure to this growing scholarship in a recently published six-volume SAGE Major Reference Work, Climates and Cultures (Hulme, 2015a). That collection of 88 published articles and book chapters from a range of disciplines captures and organises some of the most important academic writing on climate and culture that has appeared since the early 1990s. It provides a series of signposts to guide readers through a growing body of work on climates and cultures from the disciplines of human geography, environmental history, philosophy, science studies, anthropology, eco-criticism, sociology and religious studies. I organised that collection into six themes:

    • Vol. 1 Cultures of Climate Knowledge
    • Vol. 2 Historical Readings of Climate
    • Vol. 3 Climate and Agency
    • Vol. 4 Climate and Culture in Places and Practices
    • Vol. 5 Cultural Readings of Future Climate
    • Vol. 6 Climate Change in Literary, Visual and Performance Cultures

    Weathered: Cultures of Climate should be seen as a companion text to that earlier reference work, offering an extended synthesis of the published work on climates and cultures. Following an opening definitional chapter, each of the following 11 chapters in this book explores a different aspect of how cultures use, or have used, the idea of climate to make sense of their relationship with the weather. The 11 themes I have selected are certainly not exhaustive and the distinctions between some of them may blur. Yet taken together they illustrate the cultural foundations of human knowledge of climate (Part 1), human life with climate (Part 2) and human relationships with future climates (Part 3).

    A word is needed about the headline title of the book, Weathered. Like climate, weather is a rich word in the English language. It can be used as noun, verb and adjective. As noun, weather refers to the instantaneous physical state of the atmosphere; hence there are many types of weather to be described: stormy, calm, lovely, threatening, changeable, benign and so on. As verb, the process of weathering refers to the exposure of objects or sentient beings to various types of weather; for example, ‘these buildings are weathering well’. This exposure, usually over significant periods of time, changes the object or being in characteristic and often permanent ways so that it might be described as weathered: it bears in some way the imprint of the weather to which it has been exposed. In this third case then, weather becomes an adjective, as in ‘her weathered face betrayed years of exposure to the wind and sun of the mountain climate’.

    I am using the term ‘weathered’ in this book in this latter sense. As I explain in Chapter 1, climate is an idea that helps stabilise the human experience of weather and allows humans to live culturally with their weather. Cultures and individuals can be thought of as being ‘weathered’ through repeated exposures over periods of time to particular types and sequences of weather. It is reflecting on this process of weathering which, I suggest, helps appreciate the value of the idea of climate. Cultures bear the imprint of the weather in which they exist and to which they respond. As with trees or human bodies, cultures too are weathering; indeed, they cannot avoid being weathered in some way or other. It is these interactions between cultures and weather that I seek to explore in this book and which, I will argue, offer a richer and more intimate understanding of the idea of climate than can be offered by science alone. As environmental historian Alexander Wilson explains in relation to landscape, ‘In the broadest sense of the term, landscape is a way of seeing the world and imagining our relationship to nature. It is something we think, do and make as a social collective’ (Wilson, 1992: 17). Replace ‘landscape’ and ‘nature’ with ‘climate’ and ‘weather’ in the above description and you have a good summary of the argument of this book.

    Mike HulmeKing’s College LondonApril 2016

    1. Throughout this book I use the construction ‘climate-change’ to refer to the contemporary idea of human-caused global climatic change. In this way I differentiate the physical and discursive realities of anthropogenic changes in global climate from other expressions of change, for example, ‘climate change’ (un-hyphenated), ‘changes in climate’ or ‘climatic change’.


    This book was written over the winter of 2015/16, although its origins date back to my stay at the Rachel Carson Centre at the Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) in Munich during the summer of 2014. I would like to thank the Centre and its directors − Christof Mauch and Helmuth Trischler − for the award of a Carson Writing Fellowship that facilitated this visit and also the many colleagues at the Centre with whom I interacted and was able to share my thinking. I would like additionally to thank George Adamson, Georgina Endfield, Greg Garrard, Jim Fleming, Kirsten Hastrup, Kjersti Fløttum, Mathias Heymann, Edvard Hviding, Vlad Janković, Willis Jenkins, Adeline Johns-Putra, Myanna Lahsen, Eva Lövbrand, Amanda Machin, Martin Mahony, Ruth Morgan, Kate Porter, Sam Randalls, Steve Rayner, Peter Rudiak-Gould, Birgit Schneider, Joe Smith and Chaya Vaddhanaphuti for stimulating conversations over recent years through which some of these ideas in this book developed and evolved. I am also indebted to Gill Hulme and Emma Hulme for putting me straight on Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Game of Thrones, respectively. George Adamson, Eliza de Vet, Martin Mahony, Lucy Rose and Dylan Robinson each read through one or more draft chapters and their close reading led to some significant improvements in the text, although the responsibility for what finally appears in print remains fully mine.

    Some of the ideas in this book were first articulated in earlier published work and so I should acknowledge that Chapter 1 is partly based on my essay published in GEO: Geography and Environment (Hulme, 2015b), Chapter 7 draws upon an article in The Geographical Journal (Hulme, 2008) and parts of Chapter 10 upon my book Can Science Fix Climate Change? (Hulme, 2014a) and an essay in Current Anthropology (Hulme, 2015c).

    At SAGE I would like to thank Robert Rojek for commissioning the book and Matt Oldfield, Catja Pafort for her copyediting work, and Katherine Haw in the production team. SAGE commissioned four anonymous readers of the original book proposal and they each made valuable suggestions which improved the framing of various chapters. I also thank Bill Johncocks who has produced, yet again, an index of the highest professional standard.

    Finally, my greatest debt is to my wife, Gill, who graciously accepted the intrusion of this book into numerous Norwich weekends and an entire walking holiday in Derbyshire. Thank you for your love, support and patience.

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