SPEAKER: Welcome, everyone. So we'll begin. And before I introduce the speaker, I wanted to mention that this is an event which is organized as-- it's a distinguished speaker series which is organized in collaboration with the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and the South Asia Program.
And we are very, very delighted to have Sunil Amrith here who is the Mehra Family Professor and Chair of the Department of South Asian Studies at Harvard. His research is on the trans-regional movement of people, ideas, and institution. Areas of particular interests include the history of public health and poverty, the history of migration and environmental history. His recent work has been on the Bay of Bengal and as a region connecting South and Southeast Asia. He's published widely, including Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants from 2013.
And he was also named a fellow by the MacArthur Foundation in 2017 and also received the 2016 Infosys Prize in the Humanities. He holds a PhD in history from Cambridge and was also a Research Fellow at Trinity College.
His title today is "Monsoon Asia The Past and Future Imagination of a Region." Although given today's weather conditions, perhaps he will want to work on other areas as well.
SUNIL AMRITH: Thank you all for braving the snow. Since I'm going to talk about climate, I think it was apt that Eric took me to the fifth floor of the museum to watch the snow approach. Many people have asked me how long I'm staying. I didn't initially realized what they meant. Now I do.
I am so happy to be here. This is my first visit to Cornell. But in many ways, it feels like an institution that has been very close to me for a long time. If I were to name my favorite works of history, I think a lot of them would have been written by Cornell faculty, including a number right here in this room. So I'm really very happy to be here.
Thank you to the Einaudi Center for inviting me. Thank you to Anne Blackburn, who couldn't be here for initiating the idea that I should come and give a talk at Cornell. And it was very nice to meet some of you at lunchtime and to hear about your very interesting projects.
In 1965, a workshop was convened at Duke University on regions and regionalism in South Asian Studies. The participants included many of the leading lights of US-based South Asian Studies at a time when area studies were well institutionalized in the American academy.
And it was at that conference in 1965 that the anthropologist and historian Bernard Cohn delivered an influential paper, which he published a couple of years later, called "Regions subjective and objective." Cohn sketched out a typology of South Asian regions focusing on what he called historical and cultural regions, regions linked by shared cultural practices by language, by sacred myths and symbols, and a sense of collective identity rooted in narratives of the past.
At the other end of Cohn's continuum of different kinds of regions were what he called natural regions. That is regions defined by their physical characteristics. "The natural component, although important," he wrote, "can be assumed." It can be assumed no longer, I think, in light of scholarship and environmental history, in light of the scale of transformation of those natural, as well as those cultural regions over the past century. And that's really my point of departure this evening.
This talk explores alternative conceptualizations or imaginations of Asia that have arisen from attempts to understand the relationship between climate and region. And I'll explore, in particular, the emergence of the idea of Monsoon Asia as a unit in the late 19th, early 20th century. I'll trace its subsequent eclipse and its unexpected re-emergence in current debates on climate change in Asia.
But the largest question that lurks behind my talk and also behind a lot of the work I've done in recent years is what do our regional boundaries, particularly our boundaries of area studies mean, in an era of climate change and environmental transformation? Is there a way to integrate climate within the recent move towards inter-Asian or inter-regional histories in a way that does not fall back on a stale and discredited environmental determinism? And that's really the problem at the heart of what I'm going to talk about.
In most of my work, I've been particularly interested in the connections between South and Southeast Asia. And I've come to realize in many ways how much I've been sort of reinventing the wheel in things that I've written about the connections between those regions.
A century ago, those connections were assumed. They were self-evident. And what I came to realize is that that region with all of its integration was very often referred to by the idea of Monsoon Asia. A term that then disappeared for most of the second half of the 20th century. It was a term that made little sense, that has not featured in our scholarly and other debates.
And I think spatial imaginations like these are worth revisiting both for the power they had to shape perceptions and motivate actions in the past. And, perhaps, I'll leave that as a perhaps for the new possibilities they may offer our present to see the world differently.
I'd like to suggest that the idea of Monsoon Asia emerged from three distinctive bodies of thought and practice spanning the last decades of the 19th and the early decades of the 20th century. The first was the science of meteorology. The second was imperial and especially French imperial ethnography and geography. And the third was the growing concern on the part of economists, agronomists, Asian nationalists with agrarian crisis in the 1920s and '30s.
So let me start with meteorology. By the last quarter of the 19th century, it had become possible to picture the scale of the monsoon as a dynamic climatic system. The infrastructure of meteorological observations expanded through a network of observatories. Data were compiled and shared across imperial borders.
A list of the library holdings of the Madras Observatory in the year 1885, to give you just one example, contained reports from Batavia and Saigon and the proceedings of the First World Meteorological Conference in Vienna. Incidentally, the Madras Weather Department in the 1880s was directed by Elizabeth Isis Pogson, a rare woman to reach a position of leadership in the scientific apparatus of colonial India. And perhaps because meteorology was a young science proving itself and without perhaps the accumulated prestige of the fields of British colonial science which were more exclusive both in gendered and racial terms.
Knowledge of the monsoons had its origins in profoundly practical knowledge, the knowledge of seafarers and cultivators. A map of the world sculpted by the winds had been known in many cultures. For instance, giving us the Arabic designation of island Southeast Asia as the lands below the winds.
In the 19th century, in the last couple of decades of the 19th century, meteorology embraced statistical analysis in a big way. The devastating famines of the 1870s put a premium on understanding the periodicity of monsoon variability. The telegraph allowed storms to be tracked in real time as they developed over the oceans heading towards coastal regions, holding out the hope of early warning. A steam shipping made long distance travel less intimately dependent on the winds. Meteorology became more a terrestrial agrarian science.
And the new infrastructure of weather data is what made possible a new way of thinking about climate. It influenced the work of a very interesting meteorologist, Father José Algué, a Spanish Jesuit meteorologist who led the Manila Observatory and stayed on after 1898 to lead the Weather Bureau. James Warren has written very interestingly about Algué and his institutional and intellectual context.
From a network of observatories across the Western Pacific, local weather watchers grappled with the power, the unpredictability of the tropical storms known as typhoons in the South China Sea identical to the cyclones of the Indian Ocean. By the 1890s, the telegraph allowed for the transmission of instantaneous weather information. The Manila observatory could and did warn the China coast of approaching storms.
Part of Algué's book revolved around this map which he entitled "Two Very Remarkable Storms." He first thought of digging into the data that allowed him to produce this map when he read the work of John Eliot who was chief meteorologist of India at the time. And Eliot produced something like a textbook of cyclone development and progression.
And in a feat of amazing meteorological detective work, Algué essentially matched up Eliot's accounts of a cyclone that hit Port Blair in the Andaman Islands in November 1891 with his own records in Manila. Of that 1891 storm, Eliot had simply written that there was an absence of information on the cyclone's origins.
Algué found a small item in the Bulletin of the Manila Observatory for October 1891 that provided the missing context. "Very probably, the site the typhoon which was felt here," Manila's meteorologists wrote, "then traversed the peninsula of Malacca after running through the Gulf of Siam to obtain new strength in the Bay of Bengal."
Ships logs then allowed Algué to track the path of the storm down the South China Sea coast until they lost sight of it in the Gulf of Siam which is where Eliot picked it up. Eliot began his account of the storm with its arrival in Siam on the 1st of November 1891. Algué's map of "Two Remarkable Cyclones" presents a different Asia, an Asia storm tracks that traversed sea and land, crossing imperial borders, a coastal rim from the Philippines in the east to India in the West that shared risk to an extent that was, perhaps, previously underestimated.
But what did it imply to think of Asia as an integrated climatic system in an age of competing empires? According to the evolving understanding of storms and monsoons, Asia appeared as an expanse of depth and altitude put into motion by the circulation of air. It was a land and seascape defined by nature rather than empires, its boundaries dictated by the winds and the mountains.
But as soon as this picture of climate was translated into two dimensional maps, the weight of political boundaries became evident. So the first Climatological Atlas of India compiled by the same John Eliot a few years later began with a map of winds and pressure across an interlinked oceanic and continental system. It showed how the climate of India was shaped by the transfer of heat and energy between the Eurasian continent and the vastness of the Indian Ocean.
But the flurry of maps that followed, monthly maps of temperature, and humidity, and rainfall, cloud cover, and wind direction, and wind speed, each one of those maps confined itself to the territorial expanse of British India. In map after map, the territory of British India was shaded a different color from the surrounding mass. And even the arrows showing the winds were limited to the subcontinent, as though they too were self-contained. Only the map of storm tracks stretches out towards the Bay of Bengal as if the ocean were but an external source of weather as it affected India.
Climate science was forced into contact with geopolitics. Ideas about India's climate echoed and informed broader debates about India's place in Asia. The networks of storm warnings along the coastal crescent from India to China mirrored a maritime geography. The names of the stations which broadcast telegraphic reports were often the names of the great ports. The tropical cyclone they monitored were the tracks of busy shipping lanes.
But research on the longer term regularities of India's climate as opposed to episodic weather pointed in a different direction. India's climatology emphasized its distinctiveness and even its isolation. As an Indian meteorologist put it, the monsoon system rendered India a secluded and independent area of atmospheric action. These ideas about India's enclosure, of course, came from an increasing fixation in both meteorology and geopolitics with the Himalayas, a gaze upward rather than out towards the ocean.
The very term Indian subcontinent dates from the early 20th century. And the Himalayas were crucial to this vision of Asia of India in Asia. They came more clearly into view in the last two decades of the 19th century. Their role in India's climate, their place as the source of India's rivers, became increasingly of strategic importance to what was seen as India's security.
So meteorological research gave rise to a picture of Asia as a series of connected meteorological zones. What meteorologists sought was the calculation of risk to which both spatial and temporal connections were crucial. That is to say what signs in one part of Asia presaged storms or droughts in another.
What were the physical mechanisms behind these connections? How did they relate to political borders?
By the turn of the 20th century, another body of thought sought in climate the principles of cultural commonality. At the forefront of these discussions were French archeologists, anthropologists, and geographers grappling with a world that they called Indochine, under French imperial control from the 1870s. Indochine was a civilizational toponym indicating its conception as a civilizational crossroads between the Sinic and Indian worlds.
But the cultural world of Indochina was also sometimes described as land [FRENCH], India beyond the Ganges, and that in turn furnished a broader conception of Monsoon Asia, putting climate at the heart of what was seen as a cultural world or at least a cultural continuum. If in the emerging scientific field of meteorology, the center of research, and the presumed core of the region was India, this ethnographic conception of climate looked from outside towards India anchored in Southeast Asia.
I'd like to disentangle some of the different meanings attributed to the monsoon in Monsoon Asia and to trace the ways these traveled beyond the French empire to nourish much wider regional debates. As Susan Bailey has shown that a Crimean anthropologist in colonial Indochina embraced the notion of Monsoon Asia in part in their specific quest to understand what they saw as the vanished civilization of Champa.
In the work of Paul Mus above all, Monsoon Asia constituted a civilizational zone. He discerned an underlying core belief system, what he called animism, that united the sweep of Monsoon Asia atop which Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, he thought sat lightly. As Bailey shows, the significance Mus attributed to climate drew on French notions of [FRENCH], climate and soil, shaping individual and collective life.
At the same, time the notion of Monsoon Asia contained a narrative of historical change. Its defining characteristic was taken to be civilizational greatness followed by decline. Implicit, often very explicit, was a sense of a French mission to restore and revive these now dying societies.
In the very first paragraph of George Coedes' Indianized States of Southeast Asia, first published in French in 1944, the very first paragraph, he begins with Monsoon Asia, a conception he credits to the geographer Jules Sion. Here immediately we see a version of the idea that is echoed by later historians of the Indian Ocean that the monsoon is almost a sort of infrastructure. It is what allows trade to happen. Coedes quotes Sylvain Levi, "The pattern of currents and periodic winds that govern navigation have long fostered a system of trade in which the African coast, Arabia, the Persian Gulf, India, Indochina, and China continually contributed and received their share."
But the historical dynamism that French scholars attributed to Monsoon Asia, of course, lay entirely in the distant past. Its decline was held to have given way to stasis to such an extent that descriptions of Monsoon Asia, as it existed in the early 20th century, appeared as a timeless description of an enduring pattern of agrarian life.
But intersecting with this notion of civilizational decline was a perspective on Monsoon Asia that was more specifically economic in orientation. And that is the perspective that in the 1920s and '30s, I think, formed the dominant conception. The overriding question of this body of work epitomized by geographers like Jules Sion and Pierre Guru who perhaps remains the best known scholar of Monsoon Asia. Their aim was to examine the disruptive effects of colonialism and capitalism on this apparently unchanging world. Their work combined a detailed study of agrarian life with mounting concern about the fertility of the soil and population growth.
Monsoon Asia became a way of writing about the shared problems of Asia's densely populated river deltas, perhaps above all the Mekong and Ganges Deltas. And the geographers reached a different conclusion. Though they spent much time on the underlying unity of economic rhythms and attendant similarities and cultural life, they began to see that the political lines dividing Monsoon Asia might themselves have substantial material effects.
Sion's description of India, I think, is especially instructive in this regard. After an extensive discussion of what he thought to be unchanging patterns of rural life, Sion arrived in Bombay. This is in 1925, '26. He published his work in '28. And what struck him most forcefully was the evidence of India's Industrial Revolution.
"In Bombay," he wrote, "almost all the factories have Indian owners, directors, engineers. The country's capitalists compete with foreigners for mining concessions. Many vast plantations of tea and coffee are managed entirely by locals. This economic nationalism--" his word-- "faces an obstacle in the entrenched habits and ignorance of the rural masses. But it has already proved its vitality." And his implication was that this vitality might in the end transform Monsoon Asia.
How far could Monsoon Asia be transformed? That was the question of the 1920s and '30s. The Bengali sociologist and economist Radhakamal Mukherjee spent much of the '20s and '30s pondering the problems of rural India. He very often deployed this term Monsoon Asia in his own work.
In recent years, the eccentric and eclectic Mukherjee has been recovered by historians as a prophet of an ecologically sensitive and localist approach to development. But he cuts an ambiguous figure. He was a committed eugenicist. He absorbed the racial and environmental determinism of his time and then inverted it. Calling, for instance, for lebensraum for the teeming millions of India and China.
And it's in that context that, indeed, his was a rare voice of concern about India's environmental balance at a time of rapid development. And his concerns in that sphere were much more tangible and specific than, say, Gandhi's.
"Man, tree, and water cannot be regarded as separate and independent," Mukherjee wrote in his classic work on riverine Bengal. He was prescient in writing about what he called crimes against nature that would let loose destructive forces.
Mukherjee's prescription for India's future, though, came from his close study of the river and landscape of Bengal. He drew heavily on the work of the Russian anarchist geographer Léon Metchnikoff who, in 1889, had published a wide ranging history of riverine civilizations, including the Ganges valley. Mukherjee thought of river basins as living entities. That is why he found the conception of Monsoon Asia helpful.
But in his vision, each river was what he called a synthesis or epitome of all the possible environmental variations and influences. Their properties, colorations, and varied taste, as well as what he called their plastic or destructive power, were a product of climate and geology. Mukherjee's primary concern was that the vital force of Bengals river deltas had been eviscerated by more than a century of British rule. He observed the deterioration of soil fertility. Others had observed this worrying trend and ascribed it to the pressure of population.
But Mukherjee identified a different root problem. The problem, he said, was that agriculture comes to be influenced more by the state of the market than by an arranged succession of crops which may replenish the soil. Pressing on the ecology of land and water, the demands of the colonial state for the products of the soil are what had left the Bengal Delta moribund.
But where did the roots of revival lie? For Mukherjee, they lay in recovering and reviving local traditions of irrigation and water management. For others in the Indian Nationalist Movement, the answer lay in wholesale environmental transformation.
Part of Mukherjee's concern, his fundamental concern, echoed the debates of the late 19th century about India's place in Asia, a debate that raged across many fields of science and politics-- over whether India was better seen as a bounded territory or as part of an oceanic realm. Of all the ways that human beings had gained a mastery of the waters, Mukherjee argued, by far the most significant development is trade by sea. India's maritime connections, he observed, had ushered in an oceanic civilization superseding the fluvial.
The resources of the Indian river valleys were narrow and limited in comparison with oceanic commerce which, Mukherjee wrote, extends as wide as the world. The more the traffic on the sea lanes sucked up the produce of the river valleys, the sharper their decline became. Demand from distant markets upset what Mukherjee called ecological balance.
But on his terms, he was optimistic. Writing at the end of the 1920s, he wrote that the excesses of oceanic civilization were now apparent. He looked forward to the moment when quote "man becomes more agriculturally inclined than ever before and atones for his past neglect."
Other prescriptions were more drastic. The Japanese philosopher Watsuji Tetsuro, a student of Heidegger, wrote in the late 1920s of the Monsoon as a state of mind and a way of life. And for him India epitomized the monsoon climate. What Watsuji Tetsuro concluded that for India's future, quote, "change depends upon the conquest of climate." And he believed only the power of Japanese imperialism could bring that about.
In most of the variants that I've described to you so far, Monsoon Asia was an abstract space, defined in civilizational or macroeconomic terms. Its bonds or its unity arose from a continuum of responses to shared ecological conditions, not, or at least not since ancient times, from direct contact. Yet, at exactly the moment that the notion of Monsoon Asia gained prominence, the most fundamental force reshaping the region as a whole was human mobility on an unprecedented scale.
Monsoon Asia became more closely interdependent in the early 20th century because of the churning effects of imperial capitalism. And among the ways that it came to be transformed into a lived space, few were more powerful than the fact that the map of Monsoon Asia can be overlaid almost exactly upon the map of the most intensive regions of Asian migration.
The vast majority of the movement that the late Adam McKeown identified and quantified as one of the world's great migrations took place within Monsoon Asia re-figuring the region along the way. Monsoon Asia, as it was commonly understood, rested upon an erasure of the labor that underpinned what was seen as a natural feature of the region, which is its culture and cultivation and trade in rice.
Ironically, this transformation depended on the first major rupture in the patterns of the monsoon by the steamship. This is a map of steam shipping routes at the Bay of Bengal around 1900. Each of the red lines is a passenger shipping route run by the British India Steam Navigation Company. And this set in train the gradual but never complete detachment of oceanic migration from seasonality.
If British economists in the late 19th century saw the mass migration of Indian labor to Southeast Asia as a natural redistribution of population from dense to sparsely settled lands, we might better think of Monsoon Asia as a space of debt where the indebtedness building up in the rural economies of southern India and indeed southern China created both the pressure and the channel for labor recruitment networks that took young people, mostly men, across the eastern Indian Ocean.
In the narratives of people who traveled between South India and Southeast Asia in the late 19th century, climate appears not so much as a bond as in Monsoon Asia but as a profound sense of rupture. Land and landscape are everywhere in their accounts of mobility and labor and suffering. But as often as not with attention to variety and differences in climate, topography, landscape.
In collective memory passed down over many generations, many Tamil migrants recalled their first encounters with the damp heat of the Malay Peninsula as a shock. The relatively unchanging nature of the Malayan climate with constant rain year round was contrasted quite explicitly with the alternation of wet and dry seasons in South India.
That unvarying climate was ideally suited to rubber cultivation, but together with the clockwork regularity of the working day on the plantations, from roll call before 6:00 in the morning to the midday break, climate shaped how Indian migrant workers in Malaya experienced the passage of time. It imposed a new rhythm of life. And that disorientation was reflected perhaps in the preservation of certain rituals from home.
[INAUDIBLE] Palanisamy, a retired schoolteacher vigorously intelligent amateur historian with a passion for local research, and after retiring from a teaching career-- she must now be in her late 70s or early 80s-- she collected and recorded folk songs sung by older people on the plantations of Malaysia. And she edited and published a number of these songs.
The continued performance of Tamil harvest songs into the late 20th century in Malaysia, where most Tamils worked as wage laborers not as cultivators. In Malaysia, where for most of the year the last thing one needs to pray for was rain, was part of the imaginative transition underpinning migration. But those visions of Monsoon Asia, if you like, appear nowhere in the ethnographic, economic, indeed meteorological conception of this region.
Other migrants searched for the familiar, for hills that reminded them of the landscapes of their native land upon which they built small temples. Proliferation, just like this one. The erection of a new shrine on a rubber plantation would often be seen in terms of a pre-existing relationship between the god and the site.
Your colleague, Andrew Wilford, whose work on Malaysia I admire such a great deal, has written very, very interestingly about the presence of these deities on the Malaysian landscape. Workers often felt that their deities had crossed the seas before they had, constructing shrines where they already felt the deity's power. This too was how workers experienced, made sense of a shift in climate.
In the 1920s and 1930s, water both connected and divided Asia. And that's true both at the level of intellectual history, which I started with, and at the level of concrete lived connections. A new awareness of the dynamics of climate made clear the extent to which Asia's coastal arc shared vulnerability to powerful cyclones that crossed its seas. In the fields of geography and climatology, the idea of Monsoon Asia arose to highlight the common rhythms of rural life governed by extreme seasonality.
To think of Asia as bound together by water in every dimension was to suggest that material conditions may transcend the borders between empires. But those borders, of course, as we all know, hardened in the decades between the wars. The depression of the 1930s broke many of the links in the chain that held Monsoon Asia together as a coherent economic region. Barriers to movement proliferated. Migration patterns were overturned. Commodity markets collapsed. The trade in rice declined. These reversals made the question of who controlled water all the more important.
When the Stanford University economists VD Wickizer and MK Bennett examined Asia's rice economies in 1941, they were sponsored by the Institute of Pacific Relations in Hawaii. They surveyed the wreck of what had once been an integrated system. In their analysis, they used the term Monsoon Asia as quote, "a convenient designation for a specific group of countries in which monsoonal climatic conditions profoundly influence both agriculture and economic life."
Monsoon Asia was still, in their vision, bound together by climate, by the direction of the winds and by the trade in rice. But it was increasingly divided by states. This is their map of Monsoon Asia. And one of the things that's most striking to me is that, in a sense, the points that they use to define it are meteorological stations. I don't know if you can read it, but there's a list of rainfall stations that reach from Allahabad to Tokyo on the right-hand side of the map. And so they're working with precisely that bank of meteorological data that's been built up. And they are integrating this with their particular concern with the economy of rice.
They wrote of their hope for a reversal of the trend towards economic nationalism. Here, they are writing in 1941. Their recipe for regional sustainability was for a return to the liberal free commerce in rice augmented by capital investment.
But their projection for what they saw as an unfavorable outcome proved much closer to the eventual outcome. If peace should come with important territorial changes, they argued, changes in the political composition of Monsoon Asia following the termination of present wars might readily result in a rather sudden shift and re-orientation, completely reversing the tendencies that made it a region.
And if anything can truly represent that shattering of the idea of Monsoon Asia, which more or less vanished from all but a few geography textbooks by the 1960s, it's probably this-- it's the large dam, the dam that everywhere in Asia stood at the nexus of ambition nation builders and the cold warriors who sought to entice them.
Planned national development with different levels of foreign aid would strike at the rhythms and commonalities that theorists of Monsoon Asia had embraced. The apparent conquest of seasonality through perennial irrigation was really the core ingredient of this transformation.
Take an Indian example. The intensification of agriculture driven by the so-called Green Revolution, package of high-yielding seed varieties, extensive fertilizer use, and perhaps above all vast quantities of irrigation water augmented food production in India to an extent that would have been unthinkable in 1945, at the cost of galloping rural inequality.
Between 1970 and 2014, India's production of cereals grew at 238%, far above the level of population growth. And most strikingly, this took place with almost no increase in the quantity of land given over to food crops. In China, the expansion was more dramatic still, a 420% increase in cereal output with no increase in land area under cultivation.
Just a decade after the desperate recourse to large quantities of American food aid during the monsoon failures of the mid 1960s, India became a food surplus country. Perhaps even more fundamental, though, is the regional geographical transformations that perennial irrigation brought. By the middle of the 20th century and certainly by the 1970s, the most productive agricultural regions of India were not the wettest, as they had always been, but the driest.
Punjab emerges as not just the biggest wheat producer but the biggest rice producer in India. Arid parts of southeastern India too. So the very conception of Monsoon Asia as defined first and foremost by intensive rice cultivation was broken by a fundamental economic and environmental transformation. So intangible though it was, an unshakable sense took hold that Monsoon Asia as a region no longer made any sense.
The economist, Harry Oshima, revisited this region of Monsoon Asia in a work of the late 1980s, which in many ways I take to be its epitaph. So Hawaii-born Oshima wrote his dissertation on the national income statistics of Asia's new states. He worked for the UN in the 1950s, served as the Rockefeller Foundation's representative in the Philippines in the 1970s. And what he found was that Monsoon Asia's coherence had been shattered by exactly that transformation in the relationship between water and agricultural productivity.
Interestingly, he begins his book with a timeless vision. Across the coastal and deltaic sweep from South Asia to East Asia, the intense seasonality of rainfall created common patterns. He wrote of the philosophy of the monsoon economy, an ethos of, quote, "harmony, compromise, moderation, diligence, and cooperation."
In writing this, of course, he echoed the language of an earlier era, which drew a straight line from climate to culture. But he found that those connections had been broken. What he found was an unexpected differentiation in income levels across the region, which was now, in Oshima's view, crystallizing with a few modifications into the three basic regions of East, Southeast, and South Asia. Oshima writing in 1987 was least sanguine about South Asia's prospects. In some ways for him, South Asia was the residuum of Monsoon Asia, where everywhere else industrial growth and intensive irrigation had powered an escape from the monsoon.
But there is a coda to this story, and this brings me to the last part of my talk. The notion of Monsoon Asia was thought dead and buried in the social sciences, in the humanities at exactly the moment when meteorological research on the monsoons, the 1980s and '90s, acquired a new lease of life.
Breakthroughs in tropical meteorology in the late 20th century shed new light on the scale and complexity of internal variability of the monsoon on multiple timescales from the periodic but irregular impact of El Nino to the intraseasonal variations attributed to something called a modern Julian oscillation.
In recent years, the focus of scientific research on the monsoon has been on how the effects of anthropogenic climate change interact with the monsoon's natural variability in dangerous and unpredictable ways. The monsoon is an intricate phenomenon, as meteorologists of the 19th century knew very well.
It's increasingly clear that monsoon rainfall is affected not only by planetary warming but also by transformations on a regional scale, including above all the emission of aerosols from vehicles, crop burning, domestic fires, and changes in land use. The urgent challenge for climate science is to disentangle and to understand these global and regional influences on the behavior of the monsoon.
And so far, the monsoon has proved much, much harder to model than say global temperatures. The monsoon does least well in most global climate models. And in many ways, it's precisely the availability of detailed records of rainfall that all of these meteorological stations that I talked about at the beginning of my talk collected that have allowed scientists to reconstruct in detail the monsoon's behavior over the past 60 to 100 years.
The picture is complex. And in many ways it's at odds with what many models predicted, because it has become increasingly clear that average summer rainfall over India has declined by about 7% since 1950, accompanied by a notable increase in extremes. So there's less rain overall, and it's more concentrated in periods of torrential downpour. And this is a trend that meteorologists have only recently started to try to explain. And they've explained it in terms of the combined effect of aerosol emissions and land use change.
So this is a satellite picture of what in the early 2000s came to be known as the brown cloud. It was initially known as the South Asian brown cloud, but Indian diplomatic representatives complained. It came to be known as the Asian brown cloud from about 2003 and 2004. This is a brown cloud of about 80% of which is human produced.
These particles-- aerosol particles-- remain in the atmosphere for only a matter of weeks. So what we see in this particular photograph is like a fleeting archive of every domestic stove, truck, and auto rickshaw exhaust pipe, factory smokestack, crop fire that burned across the Gangetic plain this winter. It happens to be the year 2002.
But the location of the cloud and its contributing sources testify to a longer 20th century history of urban expansion, uneven economic development through the belt of Northwestern India, which is now having effects on monsoon circulation across the Indian Ocean. Cumulatively, the brown cloud, or rather a constant succession of these brown clouds, may have attenuated rainfall over South Asia over the past half century. And very briefly, only because it's such a clear illustration by the meteorologist Deepti Singh. This is a very simplified model of how that works. The aerosols essentially block solar radiation, lessening the thermal contrast between the sea and the land that fundamentally drives the monsoons.
These changes in circulation may have knock on effects far beyond South Asia in a system that already contains plenty of internal variability. And the reason I say this is an index of inequality is because this is not the story you usually hear about carbon dioxide emissions, fossil fuel emissions. This brown cloud is largely the product of energy poverty, not wealth in India. These are the domestic fires, the crop burning, and the local uses of cheaper, dirtier fuels from the 300 million people that still do not have access to electricity in India.
A further driver of regional climate change that has reshaped the monsoon is changes in land use, and the effects are modeled again by Singh. They have a similar effect, that the increased reflexivity of land planted with crops as opposed to forest makes it cooler, once again weakening the contrast that drive the monsoon.
But for me as a historian, the most interesting comment that Deepti Singh, who's done a lot of this research makes is this-- she says one of the reasons that climate models fail to predict the monsoon accurately is because they're too abstract to take into account what she calls the complex topography, temperature, and moisture gradients in the region that can influence the monsoon circulation.
The models emit, that is to say, precisely the details of landscape and microclimate that the meteorologists of a century earlier were so deeply interested in and which they depicted in their detailed maps of India's climate. So we're left with the most bitter of ironies that so many of the measures taken to secure Monsoon Asia-- India in this case-- against the vagaries of climate-- intensive irrigation, the planting of new crops-- have, through a cascade of completely unintended consequences, destabilized the monsoon itself.
This is not to say that regional causation for the monsoon's shifts should divert our attention from planetary warming. Quite the contrary. This is made infinitely more dangerous by planetary warming. It's the interaction of these regional scale and planetary effects that meteorologists-- climate science-- are really profoundly worried about.
But this is the contrast. When the geographers of the early 20th century wrote of Monsoon Asia, the monsoon was sovereign. It shaped the lives of hundreds of millions of people who waited on its every move. In contemporary climate science, Monsoon Asia, and the term is used frequently, means something quite different. It is a region where the monsoon's behavior is responding primarily to human intervention, an interaction with deeply rooted natural variability.
So in conclusion, am I arguing for a revival of a conception like Monsoon Asia? Not without caution, because the specter of the old climatic determinism dies hard. Here in this quotation-- it will come up. I'll do without it if I have to.
So what I had up on the board was a quotation from the strategic commentator Robert Kaplan, who wrote a book about 10 years ago called Monsoon, and it was a strategic perspective on how a revival of trade and Chinese and Indian power in the Indian Ocean has global consequences. And in it, there's more than a strain of that old environmental determinism, that the monsoon-- I can't remember the quotation-- but epitomizes essentially the dangerous overpopulated places in the world.
Is it possible to rethink the role of climate without falling into the mode of a centralizing culture and difference without depoliticizing inequality? I believe it is. And let me conclude with two ways that I think we might start to do this. The first is to recognize that the monsoon is in an altered state, in a way that would have been inconceivable before the 1960s, maybe even the 1970s. It is being reshaped by the scale of human activity. And more to the point, by profoundly unequal access to both energy and water.
On this view, climate is no longer a neutral explanation for inequality, as in the 19th century view, but a product of it. To explain the shift in the monsoon over the past 40 years is essentially to explain the spatial history of capitalism and its unevenness across Asia, both within and across borders.
The second thing I think we might want to do is to restore attention to what Monsoon Asia might mean as a lived space. In a small village near Pondicherry earlier this decade, I met a fisherman in his 50s whose family had been fishers in the area for generations. We sat on a very narrow strip of beach. The beach had been eroded progressively by the construction of a big new port in Pondicherry a few miles up the coast.
Granite sea walls were the only thing that had kept the settlement in which Mr. [? Ottman ?] lived intact. If not for these walls, he said to me, the sea would have taken us long ago. The Pondicherry port marked the beginning of an explosion in port construction in India, with dozens of ports currently planned for India's eastern and western seaboards. They are the newly flourishing commercial opportunities of the Indian Ocean's littoral, which is vibrant again perhaps after having fallen into decline in the second half of the 20th century.
The ports cause enormous upheaval to the coastline. Where those boats are now, he said, pointing to the beach, those were all houses. And then he pointed to the remains of these houses, literally jutting out of the soil right at the water's edge, and those houses used to stand a mile in from the beach. He was convinced that the sea was changing in ways beyond what is visible, beyond the visibly changing shape and extent of the beach.
The word he kept coming back to when he described the weather to me was unpredictable. The seasons seemed to mean nothing to me now, he said. I don't understand the sea anymore. And yet climate change is not the most obvious or proximate cause of his distress. Here, as elsewhere in coastal Asia, the effects of climate change compound a crisis already far advanced, a product of reckless development and galloping inequality.
So Mr. [? Ottman's ?] livelihood had been threatened first and foremost by the concentration of power in the hands of a small number of highly capitalized owners of large trawlers. The size of the catch has collapsed, and its composition has changed with fewer large predators, fewer fish that command high prices on the market.
The dramatic falls in their incomes has pushed many small fishers ever deeper into debt. Development along the large highway down the coast from Chennai has led to a spike in property speculation, fueling a construction boom that flouts coastal zone regulations, as we saw when the last cyclone hit [INAUDIBLE]. And sadly, there's another one due to hit tomorrow.
One of the questions I asked on the beach that day was what happened to the families that lived in these houses, the houses that no longer stand far back from the sea? Part of the answer I expected, they'd moved to the cities. There had been a large urbanization of younger people, both men and women. But there was another part of the answer that I was not expecting quite so starkly.
In light of the work I'd spent the previous decade doing on migration across the Indian Ocean, I had the feeling of a very familiar map of migration being narrated to me. It was in effect the map of Monsoon Asia, because of all but the very poorest households in his village, he told me, had at least one family member overseas.
A similar story emerged in the neighboring hamlet. Older routes of migration have been reinvigorated. Plenty of sons and nephews in the village were in Singapore and Malaysia working in construction. Others had crossed the Western Indian Ocean to work on fishing fleets in the Gulf. Old geographies still matter. In this part of South India, people experience climate change at home in relation to a constellation of distant places.
Family histories of mobility are reactivated as a means of support or insurance. But borders are harder than ever to cross. Every day fishermen from that very village struggling to make a living would stray into Sri Lankan territorial waters in search of fish. Many have been arrested over the past decade.
The notion of a region connected by a changing climate has a textured and specific resonance in local communities that have historically also been linked in other ways. And so I would suggest that this is a promising and maybe even an urgent moment to re-imagine Asia's regions by bringing together cultural and environmental history, by destabilizing our sense of geography to look at how regions shift, and maybe by revisiting the history of older spatial formations, including but not limited to, the old and maybe futuristic space of Monsoon Asia. Thank you very much.
SPEAKER 1: Will you take questions?
SUNIL AMRITH: I will, sure. Absolutely.
SPEAKER 2: I thank you for, I would say, showing the common ground in the sky once again. My question is-- I guess it's very basic-- but I was wondering if in a way that [INAUDIBLE] Monsoon Asia [INAUDIBLE] the colonial making of nature into an AP phenomena, you know, as practical effects to be observed. Thank you.
SUNIL AMRITH: I think it does and it doesn't. I mean, I think that's a very, very interesting insight. I think it certainly did in the 19th century, at the moment when those ideas were being worked out. I mean, they are being worked out alongside a whole set of other ideas about nature, including ideas about topicality.
And David Arnold has written very interestingly, The Tropics and the Traveling Gaze, about 19th century British travel writers and naturalists and the utility that they started to see in nature and precisely that sort of thing, the beginnings of what we think of now as perhaps the nature-culture divide.
I think going back to an idea like Monsoon Asia critically and sort of situating it in that context, but nevertheless sort of thinking about it, remains a useful thing to do because-- and I'm speaking primarily here as a historian. This is not true of all fields-- because of the absolute disappearance of climate and nature from a lot of the ways in which we've been writing, particularly these new histories of inter-Asian connections.
And this is true of my own work on migration early on, that in a sense the environmental determinism of that earlier moment is so scarring that to say that climate might have had anything to do with South Asian migration immediately seems to replicate those colonial stereotypes. So we get to a point where in fact there are, I think, newer and richer ways to think about the relationship of environment and migration that has very little to do with that older model.
But I think we've all shied away from that, because precisely we want to show that the standard narrative in migration theory that trans-Atlantic migration was driven by rational family decisions, and Asian migration was driven by the forces of nature, of course, we want to take that apart. But perhaps there are ways in which we can take that apart and continue to take that apart while also thinking about some of these. That's what brought me to this idea of Monsoon Asia.
I think my starting assumption was precisely the one that you stated, that this does have a very particular set of views of nature. But I think even within that body of thought in the late 19th, 20th century, there are edges to it which might have had other implications and which certain people then sort of picked up and drew on to sort of push the debate in a different direction.
SPEAKER 3: Hi, Sunil. I feel like it was a different season the last time I saw you, which was only two years ago.
SUNIL AMRITH: It was.
SPEAKER 3: So thank you so much for that very generative talk. So I really appreciated your framing the Monsoon Asia as a kind of 19th century concept through these meteorology departments, one in Madras, one in Manila. And I wonder if you could say a little bit about the scientists who are working in those bureaus, because it does seem at some level like they're on the cutting edge of a certain kind of science. It also seems like their vision of the science that they're doing exceeds the political boundaries that they're charged with. Is that the right way to read them? [INAUDIBLE]
SUNIL AMRITH: I think that's a wonderful way of putting it. So I mentioned that the Isis Pogson in charge of the Madras meteorological apparatus, which really at that point, it stretched right up to Orissa. So the meteorological department did not exactly mirror provincial boundaries. In fact, there were fewer meteorological divisions of India.
So in fact, the Madras Meteorological Department had responsibility for parts of Bengal and Orissa and parts of the Southwest as well. Rare position of authority for a woman to have in colonial science at that point. But there were also many, many Indian officers that were not the director of the department till the 1930s but in very senior positions.
And one of them sort of very revealingly has left a memoir, one of the earliest-- the first Indian-- the Indian assistant to the first director of meteorology, Henry Blanford. And yet the meteorology department was only set up in 1875 in India. And his Indian assistant, Ruchi Ram Sahni, who then went on to be a nationalist activist and an educational reformer in Punjab, he wrote a memoir of what that meant to him.
And one of the things he focuses on is-- you can use the word cosmopolitanism if you like or the globalism of science-- and he was really-- there's a very evocative passage in his memories of those early years in the meteorology department about how we were interested in the climate of the whole world. And he spoke very specifically about race. And he said if all Englishmen were like Blanford, we wouldn't have the problems we see in India today. This was in the 1920s that he published this, when he wrote this memoir.
And what he attributed that to was precisely what you said, this idea that they were part of a professional body of scientists that were exchanging ideas. And similar things can be said of the weather bureau in the Philippines, where again, [INAUDIBLE] was, of course, a Spanish Jesuit but working with many Filipino weather scientists.
There's always a glass ceiling there, of course. You know, some of the Indian assistants leave the meteorological department. I've never wanted to sort of attribute any meaning to this, but it's striking to me how many Indian nationalists actually did a stint in the meteorology department as assistants. Chintamani Ghosh, founder of The Modern Review, he worked in the meteorology department for about 10 years in the 1890s.
PC Mahalanobis actually made his career as a meteorologist in the 1920s. He wrote a statistical relationship of the monsoon and Orissa rainfall. And the only explanation I can think of for this-- I can think of a few. One is there was a real sense of mission in meteorology, drawing on the broader political discourse, saying look, this is vital to our future. We have to understand this.
The second was the fact that it was a young science. It was in many ways looked down upon by the more established-- both in the metropol and in India sort of looked down upon it as mere observation. That was the term that they used.
And even Gilbert Walker, who was director in the '20s and essentially discovered El Nino through his massive statistical work that he did, was always a little bit defensive about the work he was doing. But I think that also made it a more open place than some of the other parts of colonial scientific apparatus. And Ruchi Ram Sahni's observation was really that we had a lot of time to read. And you do have these accounts of their libraries.
And I spent some time in the archives of the Indian meteorological department in Pune, and some of those library shelves have been untouched, I think, since the 1920s and '30s, and you can see how there is this other kind of exchange of ideas, this other mapping that's going on. I don't want to exaggerate its impact. And I think that's why I sort of told the story that way, because in many ways, they were doing this research while clearly these borders and these boundaries have far more material consequences. But I think that is how they saw themselves.
And I also did quite a lot of oral history with now retired meteorologists in India who had most of their career in the second half of the 20th century. And the other thing that strikes me is that they, unlike many other groups of Indian professionals in the late 20th century, proudly and with self-consciousness claim that they are the descendants of the 19th century British meteorological department. They're like, this is outside politics. We are the descendants of Blanford and Elliot, and they would then kind of quote the whole series of directors.
And it's interesting, because I think this is-- there's more to do and there's more thinking I need to do about exactly what meaning to attribute to that. But there is this very-- the director of Indian Meteorology wrote a kind of great men history of the meteorologists of India in which he goes out of his way to say of the 1930s, which is the moment where in consonance with the process of Indianization of the bureaucracy, more and more of the officials and the leaders of meteorology are Indian. He said they were all nationalists to a core, but they had a loyalty to the department, because they felt that meteorology stood outside politics. And it's a very interesting-- and it's interesting to see that echoed both in the kind of primary sources from the '20s and then in these retrospective recollections.
SPEAKER 4: Thanks so much, Sunil. I wanted to ask you to reflect on what I thought was a very interesting turn at the end of your talk in relation to the status of history and historical knowledge and history as a discipline in a moment of such rapid [INAUDIBLE], because instinctively, perhaps superficially, but instinctively one thinks that this kind of moment of rapid change represented by some of the things you were talking about at the end cuts us off from the past, renders history more distant, renders the past a more foreign country.
And yet, at the end, you turned to, it seemed, to a kind of vernacular set of memories and a vernacular set of connections in the local experience or in particular experiences of climate change that reconnects to a deeper history. On the other hand, the history you were telling us was very contemporary.
SUNIL AMRITH: Yes.
SPEAKER 4: It was a history of contemporary memories. So do we become a little more contemporary at a moment of rapid change? What happens to the deeper past, the past before the brown cloud, which increasingly appears--
SUNIL AMRITH: Appears distant, another world. Thank you so much, Robert, for that, because I think you put it more eloquently than I could have done. But obviously, Dipesh Chakrabarty has been writing a lot about this. And the fundamental premise in his The Climate of History, his 2009 article, is precisely that-- this cuts us off. Everything is different. And that even as a subalternist committed to the vernacular kinds of smaller history is that what we need now is species history on a planetary scale, on a geological timescale.
I think a lot of this project is my attempt to respectfully disagree, because I mean Chakrabarty quite explicitly writes in that piece-- he's changed his views in some ways, but I think basically stays true to this-- that 2009 piece essentially says environmental history is irrelevant, because environmental history is about the regional and local effects of changes in the environment.
What we have now is geological. It's planetary. And so that stuff is sort it-- he doesn't say it's irrelevant, but he really does make that contrast between what he's talking about and environmental history, which only saw the transformations that human beings could make within relatively limited areas. Yet, he is engaging with a climate science that really is about planetary warming.
I sort of stumbled into this other body of climate science, which I found much more congenial to someone who works in various studies in history, which they call it regional climate change. And it's precisely about thinking, not diverting attention from planetary climate change, but really think about how that's intersecting with far more sort of local and regional effects. And I think in some ways that regional history is of the kind that so many people here right are more important than ever.
And I think in many ways, they're the-- I used one example, but there are many other ways in which I feel that one of the ways in which all sorts of people are making sense of the magnitude of the transformation is by turning to history, all kinds of history.
I don't know if anybody here has seen the video made by the South Indian Carnatic vocalist, TM Krishna. He's a very distinguished classical musician who's also been very politically outspoken over the last five or more years, really emerged as a public intellectual, deeply aware of the sort of cost basis of a lot of the south Indian classical tradition. And both works within and outside it.
As it happens, the RSS has tried to ban him giving a concert in Delhi this weekend. So you know this is a big-- but he made a video last year, which was really quite remarkable. And he worked together with an environmental engineer in Chennai, who are trying to prevent the destruction of a natural wetland and a creek, and he wrote the music for this.
And the song is called Poromboke, which is a Tamil word which now means wasteland, possibly even a waste troll, a useless person, a useless place. And the song actually traces the intellectual history of that word, back to the time when it meant the commons. And it's a really remarkable sort of artistic, very emotionally affecting recovery of a particular kind of vernacular history. It's like let's go back to the 19th century and think about what that word means and how it changes over time. And he worked together with Tamil novelists and others to sort of make that point.
The other way in which history matters is that people are archiving their own communities, because they matter quite directly to land rights claims, et cetera. So I found that in a lot of these fishing communities, people have gone around the village collecting what photographs they could find of what the coast looked like in 1960. And now there are all of these collective mapping projects going on, which NGOs are sort of trying to get involved with and to work with.
So I think there are ways in which that kind of local history does matter. It's the intermediate scale where I think there are the most questions that we need to ask about how does that level of history, the history of one Tamil word or the history of one village, map onto the kind of inter-Asian inter-regional histories that many people are writing, thinking about Asia in different ways in terms of shifting constellations of migration and intellectual history.
And how did those two things then map onto what is clearly a sort of unprecedented magnitude of change that's going on. But my answer is probably not, well, we all need to only be thinking about the magnitude of the change. I think there are ways in which we can possibly approach it from the other direction.
SPEAKER 5: Thanks a lot, Sunil. It's really fascinating and very elegant frankly. It was also provocative and got me thinking about a lot of different things. And there are people in the audience here who don't just work on Asia. So I just wanted to ask you if you could just meditate a little bit about whether or not this approach could be useful in thinking about other specific regions. And I think about the title Monsoon Asia, the concept of the monsoon, but it also makes me think about the Sirocco in the Mediterranean and [INAUDIBLE] for the hurricane in the Caribbean and other people's work and something you just mentioned, El Nino, right?
SUNIL AMRITH: Sure.
SPEAKER 5: Which thinking about kind of-- I was just out in California, and like a starving man coming out of the desert from Ithaca in November, I looked at the ocean and told my host, I'm going in there right now. And they said, no, no. Don't do that. It's really cold. And you know, to us as a political map, we look at California, and it looks like one state.
But apparently the currents from Alaska stop right in the middle of the state and then immediately go out to sea. And then there's a much warmer current underneath that that goes toward Southern California. There are people here who know more about this than I do.
But it makes you think about a regional kind of weather ecosystem along the lines of what you're looking at here in the kind of Bay of Bengal that actually crosses the Isthmus of Kra and the Malay Peninsula. It goes all the way to the Philippines, as you showed in that amazing first map. So do you think this approach could actually be pregnant in a way that it could spawn other studies like this in the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, on kind of the eastern Pacific coast, running from California all the way down south to South America?
SUNIL AMRITH: I think some of that work's already been done and done brilliantly by Stuart Schwartz's new book, Sea of Storms. It's exactly that. It's like, let's imagine the greater Caribbean as a sea of hurricanes. You know, in some ways his are still the sort of here is this climatic phenomenon. Let us examine how these different societies respond to it. But I mean, it's a beautiful book.
I think historians of the Philippines are actually doing this very, very well, not least because of the magnitude of the storms that the Philippines have. But Greg Bankoff's work, I think Jim Warren is writing on typhoons, his idea of typhoon Asia, if you like, as a sort of different way of thinking about it. And I think it's precisely-- I feel like these advances that have been made in fields like borderlands history, other kinds of inter-regional work, it can themselves be inspiring to environmental history.
So maybe if we think about-- if we draw some inspiration from those ways of rethinking borders as places of interaction and contact and precisely that, sort of bring that together with thinking about climatic zones and climatic zones not as a specific thing, climatic zones not as static, but as changing as well and possibly even changing as a result of human intervention, so those two things can go together.
SPEAKER 6: [INAUDIBLE] Thank you Professor Amrith for this wonderful talk. The image that is still stuck in my head is the last image that you invoked, the image of the fisherman and also the idea of local history is also taking cue from our afternoon discussion about the sort of like dispute about the island of [INAUDIBLE].
So when we are thinking about Monsoon Asia, could we also re-imagine Monsoon Asia as a sort of very amorphous collective of movement, which are done by people who are actually dependent on the monsoons, who are-- I mean, fishermen are still dependent on the monsoons, on these storms, much more than farmers, much more than anybody. And this sort of, like this collective of protesting movements, I mean insurgent, almost insurgent metaphor like. OK. I mean, just to like also have a more activist sort of trust, because climate change is happening.
SUNIL AMRITH: Well, I couldn't put it any more eloquently than you did. I've written that down. And I think that's right. There's sort of amorphous collectivity of movements of different kinds and by people who still depend on the monsoon and know it intimately, know it in other ways, and know it in ways that aren't reducible to the climate models that have in fact proved not all that accurate at dealing with the monsoon.
There's a question.
SPEAKER 7: Thank you. That was an interesting talk. And [INAUDIBLE] everybody's definition of the concept of Monsoon Asia and the conceptualization of it now as being-- when it leads to climate change to focus as to how humanity affects the monsoon itself. And it seems to me that when we think about it that way that the more vulnerable aspect of the construct in Monsoon Asia is Asia, right?
Because monsoon sort of becomes a more global phenomenon. And I'm wondering if-- and I realize I'm asking you to sort of put on a prophetic hat here, but there is like other equations that you're seeing now that may lead to different sort of good things in the way we deal with these sort of issues in [INAUDIBLE].
SUNIL AMRITH: That's great. I mean, I think you're absolutely right, that Asia-- in a sense, Asia perhaps becomes the bit to interrogate it. We're thinking about this monsoon in a new state and you know how is that actually perhaps reorienting all kinds of connections that we have sort of thought of as taking place in the space that we think of as Asia? And are there other-- do we need to-- I'm very open to doing this. I just haven't thought of the right words.
I mean, should we just abandon these concepts, and do we just really need to think about this again and think about region and climate and landscape and agency and inequality? And, you know, we don't need one concept, but it's a whole series of questions I think we need to start to ask. And you're right, the weak link maybe does at some point in the pivot become Asia.
SPEAKER 8: So to [INAUDIBLE] everything that comes [INAUDIBLE], thank you for eloquent and a well thought out elegantly delivered presentation. But it's a nice stormy day, and it's a good day to leave and venture out. And I was listening to you talk about the environment and the [INAUDIBLE] and of course its colonial influences. But this type of environmental determinism has existed for longer.
SUNIL AMRITH: Sure.
SPEAKER 8: You may find that it is [INAUDIBLE] what I'd like to do is to switch the situation and suggest to look at the situation from an analogy in the biophysical sciences and the ecological sciences. What is wonderful about the ecological sciences that we humanities can touch and feel is the whole thing in terms of organic systems. So that's something we humanities have in common [INAUDIBLE]. They should be [INAUDIBLE].
What is interesting about the ecological sciences and now the biophysical sciences is that they have been turning 100 years old, like the Ecological Society of America 100 years ago, and this year the American Geophysical Union, which is neither a union nor America. It has 144 countries, 62,000 members from those countries. And they're doing exactly-- they are a little ahead of what I would argue is the humanities of social sciences, being a professor in social sciences. They've gone back and said that we made an error when we neglected the humanity.
SUNIL AMRITH: Right.
SPEAKER 8: We made a tremendous error when we neglected the social and the cultural. And so five years ago, the ecological sciences started embracing the notion of stewardship, which is whole spiritual as well as a [INAUDIBLE]. They are embracing the notion of the sacred with respect to the ecological. And the humanities are still stuck talking about environmental determinism and are unable to move forward.
And this is an interesting phenomenon, this sort of debilitating anxiety, specifically because you made reference to the Anthropocene. You didn't exactly say Anthropocene. You said anthropogenic. But you did say that we're in a situation where no [INAUDIBLE] with the human beings not just a social force, not just an ecological force, but a geologic force. We're talking about time horizons in the millions of years as well as lifetimes [INAUDIBLE], which demands a kind of thinking that requires abandoning certain anchors and so on.
So I'd like you to take a moment and reflect on our obsession with the environmental determinism and contrast that with what I think you know is the physical sciences and biological sciences' obsession with trying to be so objective that they abandon the fundamental things that would help them address climate change. But they've already moved on while we're still lagging. I'd like you to address that.
SUNIL AMRITH: I think that's-- it's striking to me that one of the most eloquent voices in favor of a humanistic approach to climate change is the climate scientist Mike [INAUDIBLE]. I mean, he's a physical scientist too, who sort of has embraced and perhaps gone further than most humanists in sort of arguing that we need to take the sacred and the culture and the human seriously. And he's not the only one. I think there are others. So I certainly concur with you there.
I think the reason why we have reason to continue to be cautious about environmental determinism is because it still has very profound political consequences. It still has profound political consequences for how we value different lives around the world, for which disasters we think of as preventable, which we think of as natural, for the ways in which we build our cities, for the ways in which we regulate and distribute the decision-making power to make the changes which perhaps in this more or less consensus that we need to make.
And so I think the worry is that-- the worry is that if we talk only of the Anthropocene and our collective human responsibility of climate change that we lose sight of profound inequalities in both responsibility for and vulnerability to these changes.
I am with you up to the point that I do think the humanities have been far too defensive and perhaps wedded to very deeply rooted fears of going anywhere near this stuff. I think we're probably starting to move beyond that moment. I think some humanists-- some historians are certainly going closer to environmental determinism. They wouldn't call it that.
But you know, if you think of Geoffrey Parker's Global Crisis, it's a brilliant book, and it is a book that really says climate is the explanation for the simultaneity of social unrest and collapse, not climate change but natural climate change as opposed to anthropogenic. But nevertheless, it's happening. I think there are such books. I'm partly wondering whether one can enter that conversation while remaining wary of a hard version of that in mental determinism.
SPEAKER 1: I think that it's 6:00 PM. Thanks Sunil. Beautiful lecture.
SUNIL AMRITH: Thank you very much everybody. Thanks for coming.
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In the 1930s, the notion of "monsoon Asia" was widespread in the fields of geography and anthropology. Its adherents saw climate, and particularly the seasonally reversing monsoon winds, as central to understanding the commonalities among India, Southeast Asia, and southern China. Monsoon Asia had largely disappeared as a geographical category by the 1980s, but now it is back, says historian and MacArthur Fellow Sunil Amrith. Its return has been especially notable in climate science, where new research is investigating the impact of human activity on monsoon patterns. But it has also reappeared in the humanities as a way to conceive of transregional connections.
Amrith, the Mehra Family Professor of South Asian Studies and chair of the Department of South Asian Studies at Harvard University, explored the material and intellectual history of the monsoon Asia idea, as well as its potential and limitations in writing interAsian histories, in a public lecture November 15 in Malott Hall. The talk was organized by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and cosponsored by the South Asia Program.