History, Exemplarity and Improvements: 18th Century Ideas about Man-Made Climate Change

  • Anne Eriksen Professor
Keywords: Gernhard Schøning, climate theory, examples, exemplarity, notions of history, 18th century


Can grain crops be increased? The issue was heatedly debated in 18th century Denmark-Norway, both for patriotic and economic reasons. The historian Gerhard Schøning (1722–80) answered affirmatively. Chopping down much of the forests that covered Norway would change the climate radically for the better. As a consequence of the warmer weather, the fertility of the soil would improve. Crops would increase, and new and even more delicate types of plants could be introduced. Schøning’s argument was nearly entirely built on examples from Greek and Roman history, cited to demonstrate that since classical times, this kind of changes had already taken place in other parts of Europe.

Climate interested a number of 18th century writers. It was not only a part of geotheory, but also included in theories about the history of society, law and culture as well as in medical thought. Ideas about a human-made climate change similar to Schøning’s can be found in texts by e.g. Hume and Buffon.

The argument relied on a quantity of examples, as well as on the uncontested exemplarity of classical literature itself. Schøning’s examples represent both series and ideals. The cases he cites are numerous (serial) instantiations of the same general mechanism: The effect of human interventions in nature. Yet at the same time they are models to follow, even if it will take some effort. Norway will never be as warm and fertile as southern countries, but Schøning exhorts his compatriots to “take courage and start!” History consisted of examples to learn from and models to follow.

Author Biography

Anne Eriksen, Professor

Anne Eriksen is a professor of cultural history at the University of Oslo, Norway. Her major fields of research are early modern notions of history, history of knowledge, example theory and collective memory and uses of the past.


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