In the summer of 1971, an eleven-year-old boy in Gothenburg, Sweden, wrote a letter to the pioneering environmentalist Hans Palmstierna. The boy had recently read a report on the environment in a youth magazine and was shocked. “Is our little Tellus really in such bad shape?,” he asked, adding that it was terrible that there were people who destroyed the environment just to make money. “They should be given a real lesson” for everything they had done to “people newly born.” Now it was his generation, those born in the 1950s and 1960s, that would be forced to “fight against humanity’s possible downfall.”
At the beginning of the history and sociology of knowledge as we know them today, there was a crisis. By the early 1970s, the future of the earth as a natural habitat for prosperity and progress was looking so bleak that many observers began turning pessimistic. Most famously, the Club of Rome declared Limits to Growth in its 1972 report. But other institutions and intellectuals took a similar line. To name just one, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, an economics professor at Vanderbilt University, probed the depths of history with The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971) only to find that Malthus was right all along. In spite of two centuries of industrial frenzy, entropy always was and always would be the reigning earthly principle.
This year is not the first time in the United States that climate change became a politically charged, hotly debated topic during a very active hurricane season. A comparable situation occurred in the 2005 season, when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast. Similar to current federal policy, the Bush administration prevented the EPA from informing the public about climate change by actively changing the agency’s reports and suppressing the use of the terms “climate change” and “global warming.” Nevertheless, nongovernmental climate scientists engaged in heated debate in scientific journals and conferences about whether anthropogenic climate change was making hurricanes more destructive, increasingly frequent, or both.1 While this remains a crucial question (particularly in the U.S. context of widespread climate change denialism), the connected and equally central point is whether and how societies can adapt to a potentially unprecedented situation with regard to the frequency and severity of extreme events.