Learning How to Construct the Unknown: The Practice of Risk in Early North American Insurance Manuals

Selling insurance against possibly harmful future events became popular among Americans in the late eighteenth century. Among the reasons that more and more people in the former British colonies were drawn to conduct this kind of business was that acting as an insurer required neither formal training nor special equipment. Basically, anyone who was literate and had access to pen and paper could write up a contract that promised some sort of financial compensation for losses or damages to someone, if that person feared a certain event could disrupt his or her comfort and in exchange made a regular payment. Thus, a man named Ephraim Tucker decided in 1793 to issue insurance for “the elegant full-blooded horse Clericus” during its transfer between stables.[1] Philadelphia merchants routinely agreed to insure each other against the so-called dangers of the sea. Churches in New England raised funds to insure the lives of their clergy and the clergymen’s widows and children. Neighbors issued contracts to insure each other’s homes against destruction by fire. Firemen, too, clubbed together to provide financial means for any event that caused one of them to suffer physical harm. The practice of taking on other people’s risks, this shows, was often performed by nonexperts. Continue reading “Learning How to Construct the Unknown: The Practice of Risk in Early North American Insurance Manuals”

Hurricanes, Climate Change, and Adaptation: The Roles of Knowledge and Memory in Past and Present

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. Continue reading “Hurricanes, Climate Change, and Adaptation: The Roles of Knowledge and Memory in Past and Present”