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Universal Chains: Global Sciences of Earth, Air, and Unfreedom

Wednesday, April 26, 2023, 11:00 am – 1:00 pm

This talk scrutinizes a set of earth and atmospheric sciences that zealously promoted nation-building, liberal reform, and capitalism in mid-nineteenth-century Germany. The effect was, apparently, to align modern sciences like geology and climatology with the conservative liberal state—to naturalize capital and regulate markets, to equate Wissenschaft with progress and freedom. I argue that a wider perspective shows how these sciences, like Western democracy itself, hinged on seemingly remote systems of enslavement, displacement, and incarceration. A geology guided by capital was globalized through a “universal chain” (allgemeine Verkettung), which linked coerced labor from Brazil to Siberia. In turn, Prussian meteorologists imported the techniques of settler colonial sciences from North American and Central Asian frontiers. Decades before the inception of its colonial empire in 1884, the work of demarcating Germany as a racial and climatic whole was bound up in the “closure” of global frontiers.

Image:Heinrich Berghaus, Physikalischer Atlas (1849), ETH Zürich Library