"The Science of Prophecy?" The Role of Paleo-Disciplines in the Face of Anthropogenic Change, 1916–2015

"The Science of Prophecy?" The Role of Paleo-Disciplines in the Face of Anthropogenic Change, 1916–2015

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Pollen percentage diagram from Ferry Lake, Wisconsin, showing fluctuations in vegetation over last 2,400 years. From E.A. Lynch, R. Calcote, and S.C. Hotchkiss. "Late-Holocene vegetation and fire history from Ferry Lake, northwestern Wisconsin, USA." The Holocene 16 (4) (June 2006): 495–504.

This project sits at the intersection of history and environmental history, situating knowledge of environmental change in the disciplinary techniques of ecologists and entangled socio-political contexts. In particular, “Science as Prophecy” explores the predictive capacity of ecology, which has traditionally been characterized as a descriptive science that focused on characterizing the dynamics of plant and animal communities over time. Melissa Charenko argues that ecology is more properly understood as a prophetic science; as ecology emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century, ecologists relied on deep history to foretell the outcomes of human practices. This paleoecological perspective was essential to how scientists conceptualized the environment, time, space, and the human species. Yet, because ecologists’ prophetic pronouncements relied on uncertain evidence from proxy sources, such as fossilized pollen and algae which could only indirectly measure the past and make vague predictions about the future, their forecasts were increasingly marginalized in an era when earth and atmospheric scientists’ models defined environmental futures.