Tag: Tambora

Interconnectedness: Weather and Historical Conditions

The eruption of Tambora according to Professor Gillen D’Arcy Wood did not just create volatile conditions over three years for the region it originated in, but the eruption also significantly altered the course of history for large parts of the world. For Professor Wood, these findings all began with looking through the historical record and asking questions. The period between 1810 and 1820 was a decade with monumental historical events and in particular the Western Academy of thought characterized this period with the fall of Napoleon, the fall of the British in North America, and the subsequent beginnings of prominence for the United States through continental expansion and industrialization. On the other hand, the Western Academy of thought also characterizes this time as a less significant period of widespread famine, economic turmoil, and mass displacement. With that in mind, what makes Professor Wood revolutionary is his detour from established historical analysis of the period toward those major historical events and he is more interested in the depth of human suffering experienced. With looking at the human suffering experienced Wood characterizes this period as being the result of a natural disaster that had altered the weather systems of the world creating chaos. Looking at the concept of tele-connectivity, Wood proposes the idea that for this period the social pressures that came to be within human communities was a direct result of environmental catastrophe. Now think about the idea Wood is proposing for a minute. That the human suffering that historians for a hundred years characterized as the result of the shock of war could be the side effects of a volcano. Even more noteworthy, Wood proposes that the information to the cause of all this suffering was also directly in the face of historians through art and literature.

In the midst of all this historical analysis and fundamental restructuring of what this means to our understanding of the relationship between weather and human conditions I began to question in my head to what does this mean to our present day situation? Or more specifically, even when we understand the tele-connectivity between weather and human communities what does this do for our conditions? Many of the students in the room voiced their concerns with our current climate crisis and the conditions that create displacement.Seemingly, it is widely understood that extreme fluctuations or even moderate fluctuations in weather create volatile conditions for people all over the world. So if this connection between weather and suffering is understood I guess my question is is the notion of tele-connectivity active or passive, and more specifically is it just an idea we acknowledge but do nothing about. In a world where ideas are presented as revolutionary but do not move past the institutional or academically bound stage, my question is what does the historical account of Tambora do for current issues of weather fluctuation and suffering? To me the ideas presented by Wood give us a platform to restructure our understandings of historical conditions, but it does not move much farther into the realm of discussions on climate change for me personally. So how do we shape these new understandings into revolution.

The lack of knowledge of non-anthropogenic power

For years, humans have been influencing the natural world as one single species. With the creation of words such as “untouched nature,” we kind of distinguish ourselves from the environment that sustains us. Although we humans have been modifying the landscape intentionally selecting the species that is beneficial for us, we should not ignore the fact that a lot of non-anthropogenic power has also affected our well-being and social structure.

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A Lose, Lose Situation

I listened to Gillen Wood speak twice about Tambora; once in my Weather, Climate, and Society class, and once in the Continuing Revolutions Seminar. At first, I cringed at the thought of listening to the same lecture twice, but to my surprise, the lectures weren’t completely the same, furthered my understanding of the subject, and brought to mind lots of interesting questions. Throughout both lectures, I noticed that there seemed to be a theme of loss due to the eruption of Tambora. People lost their lives in the initial eruption, entire ethnic groups were wiped out, and many people around the world were forced the relocate due to the unfavorable climate change. This brings me to my question: “How much was lost in the eruption of Tambora?” and “What would happen if Tambora erupted today?”

In his lecture, Wood stated that after the eruption, the areas immediately surrounding the volcano were buried under 5 to 6 feet of volcanic ash; changing the land of Sumbawa overnight. Many of the villages were wiped out, and with that, we lost their history, their language, and any texts that may have existed. The  only record of the language exists in a dictionary that a European scholar was in the process of creating when the volcano erupted. Besides from this though, there are very few Sumbawan artifacts from that time period, with the exception of Chinese pottery found by archaeologists in the regions.

Now, why was there Chinese pottery in Sumbawa in 1815? There is one simple answer: because of trading.  We don’t know much about Sumbawa, but from the logs of ships and the discovery of the pottery, it is believed that the island was an established port that regularly used the trade routes. If all of Sumbawan history was erased by Tambora, we may have believed it to simply have been an island with a small population who lived in primitive villages. This shows the real danger of Tambora; erasing human history and keeping us ignorant.

Tambora had a large scale effect though, affecting much more than Sumbawa. The gases and particles released into the atmosphere from Tambora spread all over the globe within just a few short weeks. This blocked out sunlight, melted the polar ice caps, and  caused large scale climate change. The effects of Tambora were so severe that a large population of people in the United States and all over the globe were forced to relocated to more climactically stable environments. These environmental refugees were forced to uproot their lives to escape the fallout of Tambora. Now, imagine if Tambora were to erupt in 2016.

With our increased levels of climate change, I can only imagine that the implications of a major eruption would be near catastrophic. Tens of thousands of people were killed due to the effects of Tambora, and that was back when the population was close to 1 billion people. Today, the population is nearing 8 billion people, corresponding to a death toll in the millions. Agricultural and farm systems would be in a state of crisis, people would starve, many people wouldn’t be able to move to a better place due to the rise in prices, and it would be a lose-lose situation overall.

Who (or What) is the Frankenstein of the Refugee Crisis?

One of the main takeaway points from Gillen D’Arcy Wood’s lecture on Tambora is centered on the treatment of refugees. During the summer of 1816, famine, disease, and poverty struck Europe, and while Mary Shelley and her contemporaries wrote books to fill their time due to what was seemingly just “bad weather,” those in lower socioeconomic classes who were dependent on the weather for food and livelihood suffered greatly. Wood called this a “social-ecological breakdown,” in which Shelley’s Frankenstein monster lived because she perceived the environmental refugees  as “beasts.”

I was struck by this description, especially due to its implications for the current refugee crisis in Europe. Recently, I read a New York Times article that discussed the ways in which Syrian refugees are treated by Greek citizens who want to keep Syrian children out of schools. One Greek parent against allowing refugees in schools said the refugee children “come from another continent with completely different disease and health conditions,” and that they “have a different outlook” on religious and cultural values. Concerns about health status, values, and keeping the schools “Greek” were echoed throughout the article.

This grievance sounds eerily similar to the “monster” narrative portrayed by Shelley. For Shelley and others watching the refugee crisis unfold in 1816, their claims that refugees had a “beast”-like nature occurred as people from lower socioeconomic classes became desperate for resources but found no source of economic relief or refuge. But what is important to note is that this dehumanizing relegation as “beast” was created by systems of oppression and influenced by people with social power.  I say this not only to imply that people (like Shelley) promoted a narrative that dehumanized groups of people of lower socioeconomic positions, but also in the sense that Shelley and her contemporaries’ attitudes towards these people were influenced by a long history of power hierarchies rooted in socioeconomic class.

As many are quick to note, there is a difference between Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster, and if we are to continue to use the “monster” narrative to describe human beings experiencing poverty (a narrative that should be critiqued), we must also understand that Frankenstein is not only those who are in positions of power, but also the system of power, itself, that creates and reproduces the xenophobic notion of the “monster” in the first place. We have to understand that it is not just the fault of the people who make negative statements about refugees who are perpetuating the refugees’ socioeconomic position, but also the fault of larger systems of racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and classism that create these social positions and hierarchies of power, in the first place. If we wish to change the status quo and subvert the dehumanizing status of “monster,” we must use these tools and knowledge of hierarchical power to understand the Frankenstein that created this crisis.

Let’s do something about it

Tambora eruption of 1815? Hmm, maybe vaguely rings a bell. The “Year Without a Summer”? Yup, I definitely know about that! But not really – the bits and pieces I heard on NPR a few years ago barely touched on the deeper issues that Gillen Wood approached. Tales of Frankenstein, violence, eating horses, feeding the starving, and revolution! And when you think about it, why wouldn’t a global scale geological event disrupt society and spur a “revolution” of sorts? Using our word, “revolution,” as a metaphor, you could say that we are going through a climate change revolution right now.

Technology has allowed humans to adapt and live relatively comfortably in almost all regional climates across, the earth. Whether it is the bitter cold of Antarctica or the deserts of the southwestern United States, we have climate controlled our living environment and diverted water to where this is none. The potential irony is that cooling down your home in the hot weather is contributing to that warmer weather! Weather and climate drove the human race to innovate shelter, and mechanisms for storing and transporting food, yet can we rely on technology to dig us out of a changing climate, a warming planet? Yes, technology is an answer. But will we be proactive or reactive? At the time of the Tambora eruption, many countries did have fail safes in place for a couple years of food shortages, but not enough. However, they didn’t even know what happened, and obviously had no control over a volcanic eruption. Today we have clear links to earth’s climate change, and we have the time (barely) and the ability to make a change, prepare, and solve the problem of waste and pollution.

Unfortunately, there are already many people suffering from climate change and a shortage of food and water. Why must it be that events of extreme human suffering and war be the events that spur our large scale innovation? Gillen Wood noted how following the Tambora eruption, the food shortage was just enough to cause mass stress, political unrest, and violence, and that true famine and starvation occur in silence. One would hope that we have learned the lessons from the past and need not let our environment get to such a point where we are underprepared. When a major political party does not even include the issue of climate change in their platform then I get less optimistic. I embrace the technological advancements that come from our responsibility to reduce our impact on the climate and hope that we invest more in that innovation. I would rather have a methodical well planned and efficient introduction of green frustration, than be forced into unknown territory and a violent revolution.

While slow climate change is not directly comparable to a volcanic eruption, it is widespread and not going away. It is the problem that we face today. The “Year Without a Summer” lived well beyond its name, maybe we need something less mellow than “climate change” and “global warming.”

Be Prepared

It is hard to deny, although some still do, that the world and its climate is changing. Humans need to adapt their lifestyles to accommodate and even slow down these changes. The eruption of Tambora threw the world into an environmental crisis, which in turn became a humanitarian crisis. This relatively modern event of climate change is an example of what can become of society if the environment in which we live changes too rapidly. The aftermath of Tambora can help serve as learning tool for modern society to prepare for the climate change that we are experiencing. This is important, because the main lesson we can learn from this environmental disaster is that not preparing can be fatal.

Many governments pre-Tambora took a laissez-faire approach to the way they ruled. The welfare of the citizens was not their responsibility. However, the environmental and humanitarian disaster caused by Tambora showed the world that this method was not going to be accepted by the citizens any longer. It is during this time that the responsibilities of many rulers shifted to the welfare of the people. Although reluctant, government officials were forced to help their citizens after riots broke out and it became hard to ignore the starvation and disease that plagued their communities. Modern governments now have the responsibility of taking care of their people. However, as we have seen, in such dramatic conditions it becomes impossible to take care of everyone.

The Tambora period was described by Professor Wood as an “environmental refugee crisis” that caused people all over the world to abandon their homes in hopes of escaping starvation and disease. The modern world has constantly had a refugee crisis for various reasons, some environmental, many not. The world has become a “smaller” place due to globalization, colonization, and technology. The population has dramatically increased since Tambora. The world is not as capable as it once was for dramatic resettling of people. Adding another reason for people to flee their homes and search for a new one is something we cannot accommodate. This is why we must learn from the humanitarian crisis of Tambora and take preventative measures.

Professor Wood also laid out his three states of climate shock response: Creative Sympathy, Proto-Revolutionary Violence, and “Flight into Hell.” The Creative Sympathy state was the way people of high social class involved themselves in the suffering of those of the lower class. These were people who were able to still live comfortably while suffering occurred around them, but not too close to them. The works of Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and other literary celebrities of the time can be equated to the news sources that go in and report about the crisis, but do not offer any help. Acknowledging the suffering of those affected is an important first step, but often times that is the extent of efforts to help by the privileged. This is not an effective response. In order to deal with these issues, everyone needs to help and a plan needs to be formed. As Tambora has shown us, not preparing is simply not an option. We must learn from the past in order to be able to handle the effects of climate change.

An Unthinkable Eruption

Think back to 1815 – what global events marked the year with particular importance? Political turmoil afflicted the globe with the Battle of Waterloo, and global rule was questioned with the defeat and overturn of French leader Napoleon Bonaparte. Does anything else come to mind? Unfortunately for most, the answer is no. But it is impossible to ignore the global effects of the eruption of the volcano Tambora in present-day Indonesia. Although the world has faced other volcanic eruptions in its history, there are none comparable to Tambora. As an environmental and epochal event, it is crucial to recognize and study the effects of Tambora environmentally, politically, and culturally.


“Hunger is their only thought, their only preoccupation” wrote Mary Shelley about the population of Switzerland after the eruption of Tambora. With 100,000 of the world’s 1 billion population having been killed by the far-reaching effects of the smoke and dust clouds, what was previously a natural disaster became a global environmental narrative with human natural impact. Often described as the “year with no summer”, or the “coldest summer in global history,” 1816 was truly a visualization of this. The nearly 5o C temperature decline and unrelenting rain left the already poor growth region of Switzerland even more disadvantaged. Europe struggled with food and water shortages, raising crop prices and sparking outrage and riots in many communities with food processes completely devastated. Mary Shelley writes of bakeries being looted and burned down by locals from outrage due to the lack of bread and high prices. Morality was in question as the rate of infanticide skyrocketed when mothers were forced to decide between killing their children or having them starve to death. This was a cross-cultural phenomenon experienced by culture globally, finding a strange commonality in a time of such crisis. This large-scale famine was not limited to Europe, nor was it limited to a food shortage. Epidemics and revolt plagued countries globally, and for the first time, national government responsibilities extended to citizens’ welfare, particularly in times of crisis. Previously this idea had yet to exist, especially in countries of British rule, but these calamities were too great for governments to leave their populations helpless. These crises: political, environmental, and economic, left the world in complete disarray – however it also promoted diversity and geographic shift (for better, or worse?) Populations without any resources, decimated by the impact of Tambora, migrated elsewhere in search of suitable life. While a large portion of the global population was eliminated, the genetic diversity was incredibly promoted through the mixing of a wide range of populations. Tambora was a world-changing event whose effects are unimaginable in the 21st century.

The Silent Eruption

The Tambora eruption was, according to Gillian Wood, a defining moment in the history of civilization. Unfortunately, this event is rarely talked about and not widely known. It seems that it has been pushed aside, that despite its significance it has never been at the forefront of public consciousness. One can draw parallels between this phenomenon and the current issue of climate change, as both have not been given the attention they deserve. This is ironic considering the cultural advancement that resulted from the Tambora crisis and that may result from climate change, as well as the discrepancy between urban and rural responses to these crises and the commentary this makes about society.

Devastation can often produce innovation. Woods cited multiple examples of social progress that occurred as a response to the Tambora eruption, including literary greatness such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Byron’s poetry, the invention of bicycles, and the advent of public works programs to aid the less fortunate. If, as Woods suggests, this event is comparable to today’s climate change crisis, it is worthwhile to consider cultural advancements arising in response to climate change. This does not excuse the devastation caused by climate change, nor do these results of Tambora pardon its severe impacts. However, scientists’ responses to climate change have included technological developments that may not have occurred otherwise. This is a cruel irony, because scientific progress is positive but not worth the destruction it owes its existence to.

Rural and urban areas respond to crises very differently due to varying available resources. Urban areas have sufficient media outlets and closely packed populations that facilitate a quick and thorough spread of information. Rural areas, conversely, have neither significant media attention nor high populations. In the case of Tambora, this is evident because urban areas were rife with food riots and violence, while rural areas seemed silent despite the fact that significant amounts people living there were starving to death. It must have seemed like the cities were the only places suffering, while the silent may have been in more pain. Today, we again think we hear about all climate change related suffering through media outlets, since media is so pervasive. However, there could be lower profile, perhaps geographically smaller areas suffering immensely that we simply do not know about, that media outlets have not even been aware of. We assume we know everything going on in the world, just like those during the Tambora era may have assumed they understood the desperation of the situation, though the extent of our knowledge is actually uncertain.

Progress resulting from crises often occurs in cities, where the impacts of the crisis are most concentrated. However, rural areas are often not aided in the face of  a catastrophe because their strife is not heard. This, understandably, occurred during the Tambora eruption due to the lack of technology available to  inform the masses of their situation. However, today it is easy to assume we are aware of all suffering, when we may not be. Therefore, while it is undeniably important to aid specific areas suffering due to climate change, we must also address the problem in its entirety. There are silent sufferers, whether they be humans or an obscure animal species. We still must help those we cannot hear.

Revolutionary Thought Arising from Crisis

How does the climate effect human nature? When humanity is thrust into a period of poor the struggle leads to violence, but also a shared understanding of suffering. Climate crises have deep effects of the structure and production of the societies in which they occur. Only the eruption of Mount Tambora wreaked the havoc over the globe to the magnitude of the current universal climate crisis. The eruption caused a weather crisis that lead to six failed growing seasons in 1816–a time period in which the world heavily depended on agriculture for food. After the eruption, an ash cloud blocked out the sun for months, which resulted in a prolonged period of stormy cold weather during which crop production was nearly impossible. The prolonged effects on the climate lead to a disastrous famine, wild-spread disease, and a refugee crisis. Creative sympathy, proto-revolutionary violence, and “the flight into hell” serve as the stages of climate shock response to the eruption of Tambora and the ensuing climate crisis.
Violence and rioting increased throughout European society as a response to lack of food and resources. The social and physical effects of the revolution were especially prevalent in the land-locked, and agriculturally dependent, nation of Switzerland. Peasants were “driven to beasts” with hunger and disease, which lead to a stark division between the peasantry and middle class. Middle and upper class citizens grew to fear peasants as “a threat to civil society.” Inflation drove the price of grain out of reach of the peasants; people that could still afford to eat looked down upon the starving as beasts. In 1816 many Europeans, especially the British, vacationed to Geneva. Many of these tourists were authors. The literature produced during the post-Tambora era reflects the fear of loss of civil society. As a tourist in Geneva, Mary Shirley wrote Frankenstein, a story of a monster that causes chaos for society. One interpretation of this work is that the monster serves as a metaphor for the starving and sick, who rioted and disrupted “civil society.” Throughout Europe riots and mobs erupted in response to the economic inflation and lack of resources. Increasing chaos lead some governments to fear their citizens and respond in a harsh and militaristic style. The British army opened fire of a crown protesting the export of grain from Ireland. During this era people were often hanged for insurrection, and jails overflowed with convicts. Women, unable to feed their starving children, committed infanticide to avoid watching their children suffer.
In urban areas the lack of resources lead to loud and calamitous revolts; however, in the countryside the climate crisis silent, but disastrous effects. In the cities people had enough energy to raise riots, but in the country people truly starved and lacked to energy to do anything but die silently. The decimation of the countryside resulted in a mass exodus and a refugee crisis. People knew that they could not survive if they stayed so groups, thousands strong, walked to roads in search of anything that could support life.
The Baroness Juliana De Krudener became of savior for those on the “flight into hell.” She delivered apocalyptic sermons and gained a massive cult of followers. She also raised money to help feed the sick and starving, even using her personal fortune to ameliorate the suffering of many. In the process, she gained a great number of enemies who distained her for the political and cultural effects of the survival of the poor and starving. She serves as the figurehead for the creative sympathy that arose following the Tambora Eruption. Some nations, like Austria, developed early welfare programs to help their citizens. This was one of the first attempts for a government to assume the role of protecting its citizens. The concept of government-sponsored welfare did not arise in the United States until the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, over 100 years later. Other innovative ideas were also construed to ameliorate the disparity of Europe after the Tambora eruption. Many livestock and horses perished during the famine leaving many people without a mode of transportation. Early prototypes of the bicycle arose during this era to provide transportation in place of livestock.
While the climate crisis of 1815 and the following years lead to violence, starvation, and disease, it also gave rise to literary, humanitarian, and technological innovations that played key roles in the time period of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Today, the world suffers from another prolonged climate crisis; however, the end is nowhere in sight. Our generation has the unique opportunity and obligation to reform the way that people interact with their environment.

Tambora’s Effect on Understanding History – Not So Unique Anymore?

In the discussion, The Tambora Revolution: The 1815 Eruption that Changed the World, Professor Wood explores not only the life-altering effects of a volcanic eruption, but also the interconnectedness of the world’s events and the expansion of this globalized perspective. This is an incredibly intriguing point, particularly because history gets written by either those who prevail, or those who have the resources to record past events. Although this volcano eruption illustrates how history can be interconnected across discrepant cultures and over great distances, it is worthwhile to wonder whether this will be unique from a twenty-first century perspective.

The twenty-first century is a time of dramatically increased overlapping and interconnectedness due to the sudden increases in the types of technology and their accessibility. This change has completely affected how we view the world and how we have recorded their events. We are more apt to learning about far-reaching crises and issues, thus more easily pointing to these events and how they affect everybody. This makes the phenomenon of recognizing Tambora’s worldly effects and putting subsequent events less unique; rather, this has become characteristic of the twenty-first century.

Albeit there is this more open worldview, we face challenges, especially when considering how we view history. The interconnectedness that comes with technology has its own advantages and flaws. One of these flaws that is related to this conversation is the interpretation of information presented. Given that the western world continuously exerts control in the economy and the technology industry, it also impacts what and how information is presented on social media and news outlets. Thus, this control in presentation affects people’s subliminal reactions to a given event, resulting in a skewed interpretation and recording of the event.

Although discovering how one volcanic eruption on an obscure island affected many significant historical events around the globe during the nineteenth century, it is worthwhile to ask, is this really special? In many ways it is, as it makes us really pose other historical events; were they more interconnected that we thought? However, looking in our current twenty-first century lens, we can discover that have evolved to live in an interconnected society, and events that occur will thus have some form of a ripple effect. Though this comes with probable issues, especially western biases and ignorance, this interconnectedness will forever impact how we currently record future historical events. This makes Tambora less special, as we are already utilizing this interconnectedness perspective, but the truly unique component to the Tambora story is how we can re-evaluate past events, and see if we can pair past historical events that we would not have done otherwise.