Endangered, Extinct, Sublime: New World Colonialism and Climate Change

Illustration by Aron of Kangeq, Greenland.

The current anthropogenic climate crisis has its roots in colonial expansion that fueled the Industrial Revolution of the decades surrounding the turn of the 19th century, but the link between colonialism and climate change can be traced centuries earlier. The genocidal depopulation of the Americas that raged in the 16th century resulted in a cooling of global temperatures, largely due to reforestation of formerly-cultivated agricultural land. The devastation of the “Great Dying” resulted in a landscape viewed by European settlers as simultaneously ruined and pregnant with possibility. American colonists looked back in time to the ruins of ancient civilizations, including those in the Americas, as a warning of the potential outcome of the project of Western expansion; they looked westward into the wilderness, to the devastated Americas in awe of the abundance of natural resources. Material on display examines the description and depiction of settler colonialism and its relationship to the climate through three tropes: the Endangered, the Extinct, and the Sublime. This exhibit is on display in the Chapin Gallery (4th floor of Sawyer Library) during regular Special Collections hours through the end of June 2020.