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A Cooling Climate & a Breakaway from Nature: How Gabriel Tarde imagined the modern world in 1896

In 1896, a magistrate from the Perigord region of France, Gabriel Tarde, tried to imagine how the planet would evolve in the 21st century. His work Fragment d’histoire future depicts humanity after a climate catastrophe in which the sun has shown clear signs of fading, causing global temperatures to fall. Yet the scientific world appears indifferent to the sun’s worsening anemia:

In general, the scientists in their well-heated offices pretend not to believe that the temperature is decreasing and, despite the thermometers’ official readings, they constantly repeat the dogma of slow evolution and energy saving in combination with the nebular hypothesis, preventing them from admitting that the sun’s mass is cooling rapidly enough for it to be noticed over just a century, never mind over a lustrum or a year.[1]

The signs of cooling become more and more common, however, and humanity is forced to admit that it is entering a new ice age. The sun, “previously red, turned orange; it once looked like a golden apple in the sky but, over the course of a few years, we saw it and nature as a whole go through a thousand magnificent or terrible shades, from orange-tinted to yellow, yellow to green and, finally, green to indigo and pale blue.” It is at this moment that a part-Slavic, part-Breton dissident known as Miltiade[2] arrives to save humanity by guiding it into the bowels of the Earth, where the people can warm their bodies. The great national libraries of Paris, Berlin, and London are carried down into underground galleries with the utmost care. Humanity then cloisters itself away in the depths of the Earth to create a totally artificial civilization. This new world is characterized by “the total elimination of living nature in the form of animals or plants, with only man remaining.”[3] As such, “in enchanted palaces in which storms, rain, wind, cold, and torrid heat are unknown, innumerable lamps – suns when bright or moons when dimmed – multiply endlessly in the blue depths to provide their nightless day.”[4] People who live off the land have become “fossils.” Humanity draws its energy from natural forces: “waterfalls, wind, and tides have become man’s servants, as in previous ages […] nature’s immense and free energy had long rendered domestics and most manual workers surplus to requirements.”[5] Buried beneath the earth, people live in a state of over-excitation because of their many social relationships. This continual frenzy sometimes engenders “troglodyte fever.” Coming into more contact with each other than ever before, people have taken on a certain uniformity.

The court’s liveries are grey and drab and the courtly balls (instantly replicated millions of times over by cinematography) supply a collection of the most well-behaved and insipid faces and the least appetising forms one could see […] Whether it came to projects or people, the prince’s choice was always thus: who is the most useful or the best out of all the ugly options? An unbearable uniformity of colour, a crushing monotony and a nauseating insipidity are the distinctive traits of all the government’s works. One laughs at them, reacts to them, rages at them and gets used to them.[6]

Despite the conflict between liberal and cellular cities, political life has also become perfectly bland: “the best government is one which is so committed to being perfectly bourgeois, correct, neutral and castrated that no one could care enough to be either for or against it.” Similarly, public initiatives are hardly dazzlingly audacious. Gabriel Tarde imagines, tongue firmly in cheek, that a beaten aluminum statue of Louis Philippe has been erected in the middle of a public park planted with bay laurels and cauliflowers, as a tastelessly gaudy memorial to an insignificant former monarch. While he was mistaken about the kind of climate change now underway, in his colorful fantasies, Tarde brilliantly intuited what modernity had in store in a number of ways.

[1] Gabriel Tarde, Fragment d’histoire future (1896), p. 14. All extracts cited throughout this article are translations of the original French text.

[2] Ancient Greek has become the world’s language.

[3] Idem., p. 32.

[4] Idem., p. 28.

[5] Idem., p. 10.

[6] Gabriel Tarde, Fragment d’histoire future (1896), p. 12.