James Madison, Climate Change Guru?

James Madison was a thoughtful fellow.  Very.  He and his pal Jefferson were amateur scientists, forever corresponding about their observations of natural phenomena or some new wacky theory coming out of those European know-it-alls.  Jefferson usually gets all the credit for being a renaissance man while Madison gets credit for being . . . short.

But Madison had some genuine ideas.  One that has been making the rounds of the blogosphere comes from his post-retirement speech to the agricultural society of Albemarle, Virginia in 1818.  In his (sadly) characteristically indirect, snarled-up and highly-qualified prose, he predicted the problem of climate change.

Stick with this quote.  He gets down to it when he wonders about the impact on the atmosphere if the earth were to be reduced to “man and a few kinds of plants and animals.”  He nails it.

  • “The atmosphere is not a simple but a compound body. In its least compound state, it is understood to contain, besides what is called vital air, others noxious in themselves, yet without a portion of which, the vital air becomes noxious. But the atmosphere in its natural state, and in its ordinary communication with the organized world, comprises various ingredients or modifications of ingredients, derived from the use made of it, by the existing variety of animals and plants. The exhalations and perspirations, the effluvia and transpirations of these, are continually charging the atmosphere with a heterogeneous variety and immense quantity of matter, which together must contribute to the character which fits it for its destined purpose of supporting the life and health of organized beings. Is it unreasonable to suppose, that if, instead of the actual composition and character of the animal and vegetable creation, to which the atmosphere is now accommodated, such a composition and character of that creation were substituted, as would result from a reduction of the whole to man and a few kinds of animals and plants, is the supposition unreasonable, that the change might essentially affect the aptitude of the atmosphere for the functions required of it; and that so great an innovation might be found, in this respect, not to accord with the order and economy of nature.”

Al Gore, you could see so far because you stood on the shoulders of (intellectual) giants!

You can read the whole speech here (use the index!).  Full marks to the Science 2.0 blog, which brought this to my attention.

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