Keep Focusing on the Air: COVID-19 and the Historical Value of an Atmospheric Sensibility

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Robert-Jan Wille

Published Mar 31, 2021


Future historians writing about the COVID-19 crisis will need to pay more attention to the atmosphere and its role in the current crisis, for the atmosphere is connected to the current pandemic in multiple ways: the atmosphere transports aerosols; it changes as a consequence of the social crisis; air pollution and COVID-19 deaths seem to be connected; there is a triple crisis of ‘oxygen-depriving politics’; and air travel has a large effect on the transmission of the disease. Increasingly, atmosphere scientists are contributing to the science of COVID-19. Dealing with the atmosphere is useful for another reason too: in the current age, atmosphere physicists and chemists have become key architects of the Anthropocene concept, and the meteorological sciences are increasingly claiming a stake in the environmental humanities. Environmental historians who attribute a larger role to the atmosphere should follow recent trends in the larger ‘geohumanities’, a new field that has exported the meteorologists’ atmosphere into the humanities. At the same time, environmental historians could also benefit from engaging with the history of knowledge about air, not just late modern meteorology, but also early modern physics and chemistry, and the pre-nineteenth century medical sciences that were less hesitant about dealing with the air. Historians should acquire what I call an ‘atmospheric sensibility’ by looking at the sensibility of atmosphere scientists of the past. Obtaining this sensibility entails observing the way in which meteorological experts have used this knowledge to expand their discipline, in both the scientific and public realm. This knowledge can then be put to use to both create and strengthen specific themes in the environmental history of health. Areas of research could include, among many other possibilities, the difference between indoor and open-air work, or the importance of respiration, physiology and lung medicine in history. First acquiring and then deepening our atmospheric sensibility will provide a better understanding of the environmental history of health and pandemics in the current geological epoch.

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