Off the Cuff with Sam White, Author and Assistant Professor of History

Sam White, assistant professor of History at Oberlin, specializes in environmental history, specifically how the climate affects food, animals, people and economics. He was recently awarded the Turkish Studies Association’s M. Fuat Koprulu Book Prize, recognizing the best book on Ottoman and Turkish studies in the last two years, in addition to the Middle East Studies Association’s Albert Hourani Book Award, the top prize for any book in Middle East studies in the past year, for his book The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire. In an interview with the Review, White talked about the role of the climate in both his academic history and the history of the development of man.

Sarah Cole

How did you first become interested in environmental history?

I got interested in it more through economic history. I was interested in the big question that … basically, why did some countries get rich and other countries get poor? … I got very interested in the topic of what role the environment may have played in that. So what I was looking for in a dissertation topic originally … was some way to see if environment played some role in the long-term development of some part of the world.

What do you mostly focus on in your classes, when it comes to the environment and history?

Everything. Since I’m the only environmental historian, I have to cover it all. Most of my classes begin way back in prehistory and reach the present day. I do teach one course on climate per se; I’ve taught it a couple times in the past and I’ll teach it in a different version in this spring again.

Why did you focus on the Celali Rebellion in your book?

I had not originally thought about working on climate. What first got my attention was this old idea in historiography that somehow in the Middle East the environment had degraded over time. It had been misused, overgrazed, deforested, in that somehow the land was worn out, and this led to gradual economic decline. So I was interested in looking at issues of population, of land use, of animals, of agriculture, but this was also a time when, due largely to rising concern about global warming, people were putting more and more effort into long-term proxy climate reconstructions, and that means using some physical record — something like ice cores, or in this case, tree rings, to reconstruct some element of past climate. So I started finding this material popping up, some of these news studies — mainly in tree rings, in my case — and they all seemed to show a period of severe recurring droughts in the late 1500s, which is also a period when you start to see more economic and political instability in the Ottoman Empire. And what was most remarkable was that between about 1593 and 1599 was the longest continual drought in the Eastern Mediterranean for at least the past 600 years, probably longer. And in 1595, roughly, is when a large rural rebellion broke out in Anatolia, which seriously destabilized the empire. It was a significant turning point for the empire. So that was all I knew at the time, and I figured there’s probably a connection here, and there’s probably some story to tell. But in starting to tell that story, [the research led me] in many new directions; it became the idea for a whole new book.

You also focus a lot of how the pre-modern state works. How do your observations apply to the modern state?

In terms of the bigger reactions, the way these things work their way up is through wider social and economic and political effects. There may be some similarities, I think there are … perhaps more general parables we can learn from this, parables in terms of how should we respond, that we need to reach people at the local and rural level to avoid destabilizing migration, we need to focus on the way if there is a destabilizing migration, it can spread disease or unrest. And food prices are still going to be a politically sensitive issue; there won’t necessarily be another mass world rebellion in a Middle East country, but people do tend to forget for instance that there was a strong climate link with some parts of the Arab Spring. That is to say, it was probably not a coincidence that protests, which in many places started as protest over prices, followed after one of the worst droughts in Russia and neighboring countries for probably hundreds of years, which forced Russia and Ukraine, usually major grain exporting countries, to severely curtail, or in the case of Russia completely cut off, their exports, which drove up food prices in countries like Egypt. I’m not saying that’s the only reason for the rebellion [and] of course it was not the only reason for the Celali Rebellion as well, but those connections can still be there, so it’s not purely fanciful.

What archives did you use?

I was looking mainly at the Basbakanlik Archives in Istanbul. Those are the actual archives where they keep the actual Ottoman records. So much of what I read, for better or for worse, had actually been scanned onto computers. The archivist still made me go to the archives and sit in front of the computer there to look at it; they wouldn’t give me electronic copies of this stuff but it did make it a bit easier to read, without damaging the materials. Some of the material I got to read was in the original Ottoman handwriting on the original paper, which was pretty fun; it gives you a neat sense of being close to the material. That said, I think there’s a misleading idea that if you work with Middle East historical materials, it’s beautiful calligraphy [and] these nice, fine documents. And a few people get to work with those, but the Ottoman Empire had a bureaucracy like any bureaucracy. The documents I got were documents that were kept for record-keeping purposes … which w[ere] a pain to read. But at least they kept it.

What do you think of global warming, in the sense of how it will be perceived in history?

Global warming is already an event of history; it’s already something that’s been going on for some time. I think there’s a tendency among historians to sort of put this in a different category as a current issue, or even as a future problem, rather than an ongoing event that already has its history, but that’s what it is. It’s time to start writing the history now.