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Meteorological Imperialism: Climate Science, Environment, and Empire in Liberal and Fascist Italy (1870-1940)

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Abstract

“Meteorological Imperialism” is the first history of Italian colonialism from the perspective of the history of science and environmental history. I argue that the experience of colonizing African environments transformed Italian imperialism from a liberal to a fascist organization of science, politics and nature, that is, to a “techno-political regime.” I focus on the mutation of meteorology from the nineteenth-century paradigm of international meteorology to its militarization under fascism as a product of Italian colonialism. By combining the approaches of the history of science, environmental history and Science and Technology Studies, I use meteorology as the “infrastructure of knowledge” of Italian imperialism in the arid environments of North and East Africa.

The Italian invasion of the Horn of Africa triggered the ecological unraveling of the Ethiopian Empire and the myth of a settlement colony for Italian emigrants in Africa. Italy’s defeat at the hands of Ethiopia in the battle of Adwa in 1896 posed a set of environmental and political challenges which Italians addressed with the organization of a liberal techno-political regime. Scientific experts, including meteorologists, mobilized to build a new consensus on the colonial project and promote the economic development of the dry colonies of Eritrea and Somalia. The conquest of Libya, the Great War, and the re-conquest of the colony in the interwar period marked the crisis of Italian liberal imperialism. The birth of aviation, the invention of chemical weapons, and the disappointment of projects in the arid environment of Libya transformed Italian meteorology and colonial practices into a more authoritarian organization. Finally, the 1935 invasion of Ethiopia marked the triumph of Italian fascist techno-politics as an alternative strategy to compete with the hydro-politics of the British Empire.

Drawing on research carried out in English, French, German, and Italian in hitherto unexplored archives, I reconstruct the transformation of liberalism into fascism as the product of imperial tensions and environmental constraints in Africa, rather than as a political event occurring in Europe. I advance a new interpretation of Italian colonialism as a palimpsest of liberal and fascist imperialism whose knowledge-production practices are crucial to understanding Italy’s socially-constructed ignorance of its colonial past.

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This item is under embargo until October 12, 2023.