Remembering the Unbearable Present: Colonial Biowarfare, Indigeneity, and the Challenge for Anthropocene Historiographies

“Anthropocene Word Cloud from Wikipedia.”  Notably, the words colonial, imperial, indigenous, violence, and their derivatives do not appear.


“It is hard for us to examine our connection with unbearable pasts with which we might reckon better, our implication in impossibly complex presents through which we might craft different modes of response, and our aspirations for different futures toward which we might shape different worlds-yet-to-come[.]” —Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times

Anthropocene:  A blanket term

Anglocene, Anthrobcene, Capitalocene, Cthulcene, Eurocene, Manthropocene, Misanthropocene, Neganthropocene, and Plantationocene:  this is the current slate of monikers for the Anthropocene, a proposed geological epoch with historical debates over its start-date as deeply entrenched as those over its name.  This ever-expanding catalogue of inspiring neologisms, however, suggests more than the schizoid nature of the Anthropocene and reveals more than simply an embryonic idea still in the process of being worked out, although its very existence is not unanimously acknowledged, as the surprise announcement of the Meghalayan Age by the International Union of Geological Sciences reveals [1].

The blur of proposed names for this new geological epoch is the symptom of a deeper unease that we have with the progenitur term “Anthropocene,” an unease that deepens with its disciplining, that is, in a Foucauldian vein, in the way this term is becoming sedimented and accepted as a disciplined body of knowledge [2].  Think, for instance, about the coalition of the Anthropocene Working Group, the task-force that determines the key parameters of this new epoch, a group that, as Oxford economist Kate Raworth shrewdly observes, is overwhelmingly made up of white, European men [3].  This raises the important question of who is the Anthropocene for?  Who speaks for it?  Who does it represent, and who does it erase?  The question we must ask is this:  In what ways is a certain structural violence, a colonial violence, smuggled in under the covers of this definition?

To think about this dark side of the Anthropocene requires attention to the erasure inherent in this definition of the anthropos (by its Greek roots, a white, universal, European subject).  Recent work by Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, among others, helps to shed light on the ontopolitics of this new epoch, as they rightly identify colonial violence as an inherent factor within the process of humans becoming a dominant force on the earth.  Although Lewis and Maslin (2015) date this violence to the late fifteenth century in what they call the “New-Old World collision,” when Europeans arrived in the Americas, the long eighteenth century—the period that many consider to be the dawn of the Anthropocene, or at least the initialization of a new phase in its development [4]—continued to be a hotbed for settler violence twinned with destructive means of terraforming, particularly in North America.  In what follows, I offer one particular eighteenth-century event—the British military’s bio-weaponization of smallpox against North American Indigenous peoples—as a touchstone for thinking about this structural violence, an event that might also serve as a metaphor for some of the dangers we continue to face in our conceptualization of the Anthropocene today.  We can read this bio-weaponization forward into our own contemporary moment where the Anthropocene turns toward indigeneity as its model for resiliency while still problematically failing to account for the legacy and ongoing structural violence against Indigenous peoples.

Blanket Stories:  Seven Generations, Adawe, and Hearth (2013) by Marie Watt.

Eighteenth-Century Biowarfare

Letters and journals prove that high-ranking British military leaders during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) conspired to weaponize smallpox against North American Indigenous populations as a way of exterminating them and gaining access to their lands and resources [5].  In a letter (16 July 1763), just one of many that disclose this sentiment, British General Jeffery Amherst, commander-in-chief of the British Army in North America during the Seven Years’ War, writes to Colonel Henry Bouquet:

You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.  I should be very glad your scheme for hunting them down by dogs could take effect, but England is at too great a distance to think of that at present.  [6]

Blankets were to be infected with smallpox and given as gifts to Indigenous groups, since the use of dogs would prove impractical.  Moreover, the bioweaponized blankets were a far more insidious form of violence, and rise to match the colonial fears over the enmeshment of Indigenous bodies and the untamed landscape.  Clearly, Amherst’s desired “Total Extirpation of those Indian Nations,” [7] as he elsewhere writes, was intimately bound up with the project of controlling the land [8].  In fact, the colonial biopolitical association of the wild Indigenous body with the land is poignantly captured in an anxious comment by Bouquet in a letter to Amherst (29 June 1763):  “every Tree is become an Indian” [9].  The conflation of these bodies bears the scars of Lockean property theory, which conceptually underpinned colonial expansion and the violent treatment and dispossession of Indigenous peoples [10].

For Locke, the difference between merely living off the lands (hunting and fishing like animals do) and cultivating the lands in efforts of improvements is the difference in who has the right to claim ownership of that land.  In his Two Treatises on Government, especially The Second Treatise, Locke writes:  “As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property.  He by his labour does, as it were, enclose it from the common” [11].  Put otherwise, it is labour in the service of improvement that grants the right to the earth [12].  From a Lockean perspective, then, unimproved or cultivated lands used by Indigenous peoples were still part of the common, a wasted or missed opportunity for development.  Indeed, the same language and colonial logic continues to be used, over two centuries later, in discussions about the Canadian tar sands.  As Rick George, former president and CEO of Suncor, the Alberta-based energy company writes, “The most appealing feature of the oil sands was the fact that they were there to be taken” [13].

Yet British efforts at terraforming were simultaneously and intentionally a project of Indigenous genocide, as Amherst’s letters betray.  Such an example dovetails with Lewis and Maslin’s “Orbis hypothesis,” their claim that “colonialism, global trade and coal brought about the Anthropocene” [14].  Indeed, their proposed date of 1610 for the onset of the Anthropocene, the Global Stratotype Section and Point [15] or specific date that marks a significant CO2/carbon decline (that they dub “The Orbis Spike”), is directly the result of drastic population decline due to war, enslavement and disease, with the Americas going from 54 million people in 1492 to only 6 million people by 1650 [16].  In short:  less people, less carbon.  Colonial violence thus registers itself in the carbon footprint of the Earth.  The British efforts to bioweaponize smallpox against the Indigenous peoples in the eighteenth century complement Lewis and Maslin’s theory and furnishes it with a specific event to greater texturize this Anthropocene historiography.

“Orbis Spike” in Lewis and Maslin (2015).

Bearing the unbearable past in our impossibly complex present

But what does this specific case study in eighteenth-century British bioweaponization mean for us in the Anthropocene today?  Anecdotally, it might remind us about the dangers that can lay await in the folds of a blanket or blanket term, a reminder to be weary of what is “gifted” by this ghostly anthropos, this new ungainly spectre haunting thought today [17].  The case study should also remind us of the biopolitics of controlling the Indigenous populations and their lands, and the violent means that these settler nations called Canada and the United States, or Turtle Island, have deployed since the eighteenth century.  But more importantly, as the Anthropocene increasingly dominates scholarly discourse, such that we might speak of the “Anthropocene turn” in academe, the case of the smallpox-infested blankets helps reframe discussions of the Anthropocene that otherwise continue overwhelmingly to exclude Indigenous groups and considerations of colonial violence.  We must consider more than the (white) anthropos and fossil fuels.  For as Zoe Todd insightfully suggests, the Anthropocene discourse is a variation of “white public space,” that is a space that is not only predominantly made up of the white heteropatriarchy but also a space wherein “Indigenous ideas and experiences are appropriated, or obscured, by non-Indigenous practitioners” [18].  The Anthropocene needs decolonizing and indigenizing, though this move is not without wrinkles.

The Bentwood Box (2009) by Coast Salish artist Luke Marston.

One of the best examples of this is the simultaneous turn that is occurring alongside the Anthropocene:  the “Indigenous Turn” in theory and politics, which on first glance appears inspired by governmental calls for reconciliation.  However, while the “Anthropocene Turn” and the “Indigenous Turn” would benefit from greater turning toward each other, we have reason to be wary of the ways that indigeneity is currently being looked to as a new promissory radical model for ontology, which can be understood as a form of neoliberal governmentality’s delusory strategy for survival and self-replication rather than profound change, such as the indigenization of its internal structure.  Indeed, as David Chandler and Julian Reid argue, the interest in new models of indigenous subjectivity is frequently marked by the rhetoric of resiliency.  While this may initially seem like a celebration of indigeneity, Chandler and Reid argue that the real attraction to indigenous resiliency is for the way it might help Western cultures cope with how to live within the eco-crises of the Anthropocene:  “While the modern subject is encouraged to ‘become indigenous,’ the attention to indigeneity . . . does not extend to the suffering and struggles of indigenous peoples who are held to have failed to become more-than-human exemplars of resilience” [19].  At the edge of extinction, Western culture hopes to learn how to survive.  The “radical promise” of indigeneity as a new model for being in the world, Chandler and Reid continue,

is that a different world already exists in potentia and that moderns can choose to make it by learning to world in the ways indigenous peoples already do . . .  Access to this alternate world is a question of ontology—of being differently—being in being rather than thinking, acting and world-making as if we were transcendent or possessive subjects.  [20]

Now, in the Anthropocene, we no longer have the security in thinking of nature as something “over there,” as an object capable of being fully understood, and the collapse of the nature/culture divide.  Now, the “indigenous are the anthropocene-alogists of nonmodern ontology:  they can teach us how to see the nonhuman differently” [21].  If Indigenous subjectivity is now a resource to be mined, what becomes visible in this extraction process is the difference between attending to indigeneity and the actual suffering of indigenous peoples.  We need to mind the gap between theory and practice.  In the turn to indigeneity as the way to navigate the Anthropocene, what dangers are unknowingly accepted as gifts?

Harper Eyes (2014) by Métis scholar and artist Warren Cariou. The eyes belong to Stephen Harper, former Prime Minister of Canada, who passed major reforms for the oil industry during his tenure and who also infamously said, at the 2009 G20 meeting, that “Canada has no history of colonialism.”

Like those infected blankets in Amherst’s letters, we would do well to remember to ask what violence gets insidiously smuggled in under the white covers of the Anthropocene, which one might be tempted to call (if yet another neologism were allowed) “The White MANthropocene,” for the way it extends the legacy of this problematic figure, including the tendency of this discourse parasitically to see indigeneity as its new resilient ontopolitical host.  Not unlike the eighteenth-century British view of North America as a waste to be mined, contemporary Western discourses including the Anthropocene commit an uncanny act of violence in the turn toward indigenous subjectivity as a new resource to be plundered.  The Western question it seems, now as then, remains one of manipulation and self-preservation:  How can we use indigenous subjects or knowledges to save ourselves, our ways of life, our institutions, and ultimately our world?  We need to recognize, as Alexis Shotwell suggests, the “complex entanglement of practices and habits of ignorance, repression, and active disavowal that constitute an active settler process of not telling, not seeing, and not understanding the truth of the matter” [22].  This is especially true as we wade through a new cold white discourse that still largely ignores a decolonized approach.

Retrieving and bearing the anthropogenic ugliness of our eighteenth-century history, those disastrous events, such as the smallpox conspiracy that I have here discussed, will be an important strategy in how we write the history of the Anthropocene, a historiography that although it already includes the eighteenth century and grants a significant place to Britain in this narrative is nevertheless marked by blindspots.  It is time to move past the now all too familiar citation of James Watt’s improved steam engine and the Industrial Revolution as the eighteenth century’s claim to the Anthropocene and consider the more furtive forms of anthropogenic violence from this period.  Simultaneously, it is also important to recognize the ways in which these forms of violence remain with us today.  To do this is to see colonialism, as Patrick Wolfe does, as “a structure rather than an event,” whereby colonial practices of the past grow to become the backbone of the present [23].  Indeed, the pressing task for the historiographies of the Anthropocene will be to consider the minor rather than molar, and increasingly to include in the stories that we tell about this epoch the shameful policies devised and violence committed in the projects and name of colonial terraforming.  By insisting on these historiographies that foreground the “complicated, often ugly, and humbling,” to borrow a phrase by Anna Tsing [24], we might stop perpetuating the structural violence that has defined the Anthropocene.


[1] The IUGS announced in July 2018 that we are not in the Anthropocene; we are living in a late phase of the Holocene period that they call the Meghalayan Age, which began 4,250 years ago.  It is defined by a catastrophic drought that destroyed ancient civilizations in Egypt, China, India, and the Middle East.  As Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis write:  “it seems like a small group of scientists [at the IUGS]—40 at most—have pulled off a strange coup to downplay humans’ impact on the environment.”  Maslin, Mark, and Simon Lewis.  “Anthropocene vs Meghalayan—Why Geologists are Fighting over whether Humans are a Force of Nature.”  The Conversation, 8 Aug. 2018.

[2] Working groups, conferences, academic journals, courses, and programs are all examples of this disciplining.

[3] Raworth, Kate.  “Must the Anthropocene be a Manthropocene?”  The Guardian.  20 October 2014.  Web.

[4] Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer initially proposed James Watt’s improved steam engine in 1784 and the Industrial Revolution as the starting point for the Anthropocene.  Similarly, others take 1800 as the starting date, such as Steffen et al. (2011) and Zalasiewicz et al. (2011).  Steffen, Will, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen, and John McNeill.  “The Anthropocene:  Conceptual and Historical Perspectives.”  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.  A 369 (2011):  842-867.  DOI:  10.1098/rsta.2010.0327.  Zalasiewicz, Jan, Mark Williams, Richard Fortey, Alan Smith, Tiffany L. Barry, Angela L. Coe, Paul R. Bown, Peter F. Rawson, Andrew Gale, Philip Gibbard, F. John Gregory, Mark W. Hounslow, Andrew C. Kerr, Paul Pearson, Robert Knox, John Powell, Colin Waters, John Marshall, Michael Oates, and Philip Stone.  “Stratigraphy of the Anthropocene.”  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Lon.  A 369 (2011):  1036-1055.  DOI:  10.1098/rsta.2010.0315.

[5] Peter d’Errico’s archival research was key in finding proof of Britain’s smallpox plans and Amherst’s culpability.  For a detailed account of the pertinent letters, see d’Errico, Peter.  “Jeffery Amherst and Smallpox Blankets.”  Web.  2017.

[6] Amherst to Bouquet, 16 July 1763, BL Add MSS 21634, f.323.  See also The Journals of Jeffery Amherst, 1757-1763.  Ed. Robert J. Andrews.  Michigan State University Press, 2015.  Vol. 15.  322.

[7] Amherst to Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of the Northern Indian Department.  9 July 1763.  Amherst, Jeffrey.  The Journals of Jeffery Amherst, 1757-1763.  Ed. Robert J. Andrews.  Michigan State University Press, 2015.

[8] This tension over the land plays out in another register today. Amherst is a figure still embarrassingly celebrated by Parks Canada today.  The name of the Port-la-Joye-Fort Amherst National Historic Site in Prince Edward Island was recently challenged by Mi’kmaq elders and the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I.  Yet despite these calls for the national historic site to have Amherst’s name removed, Parks Canada decided to leave it and simply add a Mi’kmaq name:  Skmaqn, which means “the waiting place.”  Ironically, we still wait for reclamation.

[9] Colonel Henry Bouquet to General Amherst, 29 June 1763.

[10] Nick Allred’s contribution to this collection also attends to Locke’s theory of property, but it does not address the key role of labour in Lockean property theory and its relation to colonial violence.  Katherine Binhammer’s contribution, drawing on Adam Smith rather than Locke, acknowledges the colonial violence that comes with the addiction to economic growth.

[11] Locke, John.  Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration.  Ed. Ian Shapiro.  Yale University Press, 2003.  §32; Two Treatises 113.

[12] Also in the Second Treatise, Locke grants that Indigenous hunters claim property over their goods, such as the deer they have killed (his example) because they have “bestowed [their] labour upon it” but does not extend to them a property claim of the land as, per his definition, no labour has been exerted (Second Treatise §30; Two Treatises 112).

[13] Helbig, Louis.  Beautiful Destruction.  Rocky Mountain Books, 2014, 57.

[14] Lewis, Simon, and Mark Maslin.  “Defining the Anthropocene.”  Nature 519 (12 March 2015), 177.

[15] GSSP is a Global Stratotype Section and Point, a specific date and primary marker (aka, “golden spike”) for any significant change in the Earth system.

[16] “The accompanying near-cessation of farming and reduction in fire use resulted in the regeneration of over 50 million hectares of forest, woody savanna and grassland” (Lewis and Maslin [2015] 175).

[17] J. R. McNeill claims the Anthropocene is the “specter . . . haunting academia” (117).  Neill, J. R.  “Introductory Remarks:  The Anthropocene and the Eighteenth Century.”  Eighteenth-Century Studies 49.2 (2016): 117-128.

[18] Todd, Zoe.  “Indigenizing the Anthropocene” in Art in the Anthropocene:  Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies.  Ed. Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin.  London:  Open Humanities Press, 2015, 243.

[19] Chandler, David and Julian Reid.  “‘Being in Being’:  Contesting the Ontopolitics of Indigeneity.”  The European Legacy 23.3 (2018):  254.  DOI:  10.1080/10848770.2017.1420284

[20] Chandler and Reid, “‘Being in Being,'” 257.

[21] Chandler and Reid, “‘Being in Being,'” 259.

[22] Shotwell, Alexis.  Against Purity:  Living in Ethically Compromised Times.  University of Minnesota Press, 2016, 38.

[23] Quoted in Shotwell, 36.

[24] Tsing, Anna.  The Mushroom at the End of the World:  On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.  Princeton University Press, 2015, 33.

“Heavy Fumes of Charcoal Creep into the Brain”

Lake Eola (2005) by Steven Willis

In March of 2018 I attended the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies conference in Orlando, Florida and delivered a brief paper on John Evelyn’s late-seventeenth-century pamphlet Fumifugium: Or, The Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoake of London Dissipated.  The panel’s topic was “Intimations of the Anthropocene/Capitalocene,” and it was scheduled on the conference’s final day and in its final time band, which seemed fittingly apocalyptic given that we were all talking environmental cataclysm.  What follows is a reconceptualization of that paper based on insights from the other panelists as well as dialogue with the audience:

I am afraid I won’t have much that is meaningful to say about our unspeakably vexed environmental present—our “-cene,” be it “Anthropocene,” “Capitalocene,” or some other—except to stress its continuities to the past.  Obviously, the broiling present of our hotbox planet cannot be ignored, and nor can the climate refugees who are its victims.  But I am not yet convinced that there is anything actionable that eighteenth-century studies can say to those whom environmental degradation immiserates except “a lot of people in a lot of places and times saw this coming.”  Even so, the bottom-out environmental condition of “major system collapse after major system collapse after major system collapse,” as Donna Haraway puts it, must niggle at the consciences of those of us who drove to that conference with our sacred gasoline just as it must have weighed on the minds of those of us who flew there on the strength of aviation turbine fuel—a signal petro-chemical achievement in combustibility [1].  Even the Orlando International Airport, that great gateway to the Disney phantasmagoria, must drag down our ecologically privileged souls:  twenty square miles of concrete poured out over a drained swamp where airport employees likely fire propane cannons to scare birds lest their flights disturb ours.

Fumifugium (1661) by John Evelyn

To come back to Evelyn, his Fumifugium is quite simply an anti-air pollution pamphlet.  It was published in 1661 and then later reproduced several times in the eighteenth century, notably in 1772 by antiquarian Samuel Pegge the elder.  In the document proper, Evelyn outlines and Pegge reiterates a geo-engineering project in two strokes:  first the removal of certain industries from the pleasant—read upper class—urban places they are polluting, followed by the mass planting of fine smelling trees.  “But the Remedy which I would propose,” Evelyn writes, “require[s] only the Removal of such Trades, as are manifest Nuisances to the City, which I would have placed at farther distances [from the city]; especially, such as in their works and Fournaces use great quantities of Sea-Coale, the sole and only cause of those prodigious Clouds of Smoake” [2].  A simple and economically productive way to carve out a refuge:  move all the burning industries six miles south of London, for who knows what rabble lives and can be poisoned there.  The title of this post—“Heavy fumes of charcoal creep into the brain”—is W. H. D. Rouse’s English translation of the Latin epigraph on Fumifugium’s title page [3].  The epigraph itself comes from Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, a famed example of the consolation of philosophy.  I won’t gloss De Rerum Natura here, but the intertext is important [4].  In an atomistic universe, one in which the collision of primary particles determines events and happenings, the material residues of fire and smoke are essential.  Smoke’s waftings alter things in the human world—they alter the body and brain as Evelyn points out.  Smoke is the clinamen of atoms in perhaps its most obvious form—a classic example of the “airborne toxic event” that we all face down for the remainder of our days [5].  This is how Evelyn’s tract describes London’s repellent air pollution.  The unavoidable smoke and its “black and smutty Atomes […] insinuate[s] itself into our very secret Cabinets, and most precious Repositories,” both bodily and architectural [6].  “It enters by several branches into the very Parenchyma, and substance of the Lungs […] together with those multiform and curious Muscles, […] which becoming rough and drye, can neither be contracted, or dilated […]” [7].  According to Evelyn, the noxious burning of coal can be laid at the hands of “Brewers, Dyers, Soap-boilers and Lime-burners,” whose pursuits unquestionably endanger all.

A View from the East-End of the Brewery Chiswell Street (1792) by George Garrard

“[I]t is manifest,” Evelyn writes, “those who repair to London, no sooner enter into it, but they find a universal alteration in their Bodies, which are either dryed up or enflamed, the humours being exasperated and made apt to putrifie, their sensories and perspiration so exceedingly stopped, with the losse of Appetite, and a kind of general stupefaction, succeeded with such Catharrs and Distillations, as do never, or very rarely quit them, without some further Symptoms of dangerous Inconveniency so long as they abide in the place […]” [8].  Moreover, and because of the use of coal, the trees can no longer bear fruit, flowers no longer flower.  People are condemned to the “strange stupidity” of being “fumo praefocari,” that is, “suffocated by smoke.”  It is stunning that Evelyn’s understanding of the bodily effects of anthropogenic air pollution anticipates our own so neatly.  And so what is to be done to remediate these dangers?  On the one hand, “fumifugium” can mean “removal of smoke.”  According to this translation, the “constant and unremitting poison” of “smoake” can actively be eliminated, or “dissipated,” by human ingenuity and labor, both of which create value.  I’d like to gesture to an alternate construal of “fumifugium” as “flight from smoke.”  For me, this slant translation both anticipates the dire predicament of our own moment’s evaporating refugia and, conversely, gets to the heart of the inhuman dream of imperial capitalism from the seventeenth century to today:  whether by flights of industrious fancy or fleets of frigates, the Earth always offers a new territory lucratively to destroy [9].  At least, that is, until it doesn’t.  Evelyn is an environmentalist type who is legible in our own ruined moment.  Even as he condemns the “sordid and accursed Avarice of some few particular persons” whose means of being produce the inescapable London smoke that Evelyn finds so “impure” and “uliginous”—a word that I learned means “slimy” and “miasmic”—Evelyn’s condemnation is also actually a statement of his own worth as projector.  When Evelyn describes what others have done to make London the “Court of Vulcan” and—one of my favorite of his metaphors—the “Suburbs of Hell,” he does so in order to announce his own value as improvement thinker, one who will lead the king and (some of) his people toward a more wholesome future by way of industrial displacement and tree planting.  These are labor-producing endeavors, the green jobs of long ago.

John Evelyn (1689) by Godfrey Kneller

Fumifugium is an originary biopolitical text.  Its arguments are grounded in the fact, attested by eighteenth-century Bills of Mortality, that air pollution was a public health disaster even as it was caused by economic activities meant to keep the population alive and growing.  Evelyn writes:  “The Consequences then of all this is, that (as was said) almost one half of them who perish in London, dye of Phthisical and Pulmonic distempers.”  Smoke is killing children, which in any economy qualifies as biopolitical quandary.  Secondly, the Fumifugium is a prophetic text in its way.  Evelyn’s distaste for fire—that originary human experience of capitalism, log after log, coal after coal, without end—derives in part because fire threatens to ignite the city, as it would five years later in the Great Fire of London.  Perhaps most interesting for readers of The 18th-Century Common is the Fumifugium’s afterlife.  Samuel Pegge’s 1772 edition all at once dissociates the text from its Restoration context and repurposes it for the new polluting industries of the Georgian era.  One hundred years after the 1661 publication, nothing and everything was different.  “We may observe how much the evil is increased since the time this Treatise was written,” Pegge writes in the preface to the 1772 edition.  Industrial pollution has not abated but increased, a queer thought to think from 2018 looking at 1772 looking at 1661.  Regarding the term “Anthropocene,” the Invisible Committee writes, “At the apex of his insanity, Man has even proclaimed himself a ‘geological force,’ going so far as to give the name of his species to a phase of the life of the planet:  he’s taken to speaking of an ‘anthropocene.’  For the last time, he assigns himself the main role, even if it’s to accuse himself of having trashed everything—the seas, and the skies, the ground and what’s underground—even if it’s to confess his guilt for the unprecedented extinction of plant and animal species” [10].  For these authors, our hubristic term “Anthropocene” is more of the same:  it’s Evelyn in 1661, in 1772, in 2018.  “But what’s remarkable,” the committee writes, “is that we continue relating in the same disastrous manner to the disaster produced by our own disastrous relationship with the world” [11].  So how do we rethink this “disastrous relationship,” and, actually, can we?


[1] Haraway, Donna.  “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene:  Making Kin.”  Environmental Humanities.  Vol. 6 (2015).  1.

[2] Evelyn, John.  Fumifugium:  Or, The Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoake of London Dissipated.  London:  B. White, 1772.  34.

[3] Lucretius.  “Carbonumque gravis vis, atque odor insinuator / Quam facile in cerebrum?”  De Rerum Natura.  Trans. W. H. D. Rouse.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard UP, 1924.  5.803-4.

[4] By “intertext,” I refer to a general connection between two different pieces of writing.  In this case, Lucretius’s work clearly influences and animates Evelyn’s project.

[5] In Lucretius, “clinamen,” or swerve, refers to the spontaneous and unpredictable movement of particles that lead to different potentialities.  “Airborne toxic event” is a reference to the second part of Don Delillo’s White Noise (1985).

[6] Evelyn, Fumifugium, 20.

[7] Evelyn, Fumifugium, 26.

[8] Evelyn, Fumifugium, 24.

[9] See other articles in this series, including Cynthia Williams’s “Napoleon, an English Poet, and the Gas Lighting of London” and Nick Allred’s “Locke’s American Wasteland.”

[10] The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends.  Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e) (2014).  32.

[11] The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends, 32.

The Anthropocene as Capitalocene: How Eighteenth-Century Novels Help Us Answer the Problem of Infinite Economic Growth

The Great Hall Bank of England (1808) by Augustus Charles Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson

With the exception of Donald Trump and a few others, most of us agree that human use of the earth’s natural resources has caused environmental effects extreme enough to require their own era.  But what to call it?  The term “Anthropocene” has been used by environmental scientists and scholars to designate a new epoch, but does the term have the force to name the political critique of climate change that such a moment demands?  Jason W. Moore introduced the term “Capitalocene” to provide more analytical focus, arguing that “Anthropocene” does not name the system that produces modern environmental catastrophes:  capitalism [1].  By focusing on the “anthro,” we maintain the delusion that all humans are equal participants in this global change, ignoring the way that human-caused climate change is largely driven by the consumption of resources within developed nations, fed by an economic system structured around compounding economic growth.  Thinking about eighteenth-century British culture helps to frame why “Capitalocene” may be the better term and why the story we tell about our environmental crisis matters.

Gross domestic product (at purchasing power parity) per capita between 1500 and 1950 in 1990 International Dollars for selected nations [2]

Our culture’s addiction to ostensibly infinite economic growth, with its optimistic fantasy of universal upward mobility, is what needs to change, and naming our era the “Capitalocene” helps do that [3].  Many scholars trace the beginnings of human-caused climate change to industrialization, with some, like Andreas Malm pointing the finger at James Watt’s pivotal 1775 iteration on the steam engine [4].  The engine behind the engine is the circulation of capital, in particular, capital’s reliance on the production of surplus value to feed its monstrous appetite for economic growth.  The economic form that is specific to capital is precisely its turning money into more money through its circulations of financial and commodity exchange.  Without money breeding money, without the 4 or 5% return on investments, those of us lucky enough to have pensions, won’t be able to retire.  I am vehemently opposed to building the Trans Mountain pipeline that will bring more of Alberta tarsands bitumen to market; yet, teaching at a public university in Alberta, I know that we will only hire more Humanities faculty if that oil gets to market and thus, I sometimes feel a dirty secret of relief when pipelines are built and Alberta’s wealth grows.  We are all embedded in compounding growth.  But maybe we need to break the addiction and embrace downward mobility to shape a different relation to our world.  Here, the eighteenth-century novel rather than political theory or economic history can help us think it through.

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) best captures the eighteenth-century’s reimagining of the world as having the capacity for infinite economic growth.  For Smith, the expansion of wealth existed in global commerce which led him famously to claim that “[t]he discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind” [5].  Economic historians have the evidence to suggest Smith was right; foreign trade did increase wealth in the late-eighteenth century.  This period sees the momentous shift to a constant growth economy as Britain’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) began its annual increase around 1760 and, with the exception of the World Wars, has largely not stopped since [6].  Where does the “more,” the surplus value, come from?  Marx tells us that there are three areas that such growth can emerge from commodity production:  cheaper labor; access to new natural resources; and technological efficiencies.  From African slave labor in the eighteenth century to Bangladesh sweatshops today, from stealing Indigenous North American lands to the Alberta tarsands in my backyard, from Watt’s steam engines to today’s automated factories, history shows us the myriad ways we have wrung more wealth out of the living planet.  To give Smith credit, he did note with regret the genocide of Native Americans in the European land grab which he describes as caused by the “misfortunes” of violence, attributable to the “accident” that the “discovery” of America occurred at a particular time when “the superiority of force happened to be so great on the side of the Europeans.” We now understand that the violent exploitation of peoples and land is not a mere “accident” of the system but a requirement of capitalism [7].

“A new map of the British colonies in North America” (1777) by John Andrews

Knowing the historical details and political theories of the origins of economic growth, however, does not draw an end to the logic of its thinking, especially given its inflationary feedback loops.  To make a cultural shift away from infinite growth today, it might help to understand the cultural shift that took place in the eighteenth century, an intellectual revolution as important as any political one:  how did people come to believe that economic growth was continuous, desirable and natural?  Antony Brewer, notes the significance of this new belief:  “The idea that (capitalist) economies normally grow over time was a major change of perspective, part of a wider change in which people ceased to think of past, present, and future as essentially alike” [8].  How did people cease to think of past, present and future as essentially alike?  By reading novels, or, at least, such changes in phenomenological time become visible through narrative fictions of social mobility.

We most often link the rise of the novel–with its shift in temporal orientation through unique individual plots–to the myth of upward mobility, paradigmatically illustrated by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719).  But when we look closer at the late eighteenth-century novel, we find, instead, story after story of economic loss.  From The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) to David Simple (1744), downward mobility is the dominant myth circulating in the sentimental novel.  Everyone is only ever one bad investment away from being out on the street.  That the dominant story in the novel is one of loss at the identical time in history when economic growth becomes the regular state of affairs is striking.  Why the seeming contradiction?  On the surface, stories of downward mobility betray an empathy toward the victims of a market economy and present a challenge to capitalism.  Harley in The Man of Feeling (1771) or David Simple in Sarah Fielding’s eponymous novel are victims of an emerging commercial marketplace based on anonymous and financial exchange.  For this reason, Janet Todd has called this literature “ardently anti-capitalist” [9].  On the level of content, downward mobility tales solicit sympathy for the losers of speculative capital.  We feel for the unfortunate Vicar of Wakefield who is forced to leave his home when the merchant with whom he has invested his life savings runs off with the money.

“The Departure from Wakefield” (c. 1817) by Thomas Rowlandson

But on the level of form, I argue, these stories are doing something else.  My own reading concentrates on the narrative form of capital, not the thematic representation of capitalism, and reads narrative dynamics within plot, characterization, and voice for their rendering of capital’s temporal and foundational contradiction.  For instance, Goldsmith’s use of ironic characterization in his novel shares a homologous form with capital’s circulation of debt as a financial instrument.  Thinking about capital’s form in downward mobility narratives suggests that the relationship between economic and literary history is less about content and mutually reinforcing discourses of empiricism, bourgeois individualism, and progress, and more about the emergence of new forms of understanding and new experiences of time that the speculative marketplace requires.  Downward mobility tales participate in rendering comprehensible the epistemology of compound economic growth and help to manage what David Harvey calls its “foundational contradiction” through their rendering of time [10].  In my larger book project, I argue that “riches to rags” narratives are not simply sympathetic tales about the losers of early capitalism, and neither do they function as cautionary fables to warn readers against speculative risks.  Stories of downward mobility in the eighteenth-century novel shape meaning to conform to the contradictory logic of infinite economic growth.  What’s interesting about The Vicar of Wakefield is that the ironic characterization allows Goldsmith to tell a story where the Vicar is released from debtor’s prison without paying his debts, a narrative logic akin to how buying and selling debt anonymously within capitalism allows for the speculative growth where some people (like Lehman Brother’s traders post-2008) get away without paying their debts and others lose their homes.  It is Goldsmith’s use of novelistic characterization that allows the reader to overlook the missing plot point of who pays the owner of the debt [11].  In other words, the stories we narrate may change our experience of the world not only on the level of what they tell but how they tell it, the narrative form the story takes.

“The Prison Scene — A Rake’s Progress” (1732-1735) by William Hogarth

When we think about the form of the eighteenth-century novel–how it textures time and molds character–we start to see how culture makes socially comprehensible something like compound economic growth.  Such thinking does a few things.  First, it suggests that our contemporary climate crisis requires more than scientific knowledge or economic theories to effect change:  it will require a large-scale epistemological shift in our collective imagination in order to inhabit a world without growth.  Second, it reminds us that cultural forms are the primary place such collective imaginations emerge, though such change often happens not on the level of representational content (this is perhaps why ‘raising awareness’ through didactic environmental documentaries doesn’t do much to effect change).  We need to change our experience of time, and, as Paul Ricoeur has taught us, narrative is fundamentally about time.  Stories embody the temporal dynamics that give life its texture and meaning.  Perhaps thinking more about narrative form and less about CO2 levels will help end our addiction to growth.  While some still believe technology will save us and that solar or biofuels will produce more energy so that we will not have to give up spring vacations in the Caribbean or 2,000 square foot houses, many others are now wondering if we need to embrace downward mobility as a way to save the planet.  Our biggest hope for a reduction in CO2 comes from a financial crash:  the only time in recent history when CO2 levels have decreased is following the 2008 crash [12]. But the eighteenth century teaches us that we also need a different way of telling stories.  If the novel is the revolutionary narrative form of the eighteenth century that allows people to comprehend infinite economic growth, even when it tells stories of financial failure, what will be the narrative form of a post-Capitalocene zero-growth era?


[1] James W. Moore, “The Capitalocene, Part I:  On the Nature and Origins of our Ecological Crisis.”  The Journal of Peasant Studies 44.3 (2017):  594-630 and Anthropocene or Capitalocene?:  Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism.  Ed. James W. Moore.  (Oakland, CA:  PM Press, 2016).

[2] Angus Maddison, Contours of the World Economy, 1–2030 AD.  Essays in Macro-Economic History.  (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2007):  382, Table A.7.

[3] For a discussion of our addiction to upward mobility, see Jeff Rubin’s The End of Growth.  (New York:  Random House, 2012).

[4] Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital:  The Rise of Steam-Power and the Roots of Global Warming.  (London:  Verso, 2016).  See Kent Linthicum’s article in this collection for a description of a steam engine predating James Watt’s machine (“Austen and the Anthropocene”).

[5] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.  Ed. R. H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner.  (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1976):  II: 626.

[6] Phyllis Deane and W. A. Cole were the first to date the origins of continuing economic growth to the 1760s.  See their British Economic Growth, 1688-1959.  (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1967).  In “The Industrial Revolution, ” Nick Craft overviews the historical work on economic growth and revises down the rates of growth to 1.4% for 1780-1801 and 0.6% for 1760-1780.  See The Economic History of Britain Since 1700.  Ed. Roderick Floud and Donald McCloskey.  (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1994):  44-59.  It must be noted that an increase in overall wealth does not necessarily mean an increased standard of living for all.  Wealth distribution is a separate matter.

[7] Eric Williams’s classic study Capitalism and Slavery was one of the first critical texts to demonstrate that capitalism requires violence.  See Nick Allred’s article in this collection for a further discussion of eighteenth-century political theory and the colonialization of North America (“Locke’s American Wasteland”).

[8] Anthony Brewer, “The Concept of Growth in Eighteenth-Century Economics.”  History of Political Economy 27.4 (1995):  609-638.

[9] Janet Todd, Sensibility:  An Introduction.  (London:  Metheun, 1986):  97.

[10] David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism.  (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2014).

[11] The novel has earlier told the reader that the evil villain, Ned Thornhill, sold the Vicar’s debt to his attorney and thus the attorney owns the debt contract.  The Vicar is released when Thornhill is revealed to be a fraud, but that does not invalidate the debt contract between the Vicar and the attorney.

[12] “Global Emissions of Carbon Dioxide Drop 1.3%, Say International Scientists,” The Guardian.  (21 November 2010).

Locke’s American Wasteland

Portrait of John Locke (1697) by Sir Godfrey Kneller

There’s a curious line in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1689):  “Thus in the beginning all the world was America, and more so than that is now” [1].  The extra fraction of a second we readers take to pin down the antecedent of Locke’s “that” makes us into momentary rubberneckers at a linguistic and conceptual fender-bender.  America serves Locke throughout the Treatise as a distant place through which to imagine a distant past.  Because America offers “a pattern of the first ages in Asia and Europe,” accounts of the New World can stand in for a conjectured past when the whole world was new (58).  And yet where that substitution–America as a proto-Europe–becomes most explicit, it runs aground:  the image of America proves not to coincide with the continent itself, as the primordial fantasy he wants us to imagine becomes “more so” America than the one that actually exists in Locke’s own “now” of the late seventeenth century.

The term “Anthropocene” (and likewise its restive offspring:  “Capitalocene,” Donna Haraway’s “Chthulucene,” and so on) identifies the planet as a final limit to the way we live–simply put, the modern era (led by Western capitalism) has treated the Earth as inexhaustible and proceeded to damn near exhaust it, taxing the planet’s capacities beyond recognition and perhaps beyond repair [2].  This essay turns to Locke’s America in order to understand how the world came to be imagined as inexhaustible in the first place, how one of the earliest theorists of property accumulation managed to sidestep the problem of a finite planet.  I want to suggest that this doubled America, this America that can be “more so” itself, serves Locke as a crucial site of waste, both in the eighteenth-century technical sense of unclaimed or untilled land and in the metaphorical sense of a spillover valve that the system he envisions can’t do without.

That technical sense of waste as unowned or unimproved land may be unfamiliar today, but it’s the key to understanding both Locke’s natural law of property and that spillover valve that America provides [3].  Before the social contract, Locke claims, there are only two moral provisos on property rights:  any property claim must leave “enough, and as good” for others in the unclaimed wasteland; and any property that would “spoil,” lie fallow, or otherwise go to waste reverts to the universal free-for-all, like uneaten French fries at a ravenous lunch table (21, 20).  With this in place waste and property are opposed by definition; anything in my possession that would go to “waste,” or spoil, reverts to the ownerless “waste,” the pool of the available land and goods.  The problem, however, is that England has no such wastes left.  Money, which never spoils and never lies fallow if duly invested, has permitted so much property accumulation that what little open space remains must be understood as unclaimed by tacit consensus, public property rather than waste (22).  With the spoilage proviso rendered obsolete, what happens to the “enough, and as good”?  What waste is left over for England’s dispossessed, the surplus of people to available property that threatens property’s very legitimacy?

“America with those known parts in that unknowne worlde both people and manner of buildings” (1626) by John Speed

Here America becomes Locke’s alibi–in the term’s literal Latin meaning, an “elsewhere” as well as an excuse–for private property in England.  There’s still a primordial waste out there, Locke says, in the New World:

The same measure may be allowed still without prejudice to any body, as full as the world seems:  for supposing a man, or family, in the state they were at first peopling of the world by the children of Adam, or Noah; let him plant in some in-land, vacant places of America, we shall find that the possessions he could make himself, upon the measures we have given, would not be very large, nor, even to this day, prejudice the rest of mankind.  (23)

America takes on the duty of “enough-and-as-good” for England, available because it was supposedly lying waste. By absorbing England’s surplus population, America recalibrates the balance between private property and potential owners.

As a deus ex machina for the “enough-and-as-good” conundrum, Locke’s fantasy of America displaces the actual continent.  Elsewhere in the Treatise Locke uses indigenous Americans to illustrate the property restrictions outlined above, and even refers to wampum as a form of money not so different from European coins–but at this crucial moment they are eerily absent, an erasure of the imagination with a grimly self-fulfilling history to follow.  We should further note that America seems here like an exception to history and geography both.  Locke’s imagined homesteaders are “in the state they were at first peopling of the world” but “allowed still” in “this day” to stake out land there, in an inviting vacancy located eternally beyond the “corners” of a world that has filled up considerably since its “beginning.”  It’s a space of fantasy, impossibly larger (to borrow Slavoj Žižek’s formulation) on the inside than the outside, like Narnia behind the wardrobe door [4].  Here that space of fantasy becomes a fantasy of space; the Narnia-quality of fantasy architecture–an infinite world in a finite package–gets localized, stitched to a spot on the map like a bottomless imaginary pocket.

“A Brazilian Landscape” (1650) by Frans Post

That elastic fantasy sewn into Locke’s America, “more so” America than the continent itself, makes a finite planet seem to hold an infinite reserve of property–the illusion that Anthropocene accumulation both clings to and makes untenable.  The particular site of that fantasy in Locke’s Treatise, finally, is not a historical accident:  a landmark recent study identifies the colonization of the Americas as a key point of departure for the Anthropocene era [5].  Instead, perhaps it’s more on the order of a supreme historical irony that the nation that took up Britain’s mantle as the driving force behind Anthropocene extraction, a nation founded on Locke’s ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of property, was founded on the continent whose fantastic afterimage had underwritten those ideals from the very “beginning” [6].


[1] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government.  Ed. C. B. Macpherson.  (Indianapolis, IN:  Hackett, 1980):  29.  Future references to this text will be cited parenthetically.  Work on America’s importance for Locke is relatively scarce.  Key sources include:  Herman Lebovics’s “The Uses of America in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government,” Journal of the History of Ideas 47.4 (1986):  567-81; chapter 5 of James Tully’s An Approach to Political Philosophy:  Locke in Contexts (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1993); Barbara Arneil’s John Locke and America:  The Defence of English Colonialism (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1996); and Jimmy Klausen’s “Room Enough:  America, Natural Liberty, and Consent in Locke’s Second Treatise,” The Journal of Politics 69.3 (2007):  760-9.

[2] The bibliography on the Anthropocene is vast, interdisciplinary, and constantly growing; for a good point of introduction, see Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “The Climate of History:  Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35.2 (2009):  197-222.  For competing terms see Anthropocene or Capitalocene?  Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism.  Ed. Jason Moore (Oakland, CA:  PM Press, 2016).

[3] See Vittoria di Palma’s Wasteland:  A History (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 2014); also see the OED entry for “waste.”

[4] Looking Awry:  An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 1991):  15.  My thanks to Sean Silver for reminding me of this formulation in a recent talk.

[5] Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene.”  Nature 519 (2015):  171-80.

[6] Katherine Binhammer’s article “Anthropocene as Capitalocene” in this collection continues the analysis of imagined economic infinities in the eighteenth century and their relationship to the Anthropocene.

Austen and the Anthropocene

“Jane Austen Populaire 3” (2016) by Eymery. Wikimedia Commons.

Modern adaptations of Jane Austen’s works rarely emphasize climate change.  The intrigues of Austen’s protagonists are capacious enough to accommodate murder mysteries, high school dramas, and even zombies.  Yet climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” has yet to re-imagine Longbourn, Mansfield Park, or Donwell Abbey.  While those adaptations would be welcome, they may not be necessary, as Austen’s works might already show the traces of the human modification of climate.  Austen’s fictions and, more broadly, works of British literature from the long eighteenth century come from a significant moment in history:  the start of the Anthropocene.

Since at least the early twentieth century, scientists and scholars have noted the increasing ways humanity has altered the environment.  In 2002, Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen argued,

It seems appropriate to assign the term ‘Anthropocene’ to the present, in many ways human-dominated, geological epoch, supplementing the Holocene — the warm period of the past 10–12 millennia.  The Anthropocene could be said to have started in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane.  This date also happens to coincide with James Watt’s design of the steam engine in 1784.  [1]

Crutzen is not the first scholar to call for a geologic period defined by human activity.  He is not even the first person to coin the term “Anthropocene.”  But Crutzen’s call galvanized scholars and the public.  Now a piece of geologic jargon is a growing field of study across disciplines and even has entered the public sphere, earning attention from The Economist, The Guardian (twice), and The New York Times.

The dating of the Anthropocene (i.e., when this new epoch begins) is a point of disagreement among scientists, social scientists, and historians.  Crutzen argues that 1784 should be considered the inception of the epoch.  Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin argue that the beginning of the Columbian Exchange, in the 1600s, should mark the start of the Anthropocene [2].  Recently, Colin N. Waters and his colleagues have argued the starting date for the Anthropocene should be in the mid-twentieth century because of the dramatic evidence of humanity’s effects on the environment, such as a radical increase in carbon emissions and the traces of nuclear weapons use [4].  Unsurprisingly, the dating of the Anthropocene is a political act:  who is to blame for the widening gyre of climate change? [5].  Is the developed world to blame?  The West?  The United States of America?  The wealthy?  Those question are significant, but for The 18th-Century Common let us focus one suggestion put forward by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz in The Shock of the Anthropocene (2016).  These authors wryly note that the Anthropocene might be better labeled the “Anglocene,” given that the United Kingdom and the United States together produced more carbon dioxide than the rest of the world combined before the twentieth century (116) [6].  The United Kingdom, and England specifically, are a significant locus for the Industrial Revolution and therefore carbon dioxide production.  As E. A. Wrigley shows, the English and Welsh consumption of energy, especially coal, increased rapidly from the mid-seventeenth century until the mid-nineteenth century [7].  The advent of steam engines, thanks to efforts of engineers like Thomas Newcomen and James Watt, help drive this widening hunger for coal.

An Atmospheric Engine from A Course of Experimental Philosophy (1734) by John Theophilus Desaguliers, vol. 2, Plate 37. Wikimedia Commons.

The Newcomen atmospheric engine was one of the first successful steam engines.  Invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712, the engine was both simple and complex.  Water was heated with coal to create steam.  The steam would rise, entering the chamber under the piston and pushing the piston up.  Then the steam was cooled rapidly, creating a partial vacuum, causing the atmospheric pressure to push the piston down.  The Newcomen engine was primarily deployed to pump water out of mines although it was used in a few other industrial and civic applications.  At coal mines the Newcomen engine facilitated a positive feedback loop:  miners could mine coal to fuel the engine, which allowed them to drain inaccessible areas of the mine, which allowed them to mine coal to fuel the engine, and so on.  Coal became self-propagating as burning coal allowed the mines to extract more coal.  And even though the Newcomen engine was quite inefficient, the collieries used coal they would otherwise be unable to sell.  The Newcomen engine helped make coal even more accessible to both miners and consumers.

Extracting the coal was not enough though; it needed to be moved to the consumer.  Coal was transported by roads, then ships, then canals, then railroads.  Turnpikes made it easier to transport coal overland, ultimately to rivers or the coast.  Ships moved coal from the north of England towards the south, although threats from foreign navies and privateers made overland transport more attractive.  Some of the first canals were built to facilitate the movement of coal, like the Sankey Canal, which connected collieries in St Helens with the River Mersey and thus manufacturers in Lancashire.  In some cases the infrastructure started at the pit mouth and extended out, like the first railroads.  This is not to suggest that all infrastructure served coal, other commodities and people also drove these innovations.  Eventually though infrastructure, especially the railroad like its progenitor the Newcomen engine, became inextricably linked to coal.

“Viaduct across the Sankey Valley” (1831) by Thomas Talbot Bury. Wikimedia Commons.

At the same time, manufacturers were beginning to adopt new mechanical modes of production.  Famously, Richard Arkwright helped create a new system of water- then steam-powered textile manufacturing.  James Watt’s improvements upon Newcomen’s engine, specifically adding a separate condenser, greatly improved efficiency.  These revolutions in industry do not indicate the embeddedness of coal in British society though; Newcomen and Watt merely found a new way to utilize a fuel that was already in widespread circulation.  Due to a perceived wood scarcity in the Early Modern period, inhabitants of London began burning coal to heat their homes (Cavert 18-22) [8].  Additionally, even though most coal use was domestic in the Early Modern period, it was burned for a range of industrial applications:  iron, salt, glass, bricks, pottery, beer.  Coal was important enough that as the British fought in the War of Spanish succession, Queen Anne articulated only two significant policy positions for the new session of Parliament in November 1703:  a further recruitment of sailors for the Royal Navy and a reduction in the price of coal to keep London from experiencing unrest (Cavert 143).  Coal was increasingly integrated into the British economy throughout the long eighteenth century.

Coal does not seem to play a large role in any of Austen’s works, although I would suggest the fossil fuel is like Sir Bertram’s plantation and its slaves in Antigua:  unseen but still significant.  Coal does make a brief appearance in Mansfield Park (1814).  Late in the novel, when Fanny has been sent back to her parents, she is welcomed by Mrs. Price, who understandably wants to make her daughter comfortable after her long journey,

“Dear me!” continued the anxious mother, “what a sad fire we have got, and I dare say you are both starved with cold.  Draw your chair nearer, my dear.  I cannot think what Rebecca has been about.  I am sure I told her to bring some coals half an hour ago.  Susan, you should have taken care of the fire.”  (Austen 257) [9]

Mrs. Price’s request for coal is innocuous:  the fire is low and needs more fuel.  But Austen does not often mention what is being burned in the fireplaces her protagonists gather around.  Her acknowledgement of coal here is telling.  The mention of coal is likely not to highlight that the Prices are using coal.  Coal was burned at all social strata.  The wealthy just burned more coal, burned less noxious coal, and burned other fuels too (Cavert 26-27).  Rather, Austen likely is drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that the Price’s daughters have to attend to the fire, rather than the servants at Mansfield Park, and that the daughters have failed in that task, again unlike the mostly unseen servants.  In twenty-first century terms, Mrs. Price is telling her daughters to turn the thermostat up now that company is over.  This moment is one of Fanny’s many significant interactions with fire throughout the novel.  The warmth of a fire or the lack thereof is a metonym for her feelings of comfort:  the excitement of planning the Lover’s Vows in a cozy fire-warmed room (Austen 101), the sadness of being denied a fire in her room by Mrs. Norris (106), the joy of being granted a fire by Sir Bertram (202), and ultimately sitting without a fire in Portsmouth (270).  Her relationship to warmth, fuel, and heat—an aesthetic motif which coveys her social desires—is predicated on a developing carbon infrastructure, an infrastructure that was already obscured because of how commonplace it was.

“‘Am I to understand’ said Sir Thomas, ‘that you mean to refuse Mr. Crawford?’” (1908) by C. E. Brock. Wikimedia Commons.

Jane Austen’s works ultimately are not climate fiction.  Her novels and the works of other British writers in the long eighteenth century though do merit examination as existing among the first texts of the Anthropocene or proto-Anthropocene.  Those works are the product of British cultures which were being transformed by the expansion of coal usage.  Concurrently, these British cultures were impelling and impeding the expansion of coal use:  driving miners deeper into the ground while also decrying the costs to the environment and people.  The ultimate definition of the Anthropocene will likely rest with future geologists and stratigraphers.  The evidence for an Anthropocene that begins in the middle of the twentieth century is fairly persuasive.  Although, as Matt Edgeworth and his colleagues argue, selecting a single moment of time for the inception of the Anthropocene is difficult due to the ways that sediments are deposited, shifted, and altered over time through geologic and anthropomorphic forces [10].  But in Jane Austen’s world, England and zones connected to England through political, military, or commercial reach were already dependent on fossil fuel use.  Now is the time to re-evaluate the ways eighteenth-century cultures and peoples acknowledged or ignored this energy transition, the promethean steps of a species-cum-geologic-force.


[1] Crutzen, Paul J.  “Geology of Mankind.”  Nature 415.6867 (2002):  23.

[2] Lewis, Simon L. and Mark A. Maslin.  “Defining the Anthropocene.”  Nature 519.7542 (2015):  171–80.

[3] Waters, Colin N. et al.  “The Anthropocene is Functionally and Stratigraphically Distinct from the Holocene.”  Science 351.6269 (2016).

[5] Malm, Andreas, and Alf Hornborg.  “The Geology of Mankind?  A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative.”  Anthropocene Review 1 (2014):  62–69.

[6] Bonneuil, Christophe and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz.  Shock of the Anthropocene.  Trans. David Fernbach.  London:  Verso, 2016.

[7] Wrigley, E. A.  “Energy and the English Industrial Revolution.”  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A:  Mathematical, Physical, and Engineering Sciences 371.1986 (2013).

[8] Cavert, William M.  The Smoke of London.  Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 2016.

[9] Austen, Jane.  Mansfield Park.  Ed. Claudia Johnson.  New York:  Norton, 1998.

[10] Edgeworth, Matt.  “Diachronous Beginnings of the Anthropocene:  The Lower Bounding Surface of Anthropogenic Deposits.”  The Anthropocene Review 2.1 (2015):  33–58.