“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).

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.