The New Volcanoes of Industry

Over the past forty years or so, climate researchers have written of the “human volcano” when discussing air pollution and carbon emissions.  As early as the 1970s, industrialized nations were spewing so much soot and ash into the atmosphere that the effects imitated a volcanic eruption.  In the early twenty-first century, this phenomenon has intensified with the global increase in coal burning resulting in stratospheric pollution previously only seen from volcanic activity.  Here’s the connection scientists are making:

When major volcanic eruptions occur—such as Tambora in 1815, or Krakatoa in 1883, or Mount St. Helens in 1980, or Mount Pinatubo in 1991—huge clouds of sulphur and volcanic ash enter the atmosphere and stratosphere, traveling around the globe and causing air quality issues, crop failures, and global temperature changes.  But the eruption ends, and, while volcanoes can cause severe environmental damage, the most common eruptions affect Earth’s ecosystems for only few years.  However, unlike an actual volcano, the so-called “human volcano” continues to increase steadily over time.  There is no end to the eruption—industrialized nations continue to erupt, slowly and without pause.  So, while a volcanic eruption is more catastrophic and destructive in the short term, the human volcano can be more long-lasting, producing what climate scientists call “global warming.”  Humans, in other words, have become a geophysical force of nature akin to volcanoes.

Rob Wood’s depiction of the Tambora eruption in 1815

Humans’ ability to modify Earth’s ecosystems in this manner is a hallmark of the Anthropocene.  Literally meaning “The Age of Humans,” the Anthropocene is the proposed name for our current geological epoch, beginning when human activities started to have a noticeable impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems.  Nobel-prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen popularized the term in 2000, writing that the Anthropocene refers to “the present, human-dominated, geologic epoch, supplementing the Holocene,” and his writing has spurred nearly two decades of debate among scientists and humanities scholars, with most scholarship centered on defining the characteristics of the Anthropocene and in establishing its dates [1].  Crutzen initially proposed that the Anthropocene began with the Industrial Revolution, citing James Watt’s patent of the steam engine in 1784 as a possible marker, while other scientists have since argued for the “Orbis spike” of 1610 or the “bomb spike” of 1964.  The later date has recently emerged as the frontrunner for the dating of the Anthropocene [2].

Photograph of industrial pollution in the twenty-first century

However, the human-volcano effect directs our attention back to the eighteenth century as marking the emergence of the Anthropocene.  This human volcano, it turns out, is not unique to our contemporary moment:  the practice of comparing human activity to volcanoes is part of a literary tradition that began in Britain in the eighteenth century.  Poets, painters, and scientists were fascinated by volcanoes, due in large part to the dual developments of geology and industrialization, as well as the high number of major eruptions during this period, most notably Vesuvius in 1737, 1760, 1767, 1779, and 1794; Laki in 1783; and Tambora in 1815.  Eighteenth-century geologists argued that volcanoes played a vital role in the formation and evolution of Earth.  The violent eruptions of volcanoes and subsequent processes of erosion, decay, and rejuvenation not only imagined a geological time scale for the first time—that is, “deep time”—but also made volcanoes a major attraction for natural historians and tourists alike.  At the same time, a range of authors began using volcanic language and imagery in the earliest depictions of industrialization, which was quickly reshaping the landscape and geography of Britain.  This conflation of human and geological phenomena depicts humanity as a geological force in a new geological epoch.

One representative example of the many eighteenth-century poets that fused geological and industrial imagery is the relatively unknown priest and poet John Dalton, who marvels at England’s quickly-changing landscape in his 1755 Descriptive Poem, Addressed to Two Ladies, at their Return from Viewing the Mines near Whitehaven.  In the eighteenth century, Whitehaven was a major coal-mining town in northwestern England, and industrial tourism was common at this time—people were obsessed with new industrial technology.  In his humorous poem, Dalton depicts the ladies’ tour as a kind of epic-to-the-Underworld narrative, drawing on classical mythology and tropes, but he also supplies real scientific and cultural knowledge about volcanoes and industrialization through a series of extensive footnotes, which were written by his friend, Dr. William Brownrigg.  In the poem’s opening stanza, Dalton describes Whitehaven’s coal mines as volcanoes:

Welcome to light, advent’rous pair!
Thrice welcome to the balmy air
From sulphurous damps in caverns deep,*
Where subterranean thunders sleep,
Or, wak’d, with dire Aetnaean sound
Bellow the trembling mountain round,
Till to the frighted realms of day
Thro’ flaming mouths they force their way;
From bursting streams, and burning rocks,**
From nature’s fierce intestine shocks;
From the dark mansions of despair,
Welcome once more to light and air! [3]

Several words and images here reference volcanic eruptions:  “sulphuruous damps,” “subterranean thunders,” “Aetnaean sound” (reference to Mount Etna), “trembling mountain,” “flaming mouths,” “burning rocks.”  The sights, sounds, smells, and effects of the coal mines parallel those of volcanoes.  The footnotes are also quite suggestive.  In the first footnote, the author writes of the “dreadful explosions” in the mines, which are “very destructive,” “bursting out of the pits with great impetuosity, like the fiery eruptions from burning mountains” (pp. 1–2).  He here refers to natural coal-seam fires, which can burn for thousands of years, but which can also be started by human causes, such as accidents and explosions in mines.  In the second footnote, he explains that these unintended fires “burn for ages” (p. 2)—an exaggeration, of course, but one that implicitly links the long, slow progress of a geological age with the experience—and projection—of humans’ imagined geologic imprint.

These volcanic similes and metaphors continue throughout the poem.  Dalton references the “perpetual fire” of industry (l. 44), as well as the “hissing,” “moaning,” and “roaring” of the “fire-engines” and other modern inventions, all of which produce substances akin to volcanic lava:

But who in order can relate
What terrors still your steps await?
How issuing from the sulphurous coal
Thick Acherontic rivers roll?* (ll. 87–90)

Dalton depicts water pumped from the mines as a kind of hellish water, or lava, akin to the fiery water of Acheron in Hades.  In a footnote, he explains the pumping process in more detail, offering a vision of anthropogenic lava:  “The water that flows from the coal is collected into one stream, which run towards the fire-engines.  This water is yellow and turbid, from a mixture of ocher, and so very corrosive, that it quickly consumes iron” (p. 8).

Newcomen steam pump by Louis Figuer, 1868

Dalton’s Descriptive Poem indicates the trajectory of scientific poetry throughout the eighteenth century.  The structure of the poem, which alternates between poetry and extensive scientific footnotes, not only anticipates the style made famous by Erasmus Darwin nearly four decades later but also points toward a confluence of scientific and literary writing on volcanoes and industry.  Poets and geologists alike wrote extensively of volcanoes and industrialization, often at the same time.  For example, the first English translation of Italian geologist Francesco Serao’s Natural History of Mount Vesuvius was extracted and written about extensively in a 1747 issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine and in subsequent issues throughout the 1750s and 1760s.  Focused mainly on the 1737 eruption of Vesuvius, this text exemplifies the kinds of descriptions typical in volcano writings, with an emphasis on fire, heat, smoke, clouds, thunder, earthquakes, and a transformation of the surrounding landscape.  Significantly, he frequently compares volcanic activity to human effects:  he repeatedly refers to underground volcanic fires as “furnaces”; compares volcanic vapors to those in coal mines; and writes, “The Noise of our Vesuvian Thunder was momentaneous, like the Discharge of a Cannon fir’d at Sea” [4].

Scientist and explorer Sir William Hamilton also focuses on volcanic-industrial connections in his popular and widely-read Observations on Mount Vesuvius, Mount Etna, and other Volcanos (1773).  Like Serao’s text, Observations was extracted and reprinted frequently in literary magazines.  At one point, Hamilton compares the smoke and ash of Vesuvius to the fog of London:  “it was impossible to judge the situation of Vesuvius, on account of the smoak and ashes, which covered it entirely . . . the sun appearing as through a thick London fog” [5].  As we know now, London’s famous fog was mostly the result of suspended particulate matter:  soot, smoke, and dust caused from coal burning.  In 1825, Charles Lamb would call this “the ‘London particular,’ so manufactured by Thames, Coal Gas, Smoke, Steam, and Co” [6].  These kinds of scientific-industrial comparisons were widespread in scientific writings:  perhaps most famously, the geologist James Hutton presents Earth as a “machine” modeled on the steam engine in his Theory of Earth (1788).

Title page of Hamilton’s Observations

By the early nineteenth century, the volcanic-industrial tradition had become “common place” in British writing, as Lord Byron observes in Don Juan (1824) [7].  Scientists such as Humphry Davy, James Smithson, and Luke Howard began to argue explicitly that industrial emissions had atmospheric effects similar to those of volcanic eruptions.  In 1804 the editors of the Edinburgh Review expressed amazement that such a connection had “so long eluded observation” [8].  Howard, writing on London in 1812, referred to the chimneys of the city as a collective “volcano of a hundred thousand mouths” [9].  In 1820, the poet James Woodhouse wrote of the “new volcanoes” in Birmingham and Wolverhampton [10].  This literary trope of referring to the “new volcanoes” of industry continues throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  In a 1902 issue of the Illustrated London News, the thousands of chimneys that reach into the sky above Britain’s capital are referred to as “London volcanoes,” and today, climate researchers continue to write of the “human volcano” [11].

Vesuvius Eruption in 1767, Plate 1, Observations

In the twenty-first century, humans have supplanted volcanoes as a major catalyst of climate change.  The last five years (2014–2018) were the hottest years on record globally, owing almost entirely to the human-volcano effect.  While this warming trend is recent, the connections among industrialization, volcanoes, and climate change are not.  These connections, which both signal and describe the Anthropocene, form a tradition in eighteenth-century British writing, pointing to 1750 as the dawn of the Anthropocene.

Notes

[1] Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, “The ‘Anthropocene,’” IGBP Newsletter 41 (2000), p. 17.

[2] For a concise yet comprehensive overview of these debates, see Jeffrey Davies, The Birth of the Anthropocene (Oakland:  University of California Press, 2016), esp. chapter two.  Also see Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene,” Nature 519 (2015):  171–80.

[3] John Dalton, A Descriptive Poem, Addressed to Two Ladies, at their Return from Viewing the Mines near Whitehaven (London, 1755), ll. 1–12.

[4] Francesco Serao, The Natural History of Mount Vesuvius (London, 1743), p. 64.

[5] Sir William Hamilton, Observations on Mount Vesuvius, Mount Etna, and other Volcanos (London, 1774), p. 31.

[6] J. C. Thompson, Bibliography of the Writings of Charles and Mary Lamb:  A Literary History (London: J.R. Tutin, 1908), p. 88.

[7] Lord Byron, Don Juan, 13.282.

[8] Quoted in G. M. Matthews, “A Volcano’s Voice in Shelley,” ELH 24, no. 3 (1957), p. 197.

[9] Luke Howard, The Climate of London (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 203.

[10] James Woodhouse, The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus, in The Life and Poetical Works of James Woodhouse, ed. R. R. Woodhouse (London, 1896), p. 25.

[11] Illustrated London News (15 March 1902), p. 17.

Napoleon, an English Poet, and the Gas Lighting of London

“Chinese Pagoda and Bridge, in St James’s Park” (1820) by Edward Wedlake Brayley

Almost before the ink was dry on the Treaty of Fontainebleau in April of 1814, people of all stations and occupations—including allied generals, monarchs, and heads of state—converged on London to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat with a panoply of special events:  processions, dinners, balls, performances, worship services, and much, much more.  As Edward Orme reported in his souvenir Historical Memento, especially creative were the uses of light [1].  Illuminations were staged in a wondrous variety of places, from banks and parks to the Houses of Parliament; amid the countless candles, oil lamps, torches, and fireworks blazed the efforts of the Gas Light and Coke Company.  This young enterprise had just launched an ambitious and truly transformative infrastructure project:  installing gas lights on the streets of London.  Seven years earlier, Pall Mall had been the first street anywhere in the world to be lit with gas, and now, with legislation permitting bold and extensive excavation, the company eagerly contracted with the government to participate in the grand celebrations of Napoleon’s exile (Conlin 7) [2, 3].  Undaunted by issues of scale, their pièce de resistance was the Chinese bridge and pagoda erected in St. James Park, which included 10,000 gas flames.  Within a year the company had laid thirty miles of gas pipe in the city (Conlin 7) [2].  By 1826, “fifty-three British cities had gas mains,” and the pace picked up from there (Flanders 219) [3].  It’s hard to overestimate the impact of gas lighting on London, “the first city to establish uniform lighting as a civic obligation” (Flanders 219) [3].  After all, as Jonathan Conlin reminds us, lighting was not simply an incidental feature of the public sphere; it actually helped to create the public (13) [2].

Felicia Hemans’s poem “The Illuminated City” (1826) is said to have been inspired by just this coincidence:  the celebrations of 1814 and the installation of gas lights in London [4, 5, 6].  Although Hemans’s body of work fell out of favor at the end of the nineteenth century, during her lifetime this enormously popular poet was understood to speak for all of England.  As scholar Tricia Lootens has put it, “[f]ew poetic careers can have been more thoroughly devoted to the construction of national identity than was that of Felicia Hemans” (239) [7].  So it’s not surprising to read her poem “The Illuminated City” as referencing the incorporation of gas lighting into a civic celebration that helped recalibrate English identity for a post-war paradigm.  While the text does not name London (opting instead for allusion, which is typical of Hemans’s work), the spectacle of the “royal city” evokes a key moment in English national, imperial, and even (we inhabitants of the Anthropocene might say) planetary history.

In a sensory-rich opening stanza, fire blazes from an array of sources.  In the hills, hamlets, forests, and especially the city, “festive light” shines from “lamps [. . .] upon tower and tree”; pillars are “wreath’d with fire”; spires resemble “shooting meteor[s]”; silhouetted buildings sparkle in “the clear dark sky.”  Through its comprehensive reach, this vista takes in and stabilizes all the varied elements of the landscape; thus, the glow of victory unifies.  Soon, however, the poetic speaker realizes that these illuminations might succeed too well.  The “bright lamp’s glare” is so “dazzling” that he becomes blinded, and so light itself casts a figurative shadow.  As the poem explains, these many forms of light prevent us from apprehending vital truths about the cost of war.  Life’s “deep story” can only be encountered in those places beyond the glare of gas lamps and fireworks.  A foreshortened line of sight replaces the vista, and we are denied access to scenes that the poet values as true.  Elaborated through five stanzas, the play of light and dark insists on the limits of vision.  Thus, in the end, Hemans’s poem resists any straightforward reading of brightly lit pageantry the likes of which the summer of 1814 offered.  Her rendition of the spectacle suggests an attendant crisis of perception, an intimation of persistent illegibility—blind spots, as it were.  Occlusion becomes an important dynamic in her poem of post-war illumination.

Felicia Hemans (1837) by W. E. West

A similar crisis of perception also operates in a second, admittedly minor Hemans poem, “The Curfew Song of England” (1834) [8].  This text memorializes a much earlier iconic moment in English history, when William the Conqueror decreed that all his subjects return home at the sound of the bell and extinguish every light.  Here the affront is not the blaze that prevents perception, but instead the prohibition against candle, lamp, rushlight, and most importantly the fire in the hearth.  In “The Curfew Song,” the fire doused on the order of a foreign oppressor becomes part of the nation’s cultural inheritance.  Here, once again, the effect is to obscure the sight the poet claims to want to illustrate, for the text peremptorily snuffs out several scenes in quick succession.  As in “The Illuminated City,” then, the obstructed view is integral to the telling of the national tale.  Both texts present moments around which English identity is presumed to cohere, and in both cases, representation is compromised through an important point of tension:  artificial light and its control.

“A Peep at the Gas Lights in Pall Mall” (1809) by Thomas Rowlandson

So the centrifugal force in Hemans’s body of work—her thematic interest in emigration and military service, her popularity at the farthest Anglophone reaches—is complemented by this additional dynamic.  Illumination and its opposite (extinction) are expressions of power with rather complex implications.  In “The Illuminated City,” even with lamps and pillars and spires aflame, the full truth of national life remains obscured.  New technologies might well overreach, unintentionally limiting the vision of the poetic speaker.  Left unacknowledged are the vulnerabilities of the nation that the blaze is meant to celebrate.

Plate V from A Practical Treatise on Gas-Light (1815) by Fredrick Accum

Susan Wolfson has recently explained that in the work of Lord Byron, the Shelleys, and other Romantics, the “macro-discharge of lightning communicated the bold, risky spirit of the age” (757) [9].  That Promethean spark offered a kind of electrical sublime.  In fact, the image was current enough that Byron’s imitator William Sotheby described Napoleon’s first defeat as Britain’s “lightning stroke” (as cited by Wolfson, 760) [9].  Quite differently, in “The Illuminated City,” light is neither natural nor instantaneous.  Thus, perhaps it presages a much more sustained and comprehensive gamble.  On the occasion of Napoleon’s exile to Elba, when England stood at the verge of its fossil-fueled acceleration, the woman whose “mind [was] national property” reckoned with the promise and failings of the moment [10].  Hemans, who, according to her contemporary Jane Williams, unified readers “in the most distant and alienated colonial settlements and in the old home of the British race” (Wolfson 602) [11], anxiously assessed the implications when bright lights obscure sober reflection—when the spectacle of national belonging overpowers and occludes.  In both “The Illuminated City” and “The Curfew Song of England,” describing what cannot be seen certainly poses a compositional challenge for the poet, but how she stage-manages sources of light is far more than an aesthetic concern.  In these texts, Englishness is associated with the coercive control of artificial light.  The expanding networks of gas evoked by “The Illuminated City” reify a pervasive alienation and displacement that have become ever more symptomatic of the Anthropocene.  Speaking of our own day, Jonathan Crary has argued that we in the twenty-first century encounter increasing “institutional intolerance of whatever obscures or prevents an instrumentalized and unending condition of visibility” (5) [12].  It would seem that Felicia Hemans has foreshadowed this state of affairs.

Notes

[1] Orme, Edward.  Historical Memento Representing the Different Scenes of Public Rejoicing, which took place the first of August in St. James’s and Hyde Parks, London in Celebration of the Glorious Peace of 1814, and the Centenary of the Accession of the Illustrious House of Brunswick to the Throne of these Kingdoms.  London, 1814.

[2] Conlin, Jonathan.  “Big City, Bright Lights?  Night Spaces in Paris and London, 1660-1820.”  La Sociabilité en France et en Grande-Bretagne au Siècle des Lumières:  Modèles et Espaces de Sociabilité.  Ed. Valerie Capdeville and Eric Francalanza.  Editions Le Manuscrit, 2014.

[3] Flanders, Judith.  The Making of Home:  The 500-Year Story of How Our Houses Became Our Homes.  Atlantic, 2014.

[4] Susan Wolfson, for example, makes this connection in her edition of Hemans’s work.  See Felicia Hemans:  Selected Poems, Letters, Reception Materials.  Princeton UP, 2000.  420.

[5] Gary Kelly associates illuminations in the poem with a different expression of power, when mobs would coerce homeowners to light their windows to show partisan support.  See Felicia Hemans:  Selected Poems, Prose, and Letters.  Ed. Gary Kelly.  Broadview, 2002.  345.

[6] “The Illuminated City” was published first in Monthly Magazine as part of a new series in November 1826 (515).

[7] Lootens, Tricia.  “Hemans and Home:  Victorianism, Feminine ‘Internal Enemies,’ and the Domestication of National Identity.”  PMLA 109.2 (March 1994):  238-253.

[8] Hemans, Felicia.  “The Curfew Song of England.”  The Poetical Works of Felicia Hemans Complete in One Volume with a Memoir, by Mrs. L. H Sigourney.  Phillips and Sampson, 1853.  613-614.

[9] Wolfson, Susan J.  “‘This is my Lightning’ or; Sparks in the Air.”  SEL 55 (Autumn 2015):  751-786.

[10] Review of The Siege of Valencia by Felicia Hemans.  See British Critic and Quarterly Theological Review 20 (July 1823):  53.

[11] Jane Williams wrote an entry on “Felicia Dorothea Hemans” for The Literary Women of England, published in 1862.  Wolfson includes extensive passages in her collection (602).

[12] Crary, Jonathan.  24/7:  Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep.  Verso, 2013.

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.

Notes

[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).

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