Skip to main content


Victorian Anthropocene, 1834-1884

Thursday Lecture Series, Materiality

dateApril 17, 2014 timeThursday, 12:15pm EDT location The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room, Columbia University
Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth by J. M. W. Turner, painting of boat in snow storm

The ability of the human species to transform the planetary environment has reached an unprecedented scale and magnitude in the past few decades. We have become “geological agents,” capable of changing the global climate through our carbon emissions. The atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen traces this growing emergency back to the invention of the double condensing steam engine of James Watt and the mineral energy economy ushered in by Britain’s Industrial Revolution. For Crutzen, Watt’s invention in 1784 marked the beginning of a new epoch of geological time – the Anthropocene.

Jonsson's talk investigated the historical origins of the Anthropocene in Britain’s Industrial Revolution. He argued that we can trace certain cardinal elements of the political-historical Anthropocene back to early industrial society. Jonsson did so by disaggregating the concept into four constituent parts: a critique of cornucopian ideology, the introduction of deep time scales in politics, the emergence of intergenerational ethics, and growing fears of adverse anthropogenic climate change. Each of these topics became the subject of public debate at different stages of the period. Forecasts of infinite economic growth and rival ideas of the stationary state emerged side by side in the late eighteenth century. Geological and millennial time scales entered Victorian politics in the 1830s through debates on coal exhaustion. Coal husbandry was theorized by geologists and political economists as a problem of intergenerational equity and became the subject of policy in the case of coal tariffs. After 1870, John Ruskin developed a vision of adverse anthropogenic climate change, linked to deforestation, agriculture, glacial contraction, and coal use. In short, politicians, intellectuals, and scientists increasingly began to see industrial Britain as a carbon society, subject to unprecedented environmental pressures.