The Modern Revolution

The Utopia Thieves: Progress, Ecology and Neoliberalism — Chapter 3

T’S worth reflecting, along with Marx and Kropotkin and the authors of State Housing in New Zealand, on the revolution in human affairs which industrial modernity has brought.

For we often fail to do so, and to take our present circumstances for granted, when in reality the world of 1800 actually had more in common with ancient times, even in London and New York, than it does with the world of today.

Indeed, to take one famous example, it was not until the nineteenth century was nearly done that anyone could illuminate the darkness of the night other than setting something on fire. Reflection on that fact, and other others like it, leads Spiegel technology journalist Guido Mingels to be rather dismissive of our usual reverence for the past:

Let’s talk straight: All man had achieved before 1800 isn’t really worth mentioning. Easy peasy stuff. For thousands of years nothing really happened. These days, you visit a museum and are expected to marvel at an ancient plow or a knight’s armor, when back then they didn’t even have electric lighting. No switch, anywhere!

Well, actually, quite a lot was achieved. But it is fair to concede that it was achieved in dim light!

Just think of all those ancient sages and philosophers reflecting on the human condition and whether the world is made of atoms, and oil painters painting oil paintings, in a world where there is nothing to read or see their works by but some flickering candle or flaming torch on the wall once the sun’s gone down.

But certainly Mingels is right about the most important difference between modern industrial civilisation, and everything that has gone before.

This difference consists of the conquest of age-old forms of scarcity. Age-old scarcities that included a lack of illumination after dark, but also a lack of a whole lot of other things.

Things that folk of earlier times may have lacked absolutely because they hadn’t been invented yet, such as penicillin. Or that they did have, such as iron and steel: but which they still lacked by the standards of present abundance, because in their day these things could only be made slowly and in small amounts, by hand, and with limited sources of energy.

Indeed, let’s take a closer look at the example of iron and steel: the latter term referring those forms of iron that are good enough to keep an edge and meet demanding applications such as knives, swords, suits of armour, springs, highly-stressed parts of engines, and so forth. Lower quality grades of the same material are generally referred to as plain ‘iron’ and used for making things like garden railings.

We’ve had iron and steel for millennia. You only have to take a look at the average Roman soldier’s equipment to see that. All the same, as late as 1800, the truth was that we still dwelt predominantly in a wood-and-stone age, because iron and steel were still surprisingly scarce and expensive by today’s standards.

The average sailing ship of the year 1800 used five tons of iron or steel nails, to be sure, along with a thin sheet of copper on the outside of the hull below the waterline to discourage barnacles. But the rest of its structure was made of wood.

Though somewhat improved, the ship of 1800 also looked much like the ships of hundreds of years before, and even the ships of antiquity.

And yet, before the century was out, the average ship contained thousands of tons of iron and steel. Consider, for instance, the RMS Teutonic of 1889, a groundbreaking design which not only inspired the later, more ill-fated Titanic but also, more indirectly, every other ship of the twentieth century.

The White Star liner RMS Teutonic, launched 1889, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

There was, in other words, a great rupture in the world, from a world in which even mundane metals like iron and steel were scarce and only used for small things, to a world in which such metals were ubiquitous and used for the big stuff, like the frames and bodies of ships.

And for that matter great steel bridges, skyscrapers and continent-spanning railways, all still as yet undreamed-of in 1800 save, perhaps, insofar as they were prefigured by the very first iron bridge, opened to traffic in 1781.

Power, too, was no longer scarce by 1900. In the world of 1800, if you wanted to get things done, you relied on wind, water, or the muscles of animals and human beings. There was a thing called a steam engine already, to be sure, but it hadn’t yet really caught on. In the whole of his 1776 inquiry into the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith mentions the steam engine only once, and in passing.

And yet by the 1880s, as the smoky funnels of the RMS Teutonic suggest, steam power was no longer a minor force in society.

These revolutions continued in the twentieth century. Although each generation’s advancing technology was both more complicated and precise than its predecessors’, which always looked rough and simple by comparison in the same way that a World War One-era biplane looks rough and simple when set beside a modern passenger jet, another hallmark of advancement was a generally increasing use of power.

In addition to being rough and simple by later standards, the World War One-era biplane in the photograph above was only powered by a 100-horsepower engine. Even that would have seemed rather a lot to a family of earlier times, which might have possessed one horse if the family was middle-class, or maybe four to pull their carriage if they were quite rich. And yet we can speak of ‘only’ 100 horsepower today; for the passenger jet beside the biplane drew on the equivalent of tens of thousands of horsepower!

And here’s where we come to an issue, a potential Achilles Heel, underlying the modern, post-1800 conquest of scarcity. All of it, the greater use of metals, technical complexity and precision engineering included, ultimately boiled down to a greater command of energy.

Metals, which also serve as the basis of all truly modern forms of engineering, require energy to produce them from their ores. The only exception to this rule is found in the form of the occasional nugget of a metal such as gold or copper, or an iron meteorite; and these are exceptions that prove the rule.

Until the 1700s, this energy was supplied in the form of charcoal, which took a lot of human effort to make (the trees also kept getting scarcer). During the 1700s, the trick of using coal to make metals was perfected; whence the subsequent abundance of metals.

In a 1936 riposte to the writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton, who held that civilisation and culture were founded on the capacity for abstract thought, Orwell, who was something of an expert on progress and utopias, observed that:

Our civilization, pace Chesterton, is founded on coal…. The machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner… is a sort of caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported…

Caryatid means a sort of Atlas-like figure, holding up the globe. Oil, too, was a caryatid of modern civilisation. But these facts also made the conquest of scarcity, and any social optimism based upon it, vulnerable to worries about energy insecurity, not to mention other ecological issues.

If they are not adequately addressed within the framework of the progressive political mainstream, concerns over these issues can lead to a general unravelling of confidence in modernity and its achievements of a kind that has often been expressed by hippie-like movements, which long predate the 1960s in fact.

(There’s a wonderful photo in this German article, of a hippie in robes and sandals striding past an amused-looking Berlin police officer as far back as 1907.)

And opposed, even, by outright reactionaries, convinced that the poor will always be with us and that the future, just like the past, will be feral and violent; with political consequences that have been unpredictable and often far removed from the initial ecological concerns.

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I am an urban historian from New Zealand with a special interest in New World cities. Somewhere along the line I picked up a PhD on planning and economics.

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Chris Harris

I am an urban historian from New Zealand with a special interest in New World cities. Somewhere along the line I picked up a PhD on planning and economics.