Would we know climate change if we saw it? Is there an image—a graph, a model, a history, a novel—that might finally capture its scope and its complexity? Climate change occurs on an immense scale that is beyond the capacity of our normal senses; it also takes place on all scales at once, from the planetary to the molecular and with differential consequences on every level. To seek to visualize climate and loss represents a desire to see something that is not, in any conventional sense, available to perception. It is to try to represent a phenomenon that troubles representation itself.
In recent years, a number of artists and writers have taken up this charge. Melting glacial ice trucked in to city centers, proleptically submerged buildings, warning signs in public parks, an expanding array of “climate fictions”—each aims toward some aspect of this image-making, to construct a bridge between the present and an inconceivable future. But, to repeat the question, would we know climate change if we saw it? Why would such an image, calibrated to our eyes and their sympathies, even appear?
If these recent works have searched for views of the aftermath of centuries of burning fossil fuels, I would like to consider a series of examples of their mirror image: drawings, artifacts, and designs that grappled with the early consequences of coal use in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Britain. In this period—between the initial adoption of coal as a general fuel in seventeenth-century London and its later role in the coal-fired industrialization of the nineteenth century—fossil fuel use was still considered a regional peculiarity, rather than an energy-intensive model to be imitated by or imposed upon others. Compared to the vast scales of climate change, the images and designs discussed in these essays might appear idiosyncratic, unspectacular, or even accidental: a trade card, a fireplace, a building, a tax post. But each offers evidence of a gathering awareness, small premonitions of the consequences of fossil fuel use. They show how coal began changing what its users came to expect from the world around them.
The larger history of fossil fuel is, by now, abundantly known. Historians including E.A. Wrigley, John Hatcher, and Paul Warde have outlined the complex, cascading effects of coal use on the regions of Britain that first became tied up with its power. In both broad strokes and meticulous detail, these histories have drawn attention to the practically numberless attempts to capture coal over the past half millennium—how every hearth, every furnace and brick kiln, every brewery and steam engine was designed to draw from the fuel’s store of energy and put that heat towards some intended purpose. We cannot think of climate change without thinking of this history of coal and other fossil fuels, whose burning over the past two centuries is the proximate material cause of our unfolding crisis.
In these essays, I would like to consider the problem of “capturing coal” in a different sense. To capture, as one definition reads, means to “represent, catch, or record (something elusive, as a quality) in speech, writing, etc.” In other words, while there were numerous records of coal use—its dense heat affecting almost everything around it—less common were representations of coal’s power and consequences, objects or images that attempted to catch some of the elusive qualities of living with mineral fuel. While coal was everywhere, it was hard to pinpoint, difficult to hold still.
There were many reasons for this. As London transitioned from wood to coal in the early seventeenth century, mineral fuel became a material that was at once indispensable and unloved. Coal’s physical dirtiness and the infamous smoke its burning produced—explored recently in brilliant detail by historian William Cavert—was its most noticeable unintended consequence, and the fuel’s precocious release of carbon dioxide, though colorless and odorless, lurked behind this more visible unruliness. In a larger sense, coal resisted being seen or reckoned with. While the fuel was required for countless activities, its surrounding environment could almost seem designed to hide its ugliness, at least for its more privileged users. Coal became a kind of early infrastructure, a fuel that supported other activities while remaining difficult to discern on its own.
Capturing coal, in other words, was more difficult than looking past its conventionally unsightly qualities. The glimpses of early coal use discussed in these essays reveal the ways in which fossil fuel itself unsettled the structures that sought to tame its power, troubling any attempt to contain its effects at a certain scale. Designs that aimed to manage coal led to breaking points, moments when the limits set around its energy and effects seemed to come apart. Long before the transcendent problems of climate change, that is, it was already difficult to find a proper framework to apprehend the consequences of burning fossil fuels.