One of the recurring questions on the many-headed monster is how the world is experienced by people at different levels of the social heirarchy. In this guest post, William M. Cavert looks at the unequal impact of pollution, drawing on his new book: The Smoke of London: Energy and Environment in the Early Modern City (Cambridge, 2016).
“Poverty,” wrote sociologist Ulrich Beck, “is hierarchic, smog is democratic.” Pre-industrial cities, according to Beck, were full of dirty and unpleasant dangers, but the wealthy could escape or avoid them easily because such hazards smelled badly and looked ugly. In the modern world risk is invisible, and is everywhere.
London during the early modern period offers an interesting test for this idea because it was at once clearly pre-industrial and yet it also developed one of the hallmarks of the modern, industrial urban landscape: pervasive air pollution. The “smog” that Beck suggests envelopes industrial cities became widespread in London by about 1600, caused not by great factories as in 19th-century Manchester, but by the domestic coal fires of 200,000 people, as well as coal’s importance in every industry that involved boiling, heating, or melting. During the 17th and 18th centuries, pre-industrial London struck residents, rulers, and visitors as a smoky, dirty place. Modern scientific modeling suggests that their impressions were accurate, and that the concentrations of pollutants like sulfur dioxide in 18th-century London are matched today only in the world’s very dirtiest cities.
Did early modern Londoners experience this smoky air as yet another aspect of a deeply “hierarchic” society, as Beck suggests? Continue reading