Industrialism is founded upon an imperious humanism that not only imagines an inherent right to all that it beholds, but also presumes the savvy capacity to manage and engineer the Earth. In the late 1920s, a leading Soviet biologist described the ultimate goal of socialist industrialism: “a profound rearrangement of the entire living world . . . all wild species will disappear with time; some will be exterminated, others will be domesticated. All living nature will live, thrive, and die at none other than the will of humans and according to their designs. These are the grandiose perspectives that open up before us” (Weiner 1988, 290). While this counts among the most hubristic of such rhetorical claims, it is grounded in the same arrogant ideology that has been central to all forms of industrialism. The Anthropocene is not an accidental by-product of human development. It was engineered and recognized from the earliest days as a stroke of mastery. The cumulative impact of industrialism on earth systems is the curse of the Anthropocene: mass extinction, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, toxic environments.
The politics of climate change are embedded in critiques of complex social and technical infrastructures, which generate a mythopoetics of the industrial everyday that seems impossible to escape. Perhaps more myth is required to disentangle us from the scale of the problem. Consider Prometheus, the fire-stealing titan of classical Greek mythology who is typically associated with human enlightenment, revolt, and personal sacrifice. If industrialism’s human avatar is the engineer, then the engineer’s patron must be Prometheus, whose story has been celebrated by communists and capitalists alike (pace Malm and Hornberg 2014). To fix our attention on industrialism is to embrace the name we already have for the destructive mode of exploitation that has come to prominence in the world. Take the Prometheocene as an alias for industrialism in the so-called age of man.
“I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction.” Thus spoke Zeus in Hesiod’s (1914, 7) Works and Days. The rough outline of the tale, we recall, is this: Prometheus, a patron of humanity, steals fire from the forge of the gods and gives it to man. Zeus punishes not only the thief for his crime, but humans as well. Prometheus is chained to a rock to endure perpetual torture and man is given a jar, secretly full of curses and plagues.
Everyone knows what industrialism looks like. To borrow a turn of phrase from Susan Sontag (2003, 18), “being a spectator of calamities . . . is a quintessentially modern experience.” Consider the photos of Bernd and Hilla Becher. In the second half of the twentieth century they created a remarkable typology of factories, exhibiting endless grids of industrial architecture from postwar Germany. Or look to the work of photographer Edward Burtynsky, whose fascinating landscapes document Earth torn asunder, gargantuan carcasses of decommissioned ships, vast pits of chemical effluent, rows upon rows of workers processing chickens. These are works that appear in corporate boardrooms even as they illustrate environmentalist magazines (Campbell 2008).
Industrialism also looks like Bhopal. The Unforgettable Night is a painting of a demon whose body is made up of the infamous Union Carbide plant, with a mouth that “spews poison and people and crushes everything under its feet” (Fischer 2009, 125). Industrialism is evident in W. Eugene Smith’s photographs from Minimata. It is the flyover scene from Chernobyl in which radiation is registered on the very substrate of the film, the degradation causing visual and auditory pops (Shevchenko 1986). It is the newspaper headline that bee colonies are collapsing, that scientists are weeping over the bleached coral reefs off the coast of Australia. It is the scientific evidence that fracking causes earthquakes, which everyone already knew, anyway. These are the images of industrialism for those of us who have found the catastrophic prophesies of global warming to be rather unsurprising. Look around and you know them right away. Commodity fetishism hides not only labor, but also ecological debt that has existed across capitalist and socialist economies.
Time-lapse film of a factory located on the industrial edgelands of Ekaterinburg, Russia. Winter 2004. Video by Craig Campbell.
Industrial modernity’s “dark Satanic Mills” have a long history of social antipathy. Opposition, however, seems to have been eclipsed by the celebration of industrialism or, at least, generalized resignation to its ascendancy. For the Soviets, industry was a sign of strength and progress. In the decades before the Great Acceleration, when industrialism cemented its rise as the dominant ideology supporting all forms of human social organization, the image of the factory became the symbol of national achievement. The Hoover dam in the United States matched the Soviet Dneprostroi Dam in an industrial tit-for-tat. Before that canals and rail systems were celebrated along with mills and mines, all components in complex technological assemblages that obscured and redistributed ecological debt. The future of industrialism, explored in Kim Fortun’s (2014) account of late industrialism, is no less troubling.
Let us return, then, to the Promethean gift, that “evil thing” for which we have been glad of heart. Amid the gifts of enlightenment and technology are the countergifts of hunger, sickness, and war. Faith in engineering is considered by many to be the only way out of this crashing world into another one, more hospitable to the project of life. Such Promethean hope, however, is troubled by cautionary analyses documenting the perils of geoengineering (cf. Morton 2015). Other scholars (e.g., Brassier 2014) decry the erosion of purpose and resolve, characterizing anti-Promethean critique as dangerously timid.
To be sure, an appraisal of the Promethean character of industrialism marks the catastrophic scale of its arrogance. Such an appraisal seeks to account for a tendency to minimize and veil disaster while celebrating industrial progress. The spark of fire is a kindling ingenuity at the heart of the builder. It is betrayed, however, by the desire for mastery and the grand scales of engineering that have come to govern the drift and crash characteristic of this industrial now.
Brassier, Ray. 2014. “Prometheanism and Its Critics.” In #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader, edited by Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian, 467–87. Falmouth, U.K.: Urbanomic Media.
Campbell, Craig. 2008. “Residual Landscapes and the Everyday: An Interview With Edward Burtynsky.” Space and Culture 11, no. 1: 39–50.
Fischer, Michael M. J. 2009. Anthropological Futures. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Fortun, Kim. 2014. “From Latour to Late Industrialism.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4, no. 1: 309–29.
Hesiod. 1914. Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and Homerica. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Cambridge, Mass.: Loeb Classical Library.
Malm, Andreas, and Alf Hornborg. 2014. “The Geology of Mankind? A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative.” Anthropocene Review 1, no. 1: 62–69.
Morton, Oliver. 2015. The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Shevchenko, Vladimir, dir. 1986. Chernobyl: Chronicle of Difficult Weeks. Glasnost Film Festival 4. San Francisco: The Video Project.
Sontag, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Weiner, Douglas R. 1988. Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation, and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.