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Extraction and Its Futures: A Reflection for Earth Day

A landscape painting of a countryside. Looking closer, however, stacks emitting black smoke run along the horizon of otherwise green landscape.
Edwin Butler Bayliss, Black Country Landscape. © Wolverhampton Arts and Culture,

With the Well-being of Future Generations Act of 2015, Wales became the first nation in the world “to create an independent office to act as a guardian of future generations.” The Act requires Welsh governing bodies to consider long-term impacts on future generations in all decision-making, and one of its provisions was to establish the office of Future Generations Commissioner for Wales. This last provision anticipates a key plot point in Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate novel The Ministry for the Future (2020), which is set in the near future and chronicles the work of the titular, fictional United Nations agency tasked with advocating for future generations by fighting climate change. Does this fictional echo indicate that Wales’s aspirations are utopian? If so they have been hard-earned: in the industrial era Wales was the site of infamous mining disasters such as the Albion Colliery Disaster of 1893, which resulted in 290 deaths, and the Senghenydd Colliery Disaster of 1913, the worst in British history and the cause of 439 deaths. As with other mining disasters of the period, in both cases many of the victims were mere boys. Wales has gone, it would seem, from being a sacrifice zone of Victorian Britain, its youth cast into the maw of industrial extraction, to a science-fiction-worthy leader in intergenerational climate justice.

The resemblance between the Future Generations Act and The Ministry for the Future suggests fiction and culture’s central role in environmental politics, but this role is not new, and can be traced back to the era that saw the beginning of our addiction to fossil fuels. The first nation in the world to transition to an extraction-based economy, Britain was also the first to confront the consequences of rampant mineral resource extraction. The confrontation happened in part through narrative literature, as I discuss in my 2021 book Extraction Ecologies and the Literature of the Long Exhaustion. Focusing on the period from the 1830s, a decisive decade in the transition from water power to coal-fired steam power in British industry, to the 1930s, when the early promise of nuclear power seemed to suggest the possibility of moving beyond fossil fuels, Extraction Ecologies shows how this era’s literature expressed fears of resource exhaustion and imagined new horizons of futurity. Across the British Empire, it was slowly settling in that modern Britain had become utterly dependent on finite stores of underground minerals; these stores were difficult and dangerous to mine and the cause of environmental damage and pollution, and they also threatened to run out. Like the old joke about a restaurant with terrible food and portions so small, it was hard to say which was worse: life under coal or life without coal. Literature was a key site for asking such questions and for developing new ways of thinking and talking about extraction-based life.

My book is divided into three sections, each concerned with a central concept that transformed under extractivism: time, space, and energy. The time section explores provincial realist novels set against exhausted or soon-to-be-exhausted mines, including Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854), Fanny Mayne’s Jane Rutherford; Or, the Mining Strike (1854), George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860), Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo (1904), and D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913). The space section turns to adventure fiction set in Latin America and Africa, two primary resource frontiers of the British Empire, focusing on Mary Seacole’s Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (1857), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and Montezuma’s Daughter (1893), and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). The last section explores this era’s boom in speculative fiction and genres and discusses Edward Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s “Sultana’s Dream” (1905), and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937).

Nitroglycerine advertisement in The Mining Journal, 4 January 1868.

Many works of fiction today perform a similar discursive role as these texts under different environmental circumstances, providing, for example, ways of thinking and talking about climate change – the ultimate outcome of that 1830s transition to fossil fuels – and imagining potential solutions. In The Ministry for the Future, for example, one character tries to create “situations where generations to come were given legal standing,” while another promotes travel by blimp rather than airplane. Does imagining such possible solutions really help them come about? Can literature or literary studies contribute to the remediation of such a massive problem? These questions, too, are at stake in Robinson’s novel: “Words are gossamer in a world of granite.” That world of granite, my book suggests, was built in the nineteenth century, when new mining technologies made even the hardest of rocks newly malleable. As a nitroglycerine advertisement in the 4 January 1868 issue of London’s Mining Journal put it, “The EXPLOSIVE FORCE of this BLASTING OIL is TEN TIMES that of gunpowder, and the ECONOMY and SAVING in TIME, LABOUR, and COST in removing granite and hard rock … is immense.” Granite is, in fact, one of many materials that continue to be mined in Britain today, especially Cornwall and Devon, and Tower Bridge, that great symbol of London, is clad in Cornish granite. So Britain’s peripheries, both internal and external, have traditionally supplied the material base of imperial power.

Wales’s recent legislation emerges in part from its history as a key mining periphery for industrial Britain that was once blanketed with mines and that has in recent decades struggled with post-industrial decline as well as land and water contamination. As the Wales Environmental Agency writes of the nineteenth century, “this long period of industrial activity has resulted in an indelible mark left on the landscape.” Industrial extraction left its mark on the cultural and literary landscape, too, by way of new genres, new literary forms, and new plots, tropes, and settings that express, when read together, a profound disquiet at the emergence of a new economy and new society premised on the extraction of finite materials. My book uses the phrase “the long exhaustion” to draw a connection between the depletion-based society that emerged in the nineteenth century, premised on what were understood to be finite underground resources, and the depletion-based society we inhabit today, premised on the use of fossil fuels that are producing an inhospitable climate for future generations. Resource exhaustion did not turn out to be the fatal flaw of fossil-fueled industrialism that many predicted, but it did occasion early reflection on the unsustainability of this mode of ecological relations.


Elizabeth Carolyn Miller is a professor at the University of California, Davis, where she teaches classes for the English Department and the Environmental Humanities program. Her third book, Extraction Ecologies and the Literature of the Long Exhaustion (Princeton, 2021), was a co-winner of the 2022 Stansky Book Prize from the North American Conference on British Studies. It also received Honorable Mention for the Ecocriticism Book Award from the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment and was named a Choice Outstanding Academic Title of the Year. Her previous books are Slow Print: Literary Radicalism and Late Victorian Print Culture (Stanford, 2013) and Framed: The New Woman Criminal in British Culture at the Fin de Siècle (Michigan, 2008), and she also edited the first fully annotated edition of George Bernard Shaw's Major Political Writings (Oxford, 2021). Her scholarship has been supported by fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies.


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