I just finished George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier. I wanted to track down the passage about mining and the “metabolism” of civilization that Shefa Siegel refers to in his essay on “The Missing Ethics of Mining” (which I quoted at length in a previous post). It comes early in the book, at the start of chapter two:
Our civilization, pace Chesterton, is founded on coal, more completely than one realizes until one stops to think about it. The machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make the machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western world the coal miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil. He is a sort of grimy caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported. For this reason the actual process by which coal is extracted is well worth watching, if you get the chance and are willing to take the trouble.
There is some uncertainty about the reference to Chesterton here. The editors of one anthology point to a debate about coal mining between Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw. Mark Bernstein and Scott Rosenberg trace the reference to Chesterton’s assertion that civilization “is founded upon abstractions”. I like this better. Pace Chesterton, Orwell anchors civilization in the dark rock world below — the “necessary counterpart of our world above” — and in the hard work of the miners he witnesses: the stooping, the “travelling,” the dust, the deafening noise and the grimy air, the excruciating shovel work at the coal face, which the miners or “fillers” perform kneeling, and in hot, stuffy, dirty cramped spaces, stripped to the waist, sometimes down to their drawers, for 7 hours at a stretch.
Of course what Orwell wrote of coal in the 1930s could now easily be said of oil and gas, and, as Siegel would have it, many minerals as well — minerals we do not see or even give a moment’s thought, but which, like oil and gas, are extracted from the earth (and now, with rare earth metals, from the sea-bottom) at great hazard and great cost. The metabolism of the world (now the whole world, not just the West) has changed, as well as the materials that we now require to keep things up and running. That’s largely because things have changed.
That ordinary expression deserves some careful consideration. It’s safe to say that, although things have changed, we are, for the most part, blithely unaware of the hard, dirty world on which the things that make up our world depend. Or at least we prefer to act as if we are.
We still tend to believe, or I should say we would like to believe that that which does not appear grimy somehow comes into the world clean, the outcome of a great idea, the product of abstraction or an innovative approach, a flash of insight drawn on a cocktail napkin. That belief in the power of great ideas to make up the things of this world makes us especially ill equipped and nowhere near ready to deal with the increasing scarcity of the resources on which the shiny, fast world of things depends.