The Wall Street Journal Confronts Human Empire

The Wall Street Journal Online took notice of The Triumph of Human Empire in a review by distinguished environmental historian J.R. McNeill (Jan. 9, 2014):

McNeill points out how many of us enjoyed these writers’ works as children: “Millions of people had their ideas about technology, nature and the human condition influenced by these men.” Reading them as adults, we can also see “how seriously they grappled with the problems of their day.” Their seriousness, however, does not get in their way of telling a good story. “If Ms. Williams introduces one more reader to the remarkable worlds of Morris’s ‘News from Nowhere’ or Verne’s ‘Invasion of the Sea,’ that is justification enough for her insightful book.” (I would add one more title to McNeill’s list: Stevenson’s ‘The Ebb-Tide,’ as compact and grim and memorable as Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness,’ but even better.)

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A Book of the Year

That’s the judgment of The Economist.  I am pleased that it lists The Triumph of Human Empire among the best writing of 2013 in its “science and technology” category, with this citation:

“A magnificent attempt to recapture the sense, so prevalent at the end of the 19th century, that the world was finished, explored and done. The responses of the three creative men on whom Rosalind Williams focuses have strong resonances for anyone who worries about today’s Anthropocene era.”


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Age of the Anthropocene or Human Empire?

One of the current terms for describing the contemporary world is “the Age of the Anthropocene,” meaning the” age of man” as a new geological age based on an unprecedented human ability to alter the planet.  It is a useful and striking term, but I have always felt its shortcoming is that it reduces human history to a phase of natural history.  Human domination of the globe is also a phase of human history and needs to be examined and understood in this dimension too. This point was made in a terrific review of The Triumph of Human Empire that appeared yesterday in Times Higher Education.

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Cold War, Hot Planet

Today, along with every American of my generation, I turned my lonely eyes to Dallas, then to Arlington National Cemetery, and then to the void.  What went to the grave with Kennedy that is still missing a half century later?

The usual answers involve hope, dreams, idealism. You hear them in Kennedy’s 1963 commencement address at American University, where he denounces the  “dangerous, defeatist belief…that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.” He went on to declare, “We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”

Soaring rhetoric, indeed—but Kennedy immediately brings it back to earth.  He tells his audience that he is not talking about an  “absolute, infinite concept of universal peace and good will.”  Instead, “Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions — on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned.”

Towards the end of the speech, Kennedy presents such a concrete proposal, for a ban on the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. The treaty was ratified in early October 1963, six weeks before his murder.

It’s hard to be more pragmatic than that.  What is missing today is not Kennedy’s idealism: in fact, much of today’s political gridlock has been caused by too many ideals, defined as absolute and infinite.  What is missing is the conviction that history provides a medium for human action, a place for humans to work out human destiny.

“No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”  When I read these words to my undergraduate class yesterday, I had to admit that I wasn’t sure I really believe them—but I am sure that if we don’t believe something like them, then we are doomed.  This is an existential belief: one you decide to live by, not that you can prove through logic.

What’s missing in our civic life is an existential belief in history. Its absence becomes evident when you read Kennedy’s words—in the 1963 commencement address, in his inaugural address, in his nomination acceptance speech, among many others—where he repeatedly appeals to the lessons of history and the unchanging founding principles of American history.  He is also deeply aware of the radical change in history with the advent of nuclear weapons.

For Kennedy, nuclear weapons are Historical Exhibit A of forces that grip humanity in a sense of doom, because, while human-made, they seem beyond human capacity to control.  Today, the prime exhibit is climate change—also a human-generated problem, also one threatening life on the planet, also seeming beyond control. Nuclear arms and climate change both result from technological prowess unmastered by historical prowess. So unmastered, technological prowess feels like Fate, dooming humankind.

History has to master technology, not the other way around. Yet Kennedy’s own death began a decline in belief that history provides a reasonable field for action.  His assassination mocks this conviction. Now and then, this event is senseless, random, inexplicable, terrifyingly ambiguous.  How can you work with history when it kicks you down and drags you to a meaningless dead end?

Kennedy would say: an early grave was my fate, but it does not mean that mankind is ruled by Fate. “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.” History can work. Make it work. Get to work.

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Radio Boston (NPR) interview

A conversation about the end of the world and why writers are the ones to go to for understanding why it is here


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A Rave Review

From The Telegraph in the UK:  “A literary history of progress, change and watery utopias is one of the most fascinating books of the year, says Philip Hoare”:

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Brief summary of new book

Here is a quick but thoughtful summary of The Triumph of Human Empire, thanks to Peter Dizikes of MIT News.


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A very happy day

Why the big smile?

Da Vinci medal, Society for the History of Technology

Da Vinci medal, Society for the History of Technology

For being awarded the da Vinci medal (more or less a lifetime achievement award) from the Society for the History of Technology (October 12, 2013).

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Introduction: A Podcast Conversation

Introduction: A Conversation with Leo Marx, Lucy Marx, Rosalind Williams


Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts

17 April 2013

35 minutes


Leo Marx’s seminal book The Machine in the Garden was published in 1964. (A 50th anniversary celebration will be held at MIT on November 8, co-sponsored by the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and the Oxford University Press.) This book was the reason I looked up Leo in 1972, when he was teaching at Amherst College, where my husband had a postdoc. Leo and I reconnected in 1980, after he had joined the faculty of the STS Program, when I applied for a postdoc there.

For the subsequent three decades (plus), Leo and I have been colleagues and friends. For the last decade, we have regularly lunched together. In the past few years, his daughter Lucy often joins us: she also teaches at MIT, in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies (recently renamed Comparative Media Studies). Our favorite lunchtime topics are family, friends and colleagues, sports, art, and politics, as well as current reading and writing.

This podcast records one of those lunchtime conversations, at Leo’s home in Jamaica Plain in mid-April 2013. Leo had recently read the page proofs of my book, and I wanted to get his response to it. Lucy had also read the proofs and kindly agreed to serve as moderator. She defined the leading questions that launched the conversation and she kept nudging us back to them.

As a result this conversation is similar in tone but considerably more focused than our usual lunchtime rambles. Focused but not formal: you will hear the clanking of dishes in the background.

I am grateful to Leo for agreeing to record our conversation; to Lucy, for organizing and guiding it; to Owen Williams, for suggesting this in the first place and providing technical support; and to C.M. Harrington who did the editing.

Show Notes

00:00 The podcast begins with Lucy Marx providing an overview of common themes in Leo’s book The Machine in the Garden (published in 1964 by the Oxford University Press) and my book The Triumph of Human Empire (University of Chicago Press, September 30, 2013). The Machine in the Garden has never been out of print.

00:30 onward
Throughout there are references to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. These are editions Leo and I have often used in our teaching:
Also mentioned is Thoreau’s Journal, which he kept from 1837 to 1861—a much less accessible work, since it runs about 7000 pages. Most readers would prefer to begin with one of the one-volume selections on the market. This is one that is especially inclusive.

William Morris kept a diary of his treks in Iceland that is brief and enjoyable reading.

The comment to Leo that he also knows the South Pacific refers to his years there serving with the US Navy on a sub chaser during World War II.

Two non-fiction works of Robert Louis Stevenson about the South Seas—which show his efforts to understand this quickly disappearing world—are In the South Seas and A Footnote To History.

His fictional work echoes the same experiences and themes.

Of this collection I especially recommend “The Ebb-Tide,” so similar in many ways to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” – only in this case the darkness is found on the islands of the South Pacific.

For an example of Jules Verne’s grim views of what is typically called Progress, see his recently published fantasy Paris in the Twentieth Century (which ends with the city in the grips of devastating climate change).

The podcast could well end here. What follows is a sort of coda, a too-brief and –inconclusive discussion of science and literature that could well lead to another lunch conversation altogether.

End: 38:35

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Why Morris?

Thank you for that question, Maddy!

Summer day, sandwiches on the deck, chit chat, during which my friend Maddy asks: “I’ve heard of Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson, but not William Morris. What is he doing in your book?”

“Very good question! Thank you for asking!”  In this case, I really mean it. Here is more or less how I responded:

Verne and Stevenson are well known because nothing has the lasting power of a good story. They wrote yarns that were best-sellers in their day and still are. Even if you have never read Verne’s 20000 Leagues under the Sea or Around in the World in 80 Days, you have heard of them and have some idea of the plot from the titles. It’s the same with Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

William Morris was famous in his own day as a writer, but it was as author of a long narrative poem titled The Earthly Paradise. He was a serious contender for Poet Laureate of the realm mainly on the basis of this work.  But hardly anyone reads long poems anymore, and even English majors rarely read this one.

Instead, Morris lives on as a writer indirectly through the work of others. He was a folklorist who retrieved and reworked tales from many times and places, becoming especially fond of Norse sagas. After many experiments working with these raw materials, he invented a new prose form, which we now call fantasy.  He wanted to tell of heroic quests that require core human virtues, especially courage, but that had become difficult or impossible to carry out on the planet as we know it.

Some of Morris’s fantasy novels still attract readers (especially The Well at the World’s End), but their loose plots and archaic language make them tough going for many.  Even if they are not best-sellers, however, they have been an enormous influence on later writers–most notably J.R.R. Tolkien in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Morris’s invention of fantasy adventures has swept the world in the form of books, movies, and games.

In a second way Morris’s work is all around us in unrecognized form: his work as a designer of household furnishings and domestic art. When Maddy asked “Why Morris?”, I answered in part by taking her to a bedroom in our house decorated with Morris-designed wallpaper:

   Morris wallpaper

The design is old but the wallpaper is relatively new. The firm that Morris founded to produce such goods went out of business only at the beginning of World War II;  his patterns for wallpaper, fabrics, and other domestic goods are still being made by other manufacturers.  I also took Maddy to our sun room to see the “Morris chair” there, probably made in the 1880s, and coming to me from my grandparents’ house.  It is what we would now call a reclining chair, using a simple but effective movable bar to adjust the tilt of the back:

Morris chair detail

Morris chair








The usual way of describing Morris as a designer is to say he is the inventor of functionalism, the concept that beauty emerges from utility.  In this general sense his principles of design have long since overflowed their original cultural home of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late l9th century. They are just as relevant for the design of electronic gadgets as for that of household furnishings.

Even more important, though, is Morris’s conviction that beauty and utility depend upon the joy of the workman in his labor. Unless making things engaged human creativity and gave a sense of purpose, they were not worth making.

This conviction–that the needs of producers are paramount–led Morris to become a revolutionary socialist–and in the process invented an entirely new kind of socialism.  He defined the needs of the producers not primarily by material measures, but by the soul-satisfaction they found in their work.  He treasured the beauty of the visible landscape and the vitality of the non-human world at a time when these qualities were hardly registered by other socialists. When they accused him of “sentimentalism,” Morris responded that he was indeed a “sentimental socialist” and proud of it.

I wrapped up my answer to Maddy by saying that it is the combination of these three accomplishments—inventor of fantasy, of functional design, and of a new kind of politics–that gives Morris a place of honor in my book.  Thinking about it more since, I realize that what most intrigues me about Morris is not how these three creative contributions converged in his life, but how they do not.  His moral sensibilities contradict each other from beginning to end.

Morris hates the way human weaknesses and failings have overrun the world.  He is convinced that the triumph of human empire is profoundly wrong, in the fantasy literature sense of wrongness. Yet he also wants to be realistic, to face the facts, to avoid evasion. He  is convinced that what he cares about most–attachments to the deep human past and to the non-human life of the earth–are being lost, rapidly and irretrievably. He will lose. Yet he wants to find happiness in the world.  It is too wide and wonderful a place to dwell in misery, and yet happiness becomes more difficult to find as humankind more and more dominates the world.

How does one hold on to all these convictions at once? This is the question Morris raises and that we continue to live with today.  Good question.  Thanks for asking.

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