Critics of fin-de-siècle literature and culture have long associated this period with devolution and decline, and with a newly pessimistic vision of the future that starkly opposed the Victorian doctrine of progress. While the origins of this philosophical turn are various and have economic, religious, and geopolitical dimensions, recent critics of the fin de siècle have begun to connect the era’s melancholy atmosphere with the environmental changes wrought by the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution–changes that emerged by the end of the period as both irreversible and profound.
The British Empire in the nineteenth century, newly powered by steam, engaged in a global terraforming project on an unprecedented scale. Mines, railways, factory pollution, and the extractive industries of global empire left marks on the earth that told a story of extreme social and environmental change over the course of mere decades. Many thinkers at the time understood how these social and environmental changes were intertwined, and how the decline of nature also portended the decline of the human. John Ruskin’s The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (1884), for example, diagnosed the gloomy skies of industrial England as a consequence of “poisonous smoke” rising from “furnace chimneys,” but also an ominous sign of human finitude: “dead men’s souls.” In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Britain was the first nation to transition to a coal-fired economy, which accelerated production and fast-tracked the imperial project, but by the end of the century, economic and political woes intermingled with new fears about the finitude of Earth’s resources, voiced by political economics such as William Stanley Jevons in The Coal Question (1865). The fin de siècle thus foretold not only the decline of British Empire, but ultimately the decline of human civilization.