A great silence? The everyday politics of smoke in the age of coal: Ghent (1780-1880). 01/10/2022 - 30/09/2025

Abstract

The transition to fossil energy looms large in economic and environmental history. Ghent – the first industrial city on the European mainland – was quick to embrace coal as a new source of energy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The fossil fuel may have brought great wealth but its combustion also produced heavy environmental stress. How could such a heavily polluting fuel be implemented so easily in densely populated cities? The need for cheap coal for the labouring poor, the greedy manufacturer and the bourgeois consumer ran counter to civil sensibilities towards cleanliness and health. The objective of this proposal is to study how governments and citizens of the early industrial city dealt with the 'Faustian bargain' of coal as a source of both economic prosperity and environmental disaster. The 'everyday politics of smoke' is used here as a perspective to grasp the divergent motives of different interest groups in their daily struggle with coal and pollution: how, why and by whom was the concern for a clean environment balanced against industrial, residential and consumer interests? This research proposal thus seeks to add greater emphasis on the far too neglected role of the political choices and social experiences that were behind energy transitions in the past.

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  • Research Project