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Urban air pollution and The Country and the City

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Building from Raymond Williams' The Country and the City, this article examines the uses of urban smoke pollution as a symbol of the city, in particular of London. It argues that authors in early modern Britain used smoke as a metaphor for urban life, whether they found that life to be characterised by greed and ambition or by sophistication and politeness. Because London burned a significant amount of mineral coal during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, its uniquely smoky skies allowed air pollution to symbolise the city and its people, manners and style. The city was, as Williams argued, the indispensable counterpart to the country, and was often represented as abounding in the work that had been so carefully evacuated from writing about country life. Coal smoke helped define the city as the opposite of the country, as an unnatural space of care and of labour.
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Keywords: London; Raymond Williams; coal; pollution; smoke; urbanisation

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: April 1, 2016

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  • The half-yearly journal Global Environment: A Journal of History and Natural and Social Sciences acts as a forum and echo chamber for ongoing studies on the environment and world history, with special focus on modern and contemporary topics. Our intent is to gather and stimulate scholarship that, despite a diversity of approaches and themes, shares an environmental perspective on world history in its various facets, including economic development, social relations, production government, and international relations.
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