By August McGinnity-Wake
The Industrial Revolution is considered one of the strongest contenders for the potential onset of the Anthropocene, and for good reason. The emergence of big industry and the social, economic, and environmental implications which accompanied it were hugely consequential to people and the earth. One of the most dynamic industries to come out of the Industrial Revolution was the steel industry. Both the production and application of steel can be used to define the Anthropocene. In its production, the environmental impacts of mining the minerals needed to produce steel and the subsequent amalgamation process brings with it another set of environmental degradation. After the production, steel is applied for myriad uses—such as building materials for massive shipping vessels and airplanes—all of which are marvels of technology and are evidence of human domination around the earth. In addition to the production and application, the steel industry is intimately linked to the Anthropocene spin-off idea of the “Capitalocene,” in which the capitalistic economic system spurs humans’ profit-driven relationship to and treatment of the earth. Finally, the story of steel is centrally told with an eye towards human exceptionalism, the idea that humans are different from other organisms and our problems can be solved by human ingenuity and technology. All of these social, economic, and environmental implications of steel make it a representative object of the Anthropocene.
In simplest terms, steel is made by superheating iron ore to remove the presence of carbon and other irregularities. The production of steel really began in the Middle Ages during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. From this time until the Industrial Revolution, this was a time-consuming, laborious, and inefficient process. Superheating the iron ore was rare because it was supremely difficult to heat up a fire to the necessary temperatures. More often, skilled metallurgy would manually pound out the carbon. Not surprisingly, steel was not widely used. Steel, like iron, was a resource principally reserved for the rich and powerful. While notably a Eurocentric narrative, the entire first chapter of Thomas Southcliffe Ashton’s account of iron and steel production in the centuries leading up to the 1800s is a laundry list of Earls, Dukes, and Lords forcing mining and amalgamation of iron for their own benefit.
Enter Henry Bessemer, an English inventor who propelled the steel industry into one of the most consequential industries of the Industrial Revolution with huge implications for how we live today in the Anthropocene. In 1856, Bessemer invented what he called the converter. His new invention would heat iron ore in a vat and blast cold air beneath the ore, which spurred a chemical reaction superheating the iron ore, drawing out the carbon, and essentially making steel. Bessemer’s invention caused an explosion in steel production and access to the magic metal. The Industrial Revolution caused the entire economic system in the United States and Western Europe to transform. It caused the rise of big industry and big capitalists, both drivers in the advent of the “Capitalocene,” the rise of market economies in which our capitalist economy dominates our political and environmental world, as well. Labor and resources are both exploited as fictitious commodities—things which are treated as commodities by the market but are not, as they are not produced for the market—and companies/employers only process things with profit blinders on. The Capitalocene relates to the Anthropocene as its basis is entirely Anthropogenic: it is an interpretation of the way we humans relate to the environment around us. In many ways, it is a result of the understanding of labor relationships of the steel industry. A 1936 pamphlet published by the American Iron and Steel Institute sums up this relationship bluntly: “Labor seeks a wage. Management seeks a salary. Capital seeks return on its investment.”
Big capitalists reigned in the early decades of the Industrial Revolution and mass steel production. The story of steel and its relation to the Anthropocene would not be complete without Andrew Carnegie, also known as “The Prince of Steel.” Carnegie began investing in steel in the 1850s; he saw it as the future and he proved his prescience. Carnegie is the single person most responsible for the spread of steel. He built his production comprehensively, carving out a monopoly on all aspects of steel for himself. This monopoly, along with monopolies in other big capitalist industries of the time by names like Rockefeller and Morgan, was unprecedented in scale. It was “highly publicized…[and] caused some anxiety,” for both the American public and the American government. Even in academia, these monopolies were met with unease. In 1901, Edward Sherwood Meade published a paper about the U.S. Steel Corporation calling company consolidations of the time, “industrial experiments.” However, with his monopoly, Carnegie was able to keep costs low and production high. His company, the Carnegie Steel Company, became one of the largest and most lucrative in the world. His company embodied the concept of the Capitalocene. The labor of workers in his company was almost always taken for granted. Ironically, as technology got better, production got less safe. Nevertheless, wages remained stagnant. Carnegie found himself at the center of multiple labor disputes, particularly a nasty dispute in 1890 in the steel town of Homestead, PA, which resulted in multiple deaths. Through all of this, Carnegie’s profit and personal wealth only continued to grow. Labor disputes in the steel industry continued long after Carnegie’s time and display the continuation of Capitalocene labor relationships. Just one example is a 1959 pamphlet put out by the United Steelworkers of America railing against the steel industry for telling workers to “tighten their belts and be happy with wages.” The explanation given by the steel industry that foreign competition was forcing wages to stay low was called out by the Union as a “hoax” and a “fraud.”
The environmental impacts of mass steel production are just as consequential as the economic and social impacts. The aforementioned town of Homestead was similar to many other steel towns of the day, with its smoggy air and high rates of disease among residents. These steel plant towns’ chemical emissions from the plant would spew into the air. Pleurisy, a lung disease, was especially common. Naturally, respiratory diseases were also common in areas where the iron ore for steel was mined out of the earth. Of course, mines come with their own set of environmental degradations, from groundwater contamination to erosion issues. Recently, some parts of the steel industry have finally recognized and begun working to take action against the environmental impacts of their industry. A 2004 report from the International Iron and Steel Institute on their sustainability efforts acknowledged the necessity for the steel industry to develop sustainably in a way, “aimed at improving the quality of life for everyone, now and for generations to come.”
Steel is not only consequential in its production. It is consequential in its application, as well. Everything from food cans (which were a massive new industry involving steel during WWI) to mammoth steel beams, which are used to build skyscrapers of the modern skyline rely on steel. Andrew Carnegie himself invented a steel beam design that allowed the weight of building to be distributed evenly through walls. The modern Western city would not be possible without wide application of steel. This is summed up to near perfection in the 1936 pamphlet from the American Iron and Steel Institute:
A child born this year will soon gaze upon the Empire State Building in New York and believe that houses of more than one hundred stories have always existed. The young man of today rides in his automobile and does not realize that not so long ago men walked miles to their work. The young housewife turns on the tap in the kitchen for her running water and does not realize that in many parts of the world women still go several hundred feet to a well or spring for water.
The history of steel is intimately linked with a human progress/human exceptionalism narrative. This narrative leans on the idea of human ingenuity and the ability of our technology to solve all of our problems. Nevertheless, steel encompasses much of the attitude of our capitalist society: a constant march of growth and “progress,” as also evidenced very well by the above quote from the 1936 pamphlet describing the marvels of modern society through human technology. Today, the steel industry maintains this narrative of unending progress and pomp and circumstance. The 2004 pamphlet released by the International Iron and Steel Institute asserts steel is, “critical to the functioning of society,” and a material which is both, “truly versatile,” and “ever-evolving.” The idea displayed here is the constant evolution and advancement of steel technologies is driving advancement of society forward.
Steel has aided in many different elements we consider important today to our interpretation of the Anthropocene. The obvious environmental impacts of production have caused environmental degradation, the economic implications of the Capitalocene and rise of market economies (along with tycoons like Andrew Carnegie), and the social implications present with the use of big industry wage labor have all sprouted from the steel industry in one way or another. Despite all of these issues with the industry, steel has maintained a narrative of constant human progress and a technology to be utilized to solve all of our problems, which is evidence of the Anthropogenic human exceptionalism concept present in the steel industry. We would not be living in the Anthropocene we know today without the consequences of steel.
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Mydans, Carl. Unpaved street near Weirton Steel Mill. 1937. Photograph. National
Museum of American History, Washington D.C.