By Jack Shemanski
The modern world in which we live is littered, both literally and figuratively, with objects that represent the current geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Humanity has shaped the world in such profound and diverse ways for such an extended period of time that there-there is truly no limit to the range of these objects. Often times, they either represent or are direct byproducts of humankind’s exceptional technological growth. In examining the history of human-built structures, the evolution of bridge technology stands out as representative of humanity’s technological acceleration post-European industrialism. The Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883, marked the beginning of a new age of human innovation as the first suspension bridge ever constructed using steel cables. Spanning New York’s East River, it was the first structure to connect Brooklyn to Manhattan, and at the time of its construction, no suspension bridge in the world covered such a great distance. Even today, engineers and historians around the world revere it as a powerful work of art and a truly transformative feat of engineering and technological innovation, making it a very fitting object of the Anthropocene. The Brooklyn Bridge symbolizes two relationships crucial to the Anthropocene: the severely disconnected human-nature relationship, and the world political economy that perpetuates the Capitalocene.
By 1790, just 14 years after the nation’s creation, New York had already become the most populous city in the United States. Ever since the turn of the 19th Century, politicians, engineers, and civilians had been talking about the creation of a bridge of monumental stature soaring high above the East River. For years on end proposals for an East River bridge flooded the public sphere only to be rejected, for two problems persisted. First, the river was one of the busiest stretches of salt water anywhere on earth, and a structure needed to be built that allowed the masts of ships to pass beneath it. This meant that there was no room for piers in the middle of the waterway, the bridge had to be a complete span of the river. This fact created a second daunting challenge, as the East River, in terms of its width, is more like a small lake than a river. No bridge in the world had traversed such a great distance without the use of continuous piers supporting its structure. Skeptics asserted that a body of water so wide simply could not be spanned by such a structure. The prevailing sentiment among these critics was that humanity could not break free from the natural constraints of the earth, that nature would reign supreme in the end. In the late 1860s, the technological and construction innovation of John Roebling in his design of the Brooklyn Bridge proved them wrong.
In the comprehensive document titled “Report of the Chief Engineer of the New York and Brooklyn Bridge”, published in 1870, Roebling wrote to the directors of the New York Bridge Company outlining his ambitious design proposal for the Brooklyn Bridge. Within this report, he described the cutting edge technologies and engineering methods that he would implement in order to successfully construct this seemingly impossible bridge. Two identical towers, 268 feet tall, would stand in the water close to shore on either side of the river, offsetting the pull of four massive suspension cables. As such, the main foundational elements for these towers, and therefore the bridge, would be constructed almost entirely underwater. Foundations were built by submerging two massive air-pressurized wooden boxes (caissons) to the bottom of the river. Workers would then enter the pressurized caissons and excavate sediment until the desired elevation was achieved in order to fill the structure with concrete and masonry piers, the anchors of the bridge. In addition, the use of steel for the suspension cables instead of the more traditional iron was a significant technological advance in Roebling’s design. Conglomerates of steel wire formed four 11-inch diameter steel cables, increasing the overall efficiency of the structure and ultimately playing a crucial role in the bridge’s ability to span the East River. The foundations and steel cables are only two examples of the many revolutionary engineering solutions employed by Roebling in his successful attempt to conquer the East River.
By taking a closer look at the technologies used in the design and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, we uncover anthropogenic themes such as humanity’s technological dominance and control of nature as well as the idea of Cartesian Dualism as it relates to the separation of nature and man. The former is easily observable, as the progression of industry and technology in the late 1800’s allowed for the construction of a bridge that overcame a substantial natural barrier. Furthermore, we see humans utilize the ability to temporarily control natural domains, as is the case with underwater caisson construction. The second idea of Cartesian Dualism is slightly more nuanced. Along with the overt domination of it, there is also an underlying degradation of nature associated with the infrastructure dependent world that is represented by the Brooklyn Bridge. The more we construct using materials such as steel and concrete, the greater and longer-lasting impact we make on the earth’s geology through the introduction of ‘techno-fossils’, human-made geological artifacts that will outlast many living organisms on earth. Materials such as steel are produced from iron ore, whose extraction from the earth can create physical disturbances and contamination in the air, soil, and water surrounding mining sites. This degradation is representative of the extreme disconnect in the relationship between humanity and nature, as we see our tendency to prioritize our own needs (i.e., efficiently crossing the East River) above the well-being of the environment. This is the idea of dualism, that humanity breaks free from nature throughout the course of history, typically as increasing applications of technology and industry allow us to rule over it.
Nuanced narratives of the Anthropocene often help us understand it through a different historical lens. One such narrative is the ‘Capitalocene’, wherein capitalism creates a set of relationships integrating power, money, and nature, usually leading to environmental and even societal degradation. To uncover the Capitalocene narrative invoked by the Brooklyn Bridge, we can return to the very first problem that McCullough identifies with its construction. In justifying the bridge’s height requirement, he asserts that the East River was one of the busiest stretches of navigable salt water on earth, due to New York’s large role in the U.S. world trade system. The Capitalocene emphasizes the interconnectedness of the world’s political (profit-driven) economy as the main causal force of the Anthropocene. This idea of global connectivity prevailed once the bridge had been completed. The existing sea channel along with the addition of a land-based rail network traveling across the bridge helped shape 1) the role of New York as a port city and 2) the United States’ role as a major player in the world capitalist system. On a local level, it aided in the industrial expansion of both boroughs, but the less developed Brooklyn experienced a more ‘capitalogenic’ revolution. Now much easier to access, property value in Brooklyn soared and land that was previously dedicated to corn patches was now commoditized. In essence, the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge accelerated New York’s transformation into a booming metropolis, acting as the epicenter of industry, wealth, and transcontinental trade within the United States. In Robert Lipsey’s “US Foreign Trade and the Balance of Payments 1800-1913,” he shows that between 1800 and 1900, the United States’ percentage of worldwide exports increased from 3 to 15%, a 12% jump, while the percent of US population in terms of the world only increased by about 4% in the same time. These statistics reveal a correlation between the nation’s overseas economic involvement and the increase in domestic infrastructure. As their capacity to transport goods increased internally, the United States realized the opportunity for profit by means of exporting in the world market.
But what exactly is the problem with this profit-maximizing world economy? As a Capitalocene supporter would argue, the world system based on profit maximization promotes cheapness, a strategy that mobilizes work at the lowest possible cost, an idea conceived by Raj Patel and Jason Moore. As I described previously, the construction of the bridge cheapened nature itself due to the extraction of raw materials from the earth as well as the fundamental geological changes that it generated. Two other forms of cheapness particularly relevant to the story of the Brooklyn Bridge are ‘cheap labor’ and ‘cheap lives’. In the construction industry, like any industry within capitalism, the goal is to complete a job ahead of schedule and under budget so as to maximize the net amount of money retained. In pursuit of this goal, the New York Bridge Company employed cheap laborers and cut costs on various safety measures. For example, workers who spent time in the pressurized caissons often experienced decompression sickness as a result of the formation of nitrogen bubbles in the bloodstream. Men also rarely used harnesses when working at extreme heights suspended above the East River. Between decompression sickness and falls from high elevations, an estimated 27 men died during the construction of the bridge. As a result, the perceived communal gain of the bridge and its function was offset by the loss of life which contributed to familial and communal degradation. By mobilizing work and safety measures at the lowest cost possible in order to reap monetary reward, the bridge company succeeded in materializing the arguments of the Capitalocene narrative, cheapening both labor and lives.
The Brooklyn Bridge serves as a practical object to describe the Anthropocene because it does two things well: reveals to us the inherent human-nature divide associated with climate change and provides the opportunity to examine the Anthropocene on a more complex historical level through the Capitalocene narrative. We can use both of these themes to help us better understand how we arrived in our current state as well as how to live within it today. In terms of living in the Anthropocene, my main goal is to encourage you, the reader, to view unconventional objects in a new light that is reflective of the human age. So, stop and look around you, recognizing that the infrastructure which surrounds you was built for the purpose of maximizing profit, degrading human lives and nature in the process. Recognize that the building you are sitting in will have geological implications long after you are gone, and maybe even after the human species have perished. In doing so, you may come to realize just how much we have fundamentally altered the earth.
“How can metal mining impact the environment?” American Geosciences Institute. Accessed 18 April 2019.https://www.americangeosciences.org/critical-issues/faq/how-can-metal-mining-impact-environment
Lipsey, Robert E. “US Foreign Trade and the Balance of Payments 1800-1913.” National Bureau of Economic Research. April 1994. Accessed 22 April 2019. https://www.nber.org/papers/w4710.pdf
Mccollough, David. The Great Bridge. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.
Patel, Raj and Moore, Jacon, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. University of California Press, 2017.
Roebling, John. Report of the Chief Engineer of the New York and Brooklyn Bridge. Brooklyn: Eagle Book and Job Printing Department, 1870. Etext from UW-Madison Engineering Library.
Roebling, John. Brooklyn Bridge Plan. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, New York, 1869.