Géopolitique, Réseau, Énergie, Environnement, Nature
Cities and Coal: Can We Move Beyond Fossil Hubris?
Issue #4


Issue #4


Charles-François Mathis

Published by the Groupe d'études géopolitiques, with the support of the Fondation de l'École normale supérieure

In his 1877 novel The Child of the Cavern, Jules Verne imagines an unusual city: “Coal City” is located completely underground in a giant coal vein in Scotland. Artificially lit by lamps which probably use electricity produced by the omnipresent fuel source, the city houses the mine’s workers who build their brick cottages around a subterranean lake in a huge cave. Protected from storms above ground, the inhabitants of the strange place live in harmony and good health — with the ending even suggesting that they could live to be centenarians. One man’s madness finally threatens this place with a destructive explosion which is averted at the last moment by the heroine. 

Even if this mediocre novel is not among Jules Verne’s best work, its merit lies in the fact that “Coal City” captures some of the 19th century’s crucial energy issues. How better to describe the structuring power of coal in Victorian urban planning? Does this not already suggest, to use current terminology, that the Anthropocene is an “anglocene”? 1 When thinking about the “fossil crescent”, it’s clear that the United Kingdom under Victoria deserves a special mention, as it is the birthplace of what I refer to as a “coal civilization”, given that this fuel source touched all aspects of English life. 2 This experiment in life and thinking is, in fact, closely linked to the urban phenomenon — the UK was the first nation to see its population become predominantly urban, beginning in 1851. Of course, coal has not been confined to this time or place. In the 19th century, it was more generally part of the “world’s store” 3 and has continued to transform the planet ever since: in 2010, it still accounted for 40% of world electricity production and 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, while its per capita consumption on a global scale has continued to rise since the 19th century. 4 We can therefore consider the effect of coal on cities and whether, beyond the English experience, it has had a much greater impact on their contemporary destiny.

Coal naturally first shaped the places it was extracted from. There is no need to go into detail about the dramatic changes in the landscapes surrounding coalfields, with their distinctive landmarks of headframes, slag heaps, tiles, chimneys, miner’s cottages, and so on. Let us simply be reminded of their progressive expansion. For example, in 1955, in the town of Ince (Lancashire), there were 33 mine shafts covering 80 ha, a slag heap spread over 2.5 ha and 36 disused mines. 5 The Nord-Pas-de-Calais coalfield follows the same pattern, gradually expanding from east to west over the years: in the 1990s, when production came to a halt, it covered 2,400 km2 of the French side, with urban sprawl from Valenciennes to Béthune. 6 In general, the industrial towns situated in or near these coalfields can be described as “Coketowns”, to use the name invented by Dickens in Hard Times in 1854: Le Creusot, Middlesbrough, Essen, Liège, all of which, from the 19th century onwards, conjure images of chimneys belching smoke, pollution, bricks, misery and striking social contrast. 7 The urban form and the experience of these places — whether British, French, Belgian, German, etc. — is therefore new and shaped by the presence of coal. These are new landscapes of energy production that are emerging here — whereas, as Sylvain Allemand suggests, oil and electricity will give rise to landscapes of consumerism (linked to mobility, superstores, etc.) 8

Yet as early as the 19th century, these consumerist landscapes were already taking shape in the United Kingdom, where coal also played a decisive role in shaping towns, regardless of their location, through the way it was used. For example, coal’s presence can be seen in the warehouses that are woven into the urban fabric near river quays or railway terminals, sometimes sprawling across several hectares. It also circulates in highly visible ways, not only between the places it is produced and consumed, but also within cities themselves, leaving traces of its passage on the pavement or in the dust-filled air. It can also be seen in landfills where it accumulates in gigantic heaps, sometimes right in city centers: King’s Cross in London for example. In 1929, the most impressive if these waste heaps — largely made up of coal — was undoubtedly the one at Hornchurch, in Greater London, that was a kilometer long, 500 meters wide, and 270 meters high. Finally, there is the internal organization of homes themselves, which must accommodate the specific requirements of this fuel. First, it needs to be brought into the home: where possible, openings were made in the street at the top of cellar walls (sometimes a hole was made in the pavement, closed by a small cast-iron plate, and passing through the ceiling); failing this, reserves were stored as best as possible, usually under a staircase. The means used to burn it also had to be adapted. Over the course of the 19th century, English hearths were transformed, driven in particular by social reformers concerned about the senseless waste caused by burning in open fireplaces — although they were unable to convince everyone to accept stoves, they at least hoped to improve the calorific efficiency of fireplaces. The same applied to cookstoves, which also underwent transformations wherever possible, often in line with the recommendations made by Count Rumford as early as the end of the 18th century.

Coal also played a role in shaping cities through the way it was experienced — what WJT Mitchell calls “place”, as opposed to the “designed” space that I have just described. 9 The relative invisibility of oil and electricity (except in times of crisis!) have made us forget the physical nature of energy sources — particularly coal — which used to be a part of everyday life. Though not all territories used coal to the same extent as England or certain coal-mining regions, it was nonetheless a common material, encountered and handled frequently, first and foremost by those who burned it in their homes: it had to be retrieved from the cellar or storage, it had to then be placed into the fireplace after clearing out the ashes from previous fires, the fire had to be lit and maintained, the ashes and soot which settled everywhere had to be cleaned from the home, etc. Not to mention the difficulty of using coal cookers! Of course, coal could also be burned in stoves, which was more common in France or Germany for example than in the United Kingdom, where the experience of the open-hearth fireplace was integral to feelings of domestic well-being and the image of “home sweet home”. If it was not used at home, coal could also be encountered in the workplace, whether in businesses equipped with steam engines, in those converting coal into coke or gas, or in those that used it as fuel, such as metalworks.

These life experiences and spatial organizations are unique to England and the handful of places where coal dominated. Without the disappearance of this fuel, these places have been partly transformed by the addition of oil, the use of coal in thermal power stations to produce electricity, and so on. Nevertheless, I believe we must recognize that “coal made it possible to break free from territory” 10 , and that in this sense, it anticipates a more general urban transformation that might be considered as the Anthropocene.

I would therefore like to emphasize a first point that I consider fundamental: coal ushered in the era of mobility, which would be perpetuated and intensified by the pairing of oil and automobiles. The gradual introduction of railroads and steamships (even if the latter initially struggled to gain traction against the advances of sailing ships) set the world in motion. The increased speed and number of journeys considerably altered the experience of life for men and women in the 19th century. Easier transport of goods meant that they could be concentrated in urban centers, and the diversity and increase in consumer goods made them more accessible to all social classes. As for the ever-increasing number of people traveling by train, seeing cities zip past their eyes was dizzying, though they obviously benefited from easier access to cities which were once far away. The way in which cities themselves were organized was also impacted, though the automobile has had an even greater impact; the laying of tracks, the construction of railway stations and the neighborhoods that surround them, the introduction of sometimes long arterial roads leading to them (just think of the great Haussmann thoroughfares leading to the Gare de l’Est, Gare du Nord or Gare du Montparnasse) — these are all legacies of coal. Coal therefore played a decisive, initial role in the transformation and acceleration of the urban metabolism through the expansion of supply areas, increased energy options (coal gas, electricity), the “invention of waste” 11 through organic chemistry, and so on. Beyond the now-familiar dirt and smoke of the locomotive, this is yet another example of how this fuel — albeit indirectly — tangibly shaped the urban experience from the 19th century onwards.

This breaking free is also embodied in the materials used to construct cities which themselves, even today, rely on coal. 12 The bricks that allowed for London’s incredible expansion were made with the most refined coal residues (known as soil) that were mixed with clay, resulting in a synergy that generated vast fortunes, like Dickens’s “Golden Dustman” in Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865). Coal was also used to bake bricks, whose production boomed: from 1 to 4.8 billion a year in England between 1830 and 1907; 1 billion a year in New York alone at the beginning of the 20th century. 13 Metal production also grew out of coal, or more specifically, coke. Of course, wood was still used 14 , but the explosion in production relied on coal; in the United Kingdom alone, cast iron production increased by 65-fold between 1750 and 1850, steel production increased nearly 40-fold between 1870 and 1912 (and more than 90-fold in Germany for the same period). And steel production has only increased (in 2022, China produced more than a billion tons of steel, more than half of global production). 15 Of course, steel is not used only in cities, but in Europe, for example, at least 30% of steel was used in buildings, public projects, and metal structures at the beginning of the 21st century. 16 And, according to the producers themselves, it takes on average between 700 and 800 kg of coal to produce one ton of cast iron. 17 The same is true of cement (and therefore concrete), whose production continues to increase (reaching over 4,000 billion tons worldwide in 2019 18 ) to build roads and buildings, and which also primarily relies on the burning of coal: 84% in 1919 and 65% in 1935 in the USA 19 , for example (and 71% worldwide in 2006, when coal and coke are combined 20 ). In total, according to Jean-Marc Jancovici, 7% of all coal consumed worldwide is used to produce steel, and 4% to produce concrete (and 2/3 to produce electricity 21 ). In this sense, we can say that coal helped to shape contemporary cities, giving them some of their characteristics, in particular a capacity to disconnect from their immediate environment.

This can also be seen in the pollution this fuel creates in the urban environment , daily encounters that also shaped the experience of the contemporary city at its birth and persist in more insidious forms today. I do not feel the need to revisit how certain cities were suffocated by fumes, especially household ones, though sometimes industrial ones too: the great London smog of 1952, with its 8,000 to 12,000 deaths, remains etched in everyone’s memory. Smog has not been limited to British cities; major mining and metal-producing centers have also been victims. One example is the Meuse valley, which in December 1930, as a result of a meteorological phenomenon, was engulfed in sulfurous fumes for several days in a row. These were caused by the burning of coal for the zinc industry and caused severe respiratory problems for thousands of people, of whom around sixty died. 22 In 1973, German director Wolfgang Petersen made a film entitled Smog, which depicted an air quality disaster in the Ruhr region. At first, the use of electricity did little to reduce the air pollution caused by CO2, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides and other pollutants in cities. In Europe, especially before the Second World War, thermal power plants are never very far from the places where they are used, and this is still the case today in China and India. In India, where air pollution from thermal power plants (nearly 70% of the country’s electricity production) causes around 100,000 deaths a year, many of these plants are located less than 100 km from some of the country’s main cities. As an example, it is estimated that 8% of Delhi’s fine particle pollution comes from these plants. 23 In 2013, more than 25 billion tons of carbon were released into the atmosphere by the Asia-Pacific region alone — which was covered by a brown cloud stretching from Pakistan to China — mainly (but not only, as automobiles and agricultural practices also play their part) from coal combustion. 24 This air pollution, and more generally the use of coal, also damages soil, leaving behind contamination that can be difficult to erase. This can be seen, for example, in the city of Katowice, in Upper Silesia, which developed around coal and metal production beginning in the 1830s, going on to become one of Central Europe’s main urban centers (by the end of the 1990s, the metropolitan area had a population of 2.5 million spread over 1,250 km2 ), and is still one of Europe’s most polluted cities, despite a rehabilitation program and industrial decline. 25

Consequently, it seems to me that coal, and fossil fuels in general, have created a new way of inhabiting the world, a new relationship with the city. This is, after all, what the industry’s earliest critics criticized so fiercely. The Romantic poet Wordsworth, for example, criticized the buildings of his era, whether factories or housing, for failing to blend in with their natural surroundings, in this case the Lake District in the north-west of the country. His contemporary Southey, for his part, saw industry as a “cyst” and declared:

The old cottages […] couldn’t, with such materials, fit in better with the surrounding landscape […] ; and this harmony has been further enhanced over time, thanks to the marks of the climate, the lichens and mosses […]. How is it,” I said, “that the features of everything related to industry are so completely distorted? From the widest of Mammon’s temples to the most wretched of the hovels where his hilots are kept at bay, buildings have only one aspect. Time does not soften them; Nature neither dresses nor conceals them; and they never cease to offend the eyes and the mind! 26

This is a “landless” habitat, the product of industrial upheaval, which is criticized here because it seems to resolutely turn its back on its local environment. Beyond these distinctive landscapes born of underground riches, what is at stake is the affirmation of a kind of detachment from natural constraints, of which American skyscrapers — like the Home Insurance Building erected in Chicago in 1884 and considered to be the first of its kind — symbolize. In this sense, the rural utopias of the late 19th century are highly revealing with regard to this new relationship with the city. The return to nature was not just a response to health, physical or moral ills — it was explicitly presented as reconnecting with the earth and a rejection of the environmental disruption caused by the city. William Morris’s 1890 novel News from Nowhere is one of the most famous expressions of this. The socialist world he imagines following a revolution that takes place in 1952 is driven first and foremost by sobriety: gone is the mass consumption of the Victorian 19th century; gone are the ersatz and mediocre products that cheapen taste, clutter homes and, above all, impose unacceptable working conditions and schedules on workers. Less production, less coal. While Morris doesn’t go into great detail about the energy sources this new society relies on, the key point is undoubtedly the choice to limit desires. From this point, the city begins to dissolve: London and the major industrial centers are destroyed; small towns resist but are gradually absorbed into the countryside; villages proliferate. Abandoning centralization, particularly in energy production, adopting a lifestyle that we would now call “sustainable”, using local materials that were more “natural” than bricks, blending dwellings into their environment, in short, rejecting a relationship of power to the world — or at least its most drastic limitation — all contribute to this urban dissolution. England “is now a garden, where nothing is wasted and nothing is wasted, with the necessary dwellings, sheds and workshops scattered across the country, all tidy, neat and pretty. Indeed, we would be too ashamed of ourselves if we allowed the manufacture of products, even on a large scale, to have the appearance of desolation and misery.” 27

Today’s cities are, among other things, the legacies of these fossil choices. Though they have undoubtedly been further shaped by oil and electricity, they are no less symbols of a rupture, a challenge to the natural world that coal embodies. Are cities then the antithesis of a decarbonized future or rather, through a dialectical reversal, one of its potential futures? Valérie Chansigaud, for example, has argued that concentrating population in urban areas, limiting traffic of all kinds and extending the artificialization of land, is ultimately an asset for the preservation of nature. 28 But, on the contrary, are their roots so deeply embedded, so devastating to the natural environment, that they are dooming the world to ecological devastation? Richard Jefferies, in his remarkable novel After London, offers little hope: although the United Kingdom as a whole has returned to a rather benign state of nature, London — the “coal city” par excellence — leaves in the wake of its collapse poisonous swamps where the contaminated environment renders life impossible. Whatever may happen, there is no doubt that the transition away from coal, and more broadly from fossil fuels, will transform the contemporary city, which will have to reassess its workings, its construction methods and its relationship with its environment. A symbol of fossil hubris, the city will have to accept (rediscover?) the humility of its dependence on the world…


  1. We should call it a “Britannocene”, since the story is set in Scotland…
  2. More than the British, in fact, it seems to me, with all due respect to Jules Verne.
  3. See François Jarrige, “Charbon”, in the section “le magasin du monde” of the work by Pierre Singaravelou and Sylvain Venayre (dir.), Histoire du monde au XIXe siècle, Paris, Pluriel, 2019, p. 608-614.
  4. https://jancovici.com/transition-energetique/charbon/a-quoi-sert-le-charbon/
  5. William G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1960, p. 176.
  6. Sylvain Allemand (dir.), Paysages et énergies. Une mise en perspective historique, Paris, Hermann Editeurs, 2021, p. 193.
  7. Dominique Kalifa, “Urbanisation et cultures urbaines”, in Pierre Singaravelou and Sylvain Venayre (dir.), op. cit., p. 162.
  8. Sylvain Allemand (dir.), Paysages et énergies, op. cit., p. 21.
  9. WJT Mitchell, Landscape and Power, Chicago, Chicago UP, 2002, introduction.
  10. Eric Vidalenc, “Le paysage, réceptacle ou levier de la transition énergétique”, blog on Alternatives Economiques, 28 October 2018, cited by Sylvain Allemand (dir.), Paysages et énergies, op. cit., p. 20.
  11. Sabine Barles, L’invention des déchets urbains. France, 1790-1970, Seyssel, Champ Vallon, 2005.
  12. This paragraph owes much to the stimulating readings of Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, Sans Transition. Une autre histoire de l’énergie, unpublished research manuscript.
  13. Ibid., p. 56.
  14. See, for example, Jean-Philippe Passaqui, “Frédéric Le Play et la sidérurgie au bois”, in François Jarrige and Alexis Vrignon (eds.), Face à la puissance. Une histoire des énergies alternatives à l’âge industriel, Paris, La Découverte, 2020, p. 111.
  15. Wordsteel Association statistics, 2022: https://worldsteel.org/steel-topics/statistics/annual-production-steel-data/?ind=P1_crude_steel_total_pub/CHN/IND.
  16. Blog by Jean-Marc Jancovici : https://jancovici.com/transition-energetique/charbon/a-quoi-sert-le-charbon/.
  17. Worldsteel Association statistics: https://worldsteel.org/about-steel/steel-facts/.
  18. https://www.planetoscope.com/matieres-premieres/1708-production-mondiale-de-ciment.html.
  19. Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, Sans Transition, op. cit., p. 68.
  20. https://www.construction-carbone.fr/lecimentetsapartcarbone/
  21. Blog by Jean-Marc Jancovici : https://jancovici.com/transition-energetique/charbon/a-quoi-sert-le-charbon/.
  22. See Alexis Zimmer, Brouillards toxiques. Vallée de la Meuse, 1930, contre-enquête, Bruxelles, Zones Sensibles, 2016.
  23. Sarath K. Guttinkunda and Puja Jawahar, “Atmospheric emissions and pollution from the coal-fired thermal power plants in India”, Atmospheric Environment, 92, 2014, p. 449-460.
  24. François Jarrige and Thomas Le Roux, La Contamination du monde, Paris, La Découverte, 2017, p. 342.
  25. Sustainable Cities Programme 1990-2000 : https://unhabitat.org/sites/default/files/download-manager-files/Sustainable%20Cities%20Programme%201990%20-%202000.pdf p. 31. Raphaël Godet, “On a vingt ans de retard” : avant d’accueillir la COP24, Katowice fait mine de combattre la pollution », Franceinfo, 30 November 2018 : https://www.francetvinfo.fr/sante/environnement-et-sante/on-a-vingt-ans-de-retard-avant-d-accueillir-la-cop24-katowice-fait-mine-de-combattre-la-pollution_3025909.html.
  26. Robert Southey, Sir Thomas More, on Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society, London, Murray, 1829, vol. 1, p. 173-174.
  27. William Morris, News from Nowhere, London, Penguin, 1993 [1890], p. 105.
  28. Valérie Chansigaud, Les Français et la Nature, Arles, Actes Sud, 2017, p. 144-145.
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Charles-François Mathis, Cities and Coal: Can We Move Beyond Fossil Hubris?, Jan 2024,

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