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The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (subtitled ‘Two Lectures delivered at the London Institution, February 4th and 11th, 1884’)

1884

by John Ruskin (1819 - 1900)

The subject is literal: cloud phenomena Ruskin observed over the course of fifty years. This very peculiar essay begins by describing normal weather formations, then argues that there are now diabolic ‘plague-clouds’ (a ‘dry black veil’, bitter wind and bleached sun) never before seen.

Ruskin guesses their cause, correctly, to be industrial coal-smoke, but these environmental pollutants interest him less, as ultimate cause, than his contemporaries’ moral and spiritual pollution.  While opposing scientific writing’s ‘frightful inaccuracy’, Ruskin’s prose is the equivalent of a Turner painting. The first lecture is illustrated with sketches; the second is merely footnotes to the first.

Related recommendations: For good writing on the equivalent issue today, global warming, see Elizabeth Kolbert’s ‘The Climate of Man’ (three essays in The New Yorker, 2005)

Origin: Britain

Themes: Nature or Architecture/ Material Environment

Genres: Scientific or Medical, Sermon or Jeremiad

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