Professor Miller gives us a sneak-peak at her NEH- & Guggenheim-winning book project.

Professor Miller gives us a sneak-peak at her NEH- & Guggenheim-winning book project.

Dr. Elizabeth Carolyn Miller’s new book project "Extraction Ecologies and the Literature of the Long Exhaustion, 1830s-1930s” has landed two high profile fellowships this year from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and also from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. We sat down with Liz to find out more about her much-anticipated book.


How did you get started working on this set of problems?


After I published my last book (Slow Print) in 2013, I knew I wanted to write on something related to the environmental humanities, and I had become particularly interested in the environmental history of industrialism capitalism -- a topic that my last book had let me into. [...] Eventually I had a eureka moment where I realized I wanted to write on mining and resource exhaustion.


What happened is this: it's summer 2014 and I'm supposed to be writing a conference paper on William Morris and 19th-century environmentalism and eco-socialism. Fishing around for a topic, I suddenly remembered that Morris's family wealth had come from mining, and I started to look into that history. It turns out that his father had made a lot of money from investing in a Cornish copper mine in the early nineteenth century, at the beginning of the era of steam-powered extraction; the copper vein was exhausted within decades and the mine (Devon Great Consols) had turned to mining arsenic, which is a sort of by-product of copper mining. Arsenic is highly poisonous, obviously, and arsenic mining was a particularly toxic form of extractive labor, even in an industry that was already extremely dangerous. At a certain point, as William Morris was moving toward socialism, he became troubled about his ties to Devon Great Consols and decided to divest from the mine and resign from the board of directors (a position he'd inherited from his father, as a major shareholder). He sat on his top hat to mark the occasion, and became known thereafter for wearing a workers' smock instead. Learning this backstory, I realized that Morris's formative role in the history of environmentalism and ecosocialism had come about from his exposure to the worst and dirtiest parts of extractive industry. Returning to his literary work, I suddenly saw that extraction, and anti-extractivism, were all over the place. How could I not have seen it before? Even though Morris has ended up being but a minor focus in the book (one who takes up only about 10 pages), I have to give him credit for leading me to this project. Through him, I realized that while there has been a lot of work on mining in the context of 19th-century labor history, extraction hasn't really been considered from a critical perspective where environmental problems and social issues like labor are thought about together. Jason Moore's book Capitalism in the Web of Life was extremely helpful in showing me how to think the two together. Somewhere between Morris and Moore, the project was born.


What are some of your archives and/or primary texts?


My literary archive consists of narrative prose (both fictional and non-fictional) written in the British Empire in the first century of the industrial era, roughly 1830-1930. I have already done a lot of archival research with nineteenth-century sources on mining and extraction -- much of this I did while in Britain teaching UCD study abroad in 2017; the rest was accomplished through the long arm of ILL [the UC Davis Library’s Interlibrary Loan system]. My primary texts are set in extractive zones all over the world, but especially Britain, Latin America, and Africa, and some imaginary underground worlds too. I focus on three primary genres: provincial realism, adventure narrative, and speculative fiction. My goal is to use the literary archive (alongside historical and other materials) to track how conceptions of temporality, futurity, frontier, empire, energy, labor, and environment transformed profoundly under the socio-environmental regime of industrial extractivism.


Have you found anything while working on this project that surprised you?


I have found a million things that surprise me! But I think what has surprised me most is the extent to which our current environmental crises connect back to path dependencies that are the product of the nineteenth century. Did you know that the first working solar panels were produced in the 1880s? The carbon-based society and infrastructure that we inhabit today was never inevitable; it is the result of a very long series of disastrous commercial and political choices that were intended to maximize profit.


If you could pair this future book with one other text, what would you recommend? Why?


That's an interesting question! Joseph Conrad's Nostromo is perhaps the literary source in my project that is most committed to uncovering industrial extractivism as a historical/poltical/economic/ideological force -- so I would recommend that novel. As for theory and criticism, Andreas Malm's Fossil Capital is phenomenal, and Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything had an early and lasting influence -- I read it in 2014, hot off the press, and it had a major impact on the direction of my project. In terms of contemporary fiction, I am reading Richard Powers's The Overstory right now and so completely into trees and their reparative capacities in an over-extracted world. It's inspiring me to think about a project on trees -- trees as the antithesis of mines and the silent observers of centuries of bad environmental decisions.