The first time John Ruskin noticed the gray clouds of the “plague-wind” was in 1871, decades into the industrial era. Walking home from work at the University of Oxford one spring day, the renowned English art critic looked skyward, to the “dry black veil which no ray of sunshine” could penetrate, and then back to earth, where the leaves of trees shook “not violently, but enough to show the passing to and fro of a strange, bitter, blighting wind.” Only the wind proved not to be so strange. In the months that followed, he repeatedly witnessed the same weather pattern.
That July, the 52-year-old Ruskin committed his observations to writing. Never in a lifetime of monitoring nature’s movements had he seen such springs and summers. The origins of this mysterious meteorological change demanded scientific investigation, he argued. Where did the plague-wind come from? Was it caused by the smoky belch of heavy industry, or another source? With rigorous scientific experimentation, could the wind be made to consist of something else?
The scientific men are busy as ants, examining the sun and the moon, and the seven stars, and can tell me all about them, I believe, by this time; and how they move, and what they are made of.
And I do not care, for my part, two copper spangles how they move, nor what they are made of. I can’t move them any other way than they go, nor make them of anything else, better than they are made. But I would care much and give much, if I could be told where this bitter wind comes from, and what it is made of.
For, perhaps, with forethought, and fine laboratory science, one might make it of something else.
It looks partly as if it were made of poisonous smoke; very possibly it may be: there are at least two hundred furnace chimneys in a square of two miles on every side of me. But mere smoke would not blow to and fro in that wild way. It looks more to me as if it were made of dead men’s souls—such of them as are not gone yet where they have to go, and may be flitting hither and thither, doubting, themselves, of the fittest place for them.
Ruskin cited these musings in an 1884 lecture in London on “the plague-wind of the eighth decade of years in the nineteenth century; a period which will assuredly be recognized in future meteorological history as one of phenomena hitherto unrecorded in the courses of nature.” The lecture is often read as one of the earliest expressions of modern environmentalism.