The Storm-Cloud of the Twenty-First Century

By Amy Woodson-Boulton

Cloud Study Ruskin
John Ruskin, Cloud Study (1880)*

On Monday, January 18, 2021, the Guardian published an article with the headline, “Los Angeles lifts air-quality limits for cremations as Covid doubles death rate.” Smoke pouring from crematoria made visible in a new way the daily reports and graphs of case numbers and deaths. At the same time, the toxic smoke from burning our dead echoed another horror of our new normal: the smoke of the apocalyptic wildfires that now hit us with stupefying regularity. It reminded me of a New York Times article from summer 2020 with a headline that similarly distilled so much of the fear, inequality, and sense of systemic breakdown: “Coronavirus Limits California’s Efforts to Fight Fires with Prison Labor” (August 22, 2020). Even as the novel coronavirus SARS-COV-19 has taken an almost unimaginable toll on Southern California, particularly on Black and Brown communities, it is too often those same communities ravaged by our prison system and now used to battle our new extreme fires. It is hard not to see the interconnected sicknesses of this system, premised on stolen land and stolen labor. Our moment of attenuated crisis constantly reveals the longer histories and cleavages, the inequalities and failures, the racism and complacency of the comfortable. 

John Ruskin would have recognized many of these patterns. We are living in the Storm-Cloud of the Twenty-First Century, where our air is filled with visible and invisible toxins and threats. And like Ruskin’s “Storm Cloud,” our air seems full of “dead men’s souls.” Breathing and breath, wind and smoke; police who can choke us with knees and tear gas; claiming and fighting over the right to breathe – whether the right to breathe without a mask trumps the right to be protected from a suffocating respiratory illness – all these have made us all newly aware of the air around us. We check the air quality before going out in our masks. 

In fall 2020 I taught Modern Global Environmental History, and for the first time, inspired by the world around us, I assigned Ruskin’s “Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century.” Discussing the text with students was deeply moving, as they read his descriptions of changes 150 years ago that seemed to both foretell their own harrowing moment and to mourn with them. They have never known the pellucid air that Ruskin claimed from his childhood; they have only ever known a sense that the air and the smoke will get worse. But to engage with this kind of study – to think about what has made our present, about the many layers of complexity and multiple systems of extraction and exploitation that have resulted in what we now take for granted - is also a kind of hope. Watching the long sweep of history from 1500 to the present, we paused to consider Ruskin’s clouds and how he observed the interconnections between the moral and material in the quality of light, the dullness of color, and the “Blanched Sun,—blighted grass—blinded man.” Just as later in the semester Rachel Carson allowed us to imagine a silent spring, Ruskin helped the students to see the beginning of something; a moment when someone stopped to say wait – something is different. And in that action of noticing – of seeing, such a Ruskinian virtue! – such observers have left us a series of crumbs, like Hansel and Gretl, to find our way back. See how recently these changes happened? we can ask. It may be that the images of San Francisco with an orange sky, or the inferno lining LA’s freeways, point to the beginning of a new normal. It could be that these become another set of crumbs for future historians (if they exist!), pointing to yet another first time. All I can say to my students is: people made these changes, as we learn from studying history. So people can also make different choices; can face our history; can recognize the changes in our own air.

* Image is in the public domain.